Monday, January 18, 2010

Orange and Apples: Harvard

Eric Suh, a molecular biology graduate student and Harvard alum, reports:

I couldn't believe it; a five-minute drive out from campus, and there were just small houses! Farmland! Princeton was tiny! Harvard, where I went to college, was just across the river from Boston. Everything there felt big, from the number of students to the personalities. When I got to Princeton, I went through a bit of culture shock at how small it felt. At the same time, though, I quickly felt a connection to the students and faculty. The community at Princeton was really quite remarkable.

If there were any analogy to really describe how different Princeton and Harvard felt to me, the closest one might be the contrast between a giant research university and a liberal arts college. Harvard is an academic behemoth, with 20,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students and nearly 12,000 affiliated faculty members. Nowhere else in the world can you tap the kinds of incredible opportunities that Harvard offers: the huge affiliated hospital system and its many labs waiting for students to join; the many museums and research archives in Boston; the numerous faculty studying a greater breadth of topics than can be covered at smaller universities; and especially the sprawling Harvard alumni network that packs the top ranks of academia, the Fortune 500 and governments and social organizations across the world. It definitely felt like, whatever I wanted to do, Harvard could help me get there.

On the other hand, I sometimes felt bewildered or lost in the giant milieu. Though Harvard had recently started to revamp its hit-or-miss advising system, I often wondered how much Harvard's president could pay attention to the needs of the small portion of campus that comprised the undergraduates. It definitely seemed like the happiest folks at Harvard were those that knew what they wanted and what they liked, so that they could wring what they wanted out of their Harvard experience.

Princeton's comparatively miniscule 7,000 students and 850 faculty make a smaller community that definitely feels more focused and connected. Even as it fosters world-renowned research and graduate programs, Princeton's focus and commitment to its undergraduate students and their education is quite palpable in every aspect of campus life. Via the senior thesis requirement, almost every student gets to know and interact with a professor outside the classroom, something that pays off long after college. It didn't surprise me that even without the many professional schools that Harvard has, Princeton has a much larger endowment per capita than Harvard, and the scale and turnout to Princeton's undergraduate alumni Reunions makes Harvard's pale in comparison. Princeton has a community that is a unique asset to the students that go there.

Despite these differences, Princeton and Harvard are quite similar in many ways. Both Ivy League universities are filled with students who dominated high school academics, brilliant scientists, performers, writers and athletes. Both have old traditions and anachronisms that refuse to die. Neither have official Greek systems, though Princeton has "eating clubs," venues of varying selectivity for students to eat together and socialize, and Harvard has "final clubs," all of which are selective. Of course, any college that gathers large collections of ambitious, intelligent students will have hundreds of different organizations founded for different causes and interests; some will be ancient institutions, while others will be one-off projects that vanish once the dominant personalities leave.

In the end, the main differences I perceive between the schools are location and size; in other respects, both are equally excellent schools of high prestige and academic rigor. If I were to choose today between Harvard and Princeton, it would boil down to deciding between big-city opportunities versus small-town community.