Growing Pains



I think a lot about how easily tempted I was. A letter, an envelope, a particularly melodramatic delivery system, and all arguments, statistics, and Crimson exposés vanished from memory. I was a little disappointed in myself, but mostly, I was confused. I consider myself a relatively secure person. I like my life here, sans final clubs. How could I hate everything about what they are and what they represent, yet still be tempted?



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There’s this scene in “The Social Network,” the 2010 biopic about Mark E. Zuckerberg’s ’06 founding of Facebook, in which Mark’s friend Eduardo L. Saverin ’06 (played by Andrew Garfield) gets a letter slipped under his door. He sets down his book, walks over, and picks it up. The camera angle changes — a medium shot of him staring, wide-eyed at the envelope, the sides of his face lit with a soft glow like he’s Indiana Jones holding the Holy Grail. We later find out that he’s been punched by The Phoenix — or, translated from Harvard-speak, that he’s been selected to compete for a spot in one of Harvard’s male-only final clubs, the school’s mysterious and exclusive social organizations.

In September of my sophomore year, I was also punched by The Phoenix. I wasn’t in my room when it was delivered; by the time I got back, the glow must have worn off, because it seemed like a plain enough envelope to me. “The members of The Phoenix Club invite you for cocktails on September 15, 2019,” typed on an index-card sized paper in Trajan. The invite was trying too hard to be serious — sparse, small text with lots of white space, as if wasting paper is somehow more elegant. At the very least, they could have used Garamond.

If you can’t already tell, I had no interest in joining. I could hardly picture myself — a nerdy Chinese kid from a big public high school in Southern California — lounging on leather sofas, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars while discussing which beach house each of us would be vacationing at that winter (or is it summer? I don’t actually know how beach houses work). Why anyone would want their worth assessed by a few dozen privileged, straight, white 19-22-year-olds (they prefer the term “Harvard men”) was beyond me.

I will admit that this is, to some extent, a caricature. I’m sure there are kind, humble, down-to-earth people in final clubs; not everyone owns a beach house (some have to settle for a cottage). Even so, the clubs remain a space reserved almost exclusively for men who value prestige, power, and status. I wasn’t sold.

That was the spiel I gave to anyone who asked for my take on final clubs, and I believed it; I really did. But when I took the letter back to my room, I couldn’t help glancing at my calendar to see what I was doing on the fifteenth. I scrolled through The Phoenix’s Wikipedia page of famous alumni. There was something enticing about the whole thing, something appealingly meta about reliving the exact scene from an Oscar-winning movie, and about the possibility of being in the same club as billionaires, politicians, and CEOs. I thought about who might have punched me, who thought I was cool enough to print my name on an embossed envelope in fancy cursive script. I wondered who else got an invitation, and reveled, just the tiniest bit, in the fact that I did and my roommates didn’t. I had a late sociology class the evening of the punch event, but I could switch into a different section.

I think a lot about how easily tempted I was. A letter, an envelope, a particularly melodramatic delivery system, and all arguments, statistics, and Crimson exposés vanished from memory. I was a little disappointed in myself, but mostly, I was confused. I consider myself a relatively secure person. I like my life here, sans final clubs. How could I hate everything about what they are and what they represent, yet still be tempted?

***

Getting punched for a final club, it turns out, is not as rare as fictional Mark Zuckerberg complained about it being. On my way back from class one September evening, I looked up from my phone to see, amid the usual mix of tourist and student passersby in Harvard Square, a group of guys dressed up in what I guess you would call “cocktail attire” — a dress shirt, tie, navy jacket, tan khakis, and dress shoes. I didn’t think much of it.

Then, not a block later, another group, then a pair, then another. All wearing the same semi-formal white man’s uniform. All headed in the same direction. Unless someone decided to throw a massive rager at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night, I saw no reason why hordes of dressed-up sophomores would be flocking toward the same place. It only later occurred to me: It must be a punch event.

