10 Things You Need to Know About Politics at Harvard

Alright, prefrosh. You’ve picked up Dispatch, and in doing so have given away the fact that you’re politically inclined. At this point, it’s over. Upperclassmen from the Institute of Politics, the Harvard Political Review, the Dems, the Reps, the Independents and the issue campaigns, are all going to mob you to offer advice.
Just smile, nod, and walk away. If they get insistent, hold this article up to their face. Because you are holding what is indisputably the most accurate guide for navigating political life at Harvard.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Dems will be exciting, until they’re not.
Don’t get me wrong, the Dems to great things. But only in election years. Everyone you know will join freshman year, and you will all bask in the glory of adding “Harvard College Democrats” to your resume. You’ll canvass and phonebank this fall, and have a great time. But soon enough a rapid rate of attrition takes hold; you realize that, except for your friends who have been elected to the board, you’re the only one going to meetings.
2. The Republicans inherently have more community.
And there’s not much that you can do about that, on a largely liberal campus. My friend actually just finished a thesis examining this—apparently political groups that represent the minority on campus have much stronger group ties than others. What does that mean for you? If you’re a conservative, rejoice—you’re going to feel much more connected to those on campus who share your beliefs.
But hey, if you’re a liberal, you can rejoice as well. Not only does Harvard assume Democratic leanings by default, it also allows for a much more nuanced, expansive discourse on the lefty spectrum.
3. Talk to Kennedy School students and professors, early and oft
You go to a school where Niall Ferguson, Graham Allison, and Nicholas Burns all have office hours. Don’t know those names yet? No sweat, just take my advice and know that this is the place to be.
4. Always keep learning.
Harvard students are smart. Like, really, really smart. You’re going to come in thinking you know everything possible about health care policy, and then some kid is going to roll into the Institute of Politics talking about the full Supreme Court briefing they just read about the Affordable Care Act. Or worse, they’re going to be asking you about your opinion on the Armenian genocide in 1915. What is that?
Don’t panic and pull out your smartphone. Just smile, ask, and prepare yourself for an engaging conversation on Armenian politics.
5. Engage with those who don’t share your political views.
This is important and at Harvard, this is more nuanced than just party lines. Don’t insulate yourself in a bubble of people who agree with you, at Harvard or anywhere else. And especially here, know this: you can’t win every argument. You used to in high school, we know. But that’s no longer the case, and you’ll be infinitely better for it.
6. Take a class on a political topic you don’t know about…and on a topic that you do.
One of the best things I did my freshman spring was decide to take a seminar that I knew absolutely nothing about: the Middle East. I literally used my essay to tell my professor about how I became paralyzed at the sight of the New York Times Middle East section, because I was so unfamiliar with all of the names and events. My professor was also the former deputy defense minister of Israel. He led us, week by week, through the national security histories of each country in the Middle East, going (serendipitously) along the same route as the Arab Spring, as it occurred. The class was challenging, eye-opening, and completely new. It was something every incoming freshman should take: a plunge into the (political) unknown.
And once you’ve done that, take advantage of your ability to examine a topic you know you love, with a stellar faculty. This semester, I’m taking a junior seminar on democratization struggles in the Middle East. While doing an assignment one night, I found myself watching al-Jazeera (an Arab news station) at 3 AM. It may have been an ungodly hour, but it was made so much better because I was doing something that I’m genuinely excited about.
7. For genuine discourse, go to the publications.
I’m not just saying this as a writer for the Harvard Political Review (though there’s some obvious bias lurking here). Out of all of the political spaces on campus, it is in publication meetings that you’ll find the people who care most passionately about the issues, and who want to stay up all night to talk about US policy in Afghanistan. These are the kind of kids you used to daydream about hanging out with, back when Ryan Thompson was asking your AP Gov teacher who Nancy Pelosi was.
8. Take your politics outside of the classroom.
“Join one of Harvard’s many service programs, especially those in the Greater Boston area. You’ll see the real-life implications of what policy means, for better or for worse.” (celebrity tip from Julia Konrad ’13, Vice President of the Institute of Politics)
The woman speaks the truth; it’s too easy to get stuck in the Harvard ivory politico-tower. Challenge yourself to do better than that.
9. Put things in perspective. Connect the local and the global constantly.
At Harvard, you have the unique and constant privilege of seeing a direct connection between what happens on your campus and what happens in the world. Harvard-specific events are drawn on for national stories (see the LA Times’ mention of the Ec 10 walkout, or the Washington Post piece on Occupy Harvard). National stories, in turn, often involve those who have attended Harvard (See stories on well…anything).
For you, lucky prefrosh, the division between your life and the golden “real world” of politics is no longer as great. Take advantage of your connection with the actual events of the world. Which brings me to my last tip…
10. Get started.
Harvard is a stressful (but wonderful!) place. Between midterms, papers, ragers, and review sessions, it’ll be easy to forget about why you loved engaging with these issues in the first place. Heck, even those of us in political organizations sometimes forget, we’re so busy planning meetings. The best thing you can do for yourself is to keep discussing, keep participating.
And there’s no reason to wait. You’re surrounded by 6000+ of America’s finest this weekend, along with another 800 or so of your prefrosh brethren. Ask your prefrosh roommate what he thinks about contraception funding, challenge that IOP senior to a debate on Middle East policy. Take a deep breath. Take it all in. And get going.

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