As I sat in the dimly lit room of the Loeb Center and glanced around at the shadowy faces of my peers, a litany of prestigious high schools whizzed past my ears: “Andover! Choate! Hotchkiss! Dalton! Trinity!” I sat there nervously awaiting my turn to announce my alma mater. But when the spotlight was finally mine and all eyes were on me, I stared at the ground and mumbled: “I went to school in Brooklyn, New York.”
I raised my eyes off of the ground and was greeted by a wave of unsettled eyes. I knew this was a sign that everyone wanted more. It wasn’t enough to tell them the city that I came from; they wanted to know the “path” that I took to get to Harvard. So, I tried again—except that I prefaced my statement by saying “you’ve probably never heard of it, but…” And then, painstakingly, the words poured out of my mouth: “I attended Medgar Evers College Prep.”
Many of the freshmen who drove through Johnston Gate on Aug. 23 did not look like me, talk like me, or attend schools like mine. Many wore Sperry’s and salmon shorts and went to prep schools, while I wore ripped jeans and Nike slides—characteristic of my upbringing in New York City. Immediately, I was stricken with fear, as I realized how inferior my public school was to the secondary schools that my peers attended.
I came from a predominantly African American school where resources were very scarce and only 76 percent of students graduated from high school and enrolled in college within six months. The public school system in New York City is so segregated in the sense that two public schools in the same borough could have very different access to textbooks and facilities based on the demographics of its students. Because of this, I was literally the third person in my school’s 23-year history to get into Harvard.
My school never had opportunities for kids to be artistic or do anything other than academics. So it was no surprise to me that when I auditioned for the play, “Songs of the Harlem River,” I wasn’t called back. I was at a point where I felt confined to the few friends that I knew and never spoke to others. I kept quiet, even during conversations about topics that I held dear to my heart. I was lost, and I was afraid to ask for help in fear of what others would think of me.
My voice was gone.
I was doing Harvard completely wrong. No one should ever come to Harvard feeling like they do not have a voice. Sure, competing against students who are arguably the best in the world can be intimidating, but to swallow your tongue is unforgivable. Everyone has talent, whether that be dancing, singing, writing, being a leader, or being a spokesperson—it’s just a matter of finding that talent. There are students here who have gone to amazing schools and know how to manage life at Harvard well, but that doesn’t make it impossible for those who did not attend said schools to do the same.
I had to remember who I was. My name is Ethan Ambrose and I’m from Brooklyn, New York, born of a single St. Lucian mother. I did attend public school for the last 16 years of my life, and I should not have been ashamed of that. I needed to realize that there are spaces for me to thrive on Harvard’s campus. I could have joined Harvard’s Caribbean Club, or perhaps Harvard’s Black Men’s Forum. I realized that I just had to start off doing things that made me comfortable. With that realization, my voice returned to me, and now I intend to write for The Crimson to talk about the issues that affect kids like me—and how that impacts our overall performance at Harvard.
I took a very lonely route in search of my voice, but I believe that anyone who is in my position or may end up there should remember the things that got them to Harvard in the first place. Remember your family, your friends, and the people rooting for you back home—and most importantly, remember that your admissions officers did not make a mistake. They could have filled the class of 2020 with only students from prep schools, but they also chose you. That means that your experiences and perspectives are useful and add to the color of the class. That is where you will find your voice and when you do find it, do not relinquish it.
That is the only way you can survive at Harvard.