It might be helpful to give a rundown on how the punch process works. You can’t really Google how to get into a final club — they’re hardly eager to break the veil of mystery by posting a Wikihow article — but hearsay has yielded this much: First, you must get punched (the letter slid under your door) by a club. People might get punched for being a legacy, for playing a sport, for knowing someone in the club, for being prominent on campus, for being exceptionally attractive — the criteria are a mystery; I, for example, fit none of those categories (except perhaps the last), yet I was still punched.

Getting punched, however, is just the first step of the process, simply an invitation to the first punch event. If, during that event, you schmooze enough members and make a good enough impression, you’ll get invited to the second punch event, where you’ll do the same thing to get invited to the third, and the fourth, and so on, and only those who survive the several weeks of fancy dinners and trips to New York and retreats at alumni beach houses will be ultimately accepted into the final club.

The clubs, therefore, can afford to cast a wide net at first — and they do, inviting hundreds of sophomores to a bar in Harvard Square or Boston, splitting them into groups, and staggering their arrivals in 30-minute slots. What, then, are these punch events, these 30-minute competitive schmooze-fests, actually like? What does it take to get invited back for a second round? What, exactly, are they looking for?

***

“I could not go sober to a punch event.”

Ben J. Dreier ’22, my effervescent and ever-popular roommate who was punched by no fewer than four final clubs, observed after attending his first punch event, “I would really benefit from being intoxicated.”

A little bit about Ben: He’s this tall, lanky kid with a huge goofy smile permanently affixed to his face. His favorite activities include composing music on his guitar at 3 a.m. in our common room, making dad jokes, and climbing buildings. One night, I was up late studying when I saw him enter the room clad in a full neon green bodysuit. After a moment of confused silence, I asked him where he was coming from. “I was climbing The Delphic [which, funnily enough, is another final club] and was afraid it would be cold. Oh, also, I thought it’d be funny when people saw me and thought I was some sort of fluorescent Spiderman.”

You can imagine the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I imagined him, this green morph-suit clad goofball, heading down Mt. Auburn Street with the cocktail-attire-clad masses. I sat down with him on our common room couch one night, weeks after the whole process had concluded, to ask him about what it was like.

“Everyone is being performative. Everyone is talking to people and being especially nice and bubbly and social with people they wouldn’t otherwise. They’re just trying to be impressive, and the skill they’re trying to demonstrate is social clout.” Ben, who is already naturally all of these things, was invited back for a second-round punch event by The Porcellian, the oldest and, according to Wikipedia, “the most final of them all.”

“I had lunch — with me, a friend from a cappella, a volleyball player from Cupertino, and three white guys on the heavyweight crew team. It was very odd. Most of the conversation was about sports, and I acted interested the whole time.” He described the odd feeling of being compelled to care about the intricacies of the bow and stern seats on a crew boat.

There’s a sort of sad symbolism to this scene, Ben packaging up his quirky music nerd self into this box of final club-sanctioned masculinity for others to give their stamp of approval. Yet, it’s something that doesn’t seem at all out of place at Harvard.

***

Most Harvard students actually aren’t affected by final clubs at all. For something that attracts so much media attention, so many New York Times articles and Crimson op-eds and movie plotlines, only a very small fraction of the student body are actually members. That is not to say, however, that the rest of the student body abstains from the adultness and exclusivity final clubs embody.

Most Harvard students do participate in clubs of one kind or another, to an extent unique among college students, even from other elite institutions — as observed by Professor Michael Pollan, who spends half his time at Harvard and the other half at UC Berkeley, “The amount of energy here that goes into things that are not classes but that are not pure fun is insane.” Among the hundreds of clubs that students dedicate inordinate amounts of time to, the “most final of them all” would have to be clubs like the Harvard College Consulting Group or Harvard Financial Analysts Club whose websites boast “the lowest acceptance rates of any club at Harvard” and whose applicants undergo a multi-round competitive elimination process to gain membership (sound familiar?).

People spend dozens of hours attending training sessions, preparing for interviews, making presentations, just for a chance to join these clubs and do the same thing for a few more years — except dressed in a suit at the boardroom of some actual adult company — and I doubt it’s because they all have some overwhelming interest in asset management or making PowerPoints. Having never participated myself, I wondered what the draw was.

“I got a lot of shit for it,” recalls, a now-graduated student who joined the Harvard College Consulting Group her freshman year, whom I will call Ana. “They’d always be like ‘Oh my god, you’re on HCCG! We’re going to talk about how bougie and extra you are.’ Which is ironic, because a lot of them had applied to HCCG and had been rejected.” One of the reasons so many people apply to HCCG, Ana explains, is their massive budget — money made from the consulting services (which, as I understand it, is essentially advanced Googling and PowerPoint-making) they offer to outside companies. HCCG members are treated to swanky parties at upscale Boston hotels, free Patagonias and joggers and sundry monogrammed clothing, and frequent dinners at restaurants with upwards of three dollar signs on Yelp. “It’s really easy to get sucked into the mentality of perks and free stuff," Ana admits, “saying ‘I deserve this’ and ‘I earned this.’”

As alluring as the perks are, there’s something else at work here: For a single organization to receive hundreds of applications from the small and disparate pool that is Harvard students, it has to offer more than free stuff. “I would say 50 percent — no, that’s a lie — I think 60 percent are in it for the resume,” Ana estimates. Companies, especially the big consulting and finance firms that recruit Harvard students, know how hard it is to get into these clubs — and students know that they know.

Whether it’s through HCCG or not, Harvard students spend a lot of time performing this future calculus — joining a club that will lead to a leadership position which will boost the odds of getting that summer internship that might lead to a return job offer. Extracurriculars are a part of it. Final clubs, with their vast networks of well-placed alumni, are too. We spend so many hours accumulating social and cultural capital, thinking about life after college, the allure of growing up and securing a “successful” adulthood, hours that we could spend learning taekwondo or actually doing readings or cultivating real friendships or the million other things college is supposed to be for — the things, I’d like to think, we actually came here for.

***

“I’d say 25 percent are in it for the community,” Ana says. For many clubs, the community is a positive externality, a cool bonus feature of joining an organization.

Final clubs, however, are social clubs; given that their primary purpose is to create a community, people often justify punching by highlighting the possibility of making new friends. My blockmate’s boyfriend, whom I will call Chris, who also went through several rounds of the punch process, talks about how “valuable relationships form from people who would not otherwise meet but happen to get along well.” To some extent, this is true. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has gone through the punch process talks about how close they get with their punch class. They cite four- to six-hour dinners and weekend-long retreats to Cape Cod, and rave about the deep connections they form with club members.

I asked Chris why he stuck with it for so long. “The draw was never like a thing of ‘prestige;’ it’s just that this is an in-group — a group of friends that’s kind of tight knit — and people like that.”

This strikes me as a weak argument. Harvard is a place with hundreds of micro-communities. A cappella groups, chess clubs, quidditch teams — literally hundreds of “in-groups” that don’t require a two-month long punch process and hundreds of dollars in monthly dues. Whatever the draw of final clubs may be, I have trouble believing that it’s because they’re the only place to make friends.

And even if your goal is to make friends, they’re hardly perfect. Chris was one of the few punches to make it to the “final dinner” — as the name suggests, the last round of the punch process — a catered meal with candelabras and tiny portions and way too many forks. Chris and the remaining punchers sat amongst current club members, as well as alumni, everyone fully aware of the gravity of the dinner. The sense that Chris got was about 50 percent of the people there would make it past this round and become full members of the club. After returning home from the dinner and hearing no news in the days following, Chris knew that he was not one of those people.

“The difference between a job rejection and this sort of rejection is that you actually knew people through the process,” Chris says. “You may have invested a lot of energy, but they just can’t be your friends after this.”

Chris doesn’t reach out to the people he met in the punch process. There are one or two whose numbers he got, but he says he would never consider texting them to grab a meal or something. This is where I begin to question what Chris said, what everyone who spends these many months trying to join these organizations says. I have trouble believing that it’s all for making these “deep” and “meaningful” friendships when, if you don’t make it past that final round, these connections disappear.

There’s something very adult about the whole thing. About separating your “work” friends from your “real” friends, about dressing up and having four-hour conversations about crew, about having your own house away from the dorms and dining halls and Deans. And maybe that’s why Ben, with his indomitable kid-like spirit, couldn’t continue.

“At one point I just asked myself, why am I doing this? You’re just a bunch of men in suits who have a house. Why am I licking your balls?”

Ben didn’t go back for the next round, but I wonder how many people would have done the same. I wonder how many people would have silenced their discomfort and just dismissed it as growing pains, a sacrifice to join this more “refined” and “grown-up” community.

***

Ana, after her junior year, chose not to return to HCCG (my interview with her felt vaguely like talking to a deprogrammed cult member). When I asked her why, she talked about how superficial and unfulfilling the club was, and how disillusioned she became with their work. I asked her why she thinks so many people choose to stay.

“Harvard makes it so that there are some metrics of success that feel universally agreed upon so that it’s easy to follow them, get to junior or senior year, realize that you have no actual interests and nothing that you’re passionate about and you don’t know what to do with your life, and when you’re like ‘what the fuck do I do with my life,’ there’s this consulting or finance firm that swoops in and tells you that you still have value.”

I think she’s onto something.

This culture of doing and doing and doing the next most competitive or most selective thing takes a toll on us, on who we are, on what we care about. Of all the career paths in the world, of all the non-profits and graduate schools and things that Harvard students could be doing with what they learned here, 23 percent of the Class of 2019 went into either the finance or consulting industries. I have a hard time believing that this is what they came in thinking they wanted to do, the academic interests and extracurricular passions that they waxed poetic about in their college applications. And I’m inclined to believe that HCCG and final clubs and what they represent, this overwhelmingly canned, grown-up image of what is desirable in life, what finally matters, what is worth pursuing, has something to do with it.

There is, however, one point that I think she gets wrong. The first two words: “Harvard makes…” There’s this idea that this omnipresent, invisible force called “Harvard” or “the administration” controls how we spend our four years here, that there’s nothing we can do to change it. I ask my friend, Calla M. Bai ‘22, why she wanted to punch a final club, why she was subjecting herself to months of judgement from this group of, essentially, strangers.

“It’s just how this system works,” she says.

I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that Harvard’s admissions officers assemble a group of 1,600 bright, passionate individuals from across the world just so we can look at a flawed system and say “oh well” — especially when we are the system. I asked a senior College administrator what he thought about “the system,” and he said, “There is no Harvard. Harvard is just its students, what they do and what they care about.”

He’s got a point.

College is supposed to be this sanctuary where students can explore their actual interests, free of economic and social pressures — one last chance to figure things out before we have to grow up. Yes, tuition costs are rising and the value of a college degree is declining and college students around the world are facing pressure to acquire marketable skills to land a job and all of the things that Bloomberg analysts ramble on about are, to a large extent, true. But this is Harvard. If we — having been gifted full need-based financial aid, a $40 billion endowment, and the widest safety net in the world — get sucked into growing up too fast, if we can’t hold on to this ideal of what college ought to be, who can?

***

I didn’t end up going to The Phoenix’s event. Yeah, telling my friends back home that I’d reenacted what Andrew Garfield did would have been pretty cool, but I couldn’t bring myself to put on the uniform, to join the hordes of sophomores, to say to The Phoenix, “Yes, I approve of all this.” And more than that, I couldn’t bear to see my friends make this transformation, to turn from theater geeks or Wii enthusiasts or building-climbing goofballs into cookie-cutter final club fodder.

I love this place so much. I love the way the leaves turn rainbow in the fall and how the door handle to the observatory only opens when you turn it half-clockwise and, most of all, how people’s faces light up when they talk about things they care about — and I absolutely hate that we create these institutions with the power to take that away.

— Staff writer Kalos K. Chu can be reached at kalos.chu@thecrimson.com.