Surviving Harvard: 7 stories from freshman year

Harvard University – dream school of high school students around the world – remains somewhat shrouded in mystery for many of us. One former undergrad, Eric Kester, has been through it all, with various disasters along the way, and shares his stories in his new book titled, appropriately enough, 'That Book About Harvard.' Here are 7 of his stories.

1.Joy turns to apprehension

Harvard University graduate commencement in 2012 Brian Snyder/Reuters

After Kester got his acceptance letter and realized that he'd be able to attend Harvard University, he examined the brochure and began to get nervous. "There was one photo of a guy in a white lab coat mixing test tubes of chemicals, then another of a young woman at a blackboard writing what appeared to be Egyptian hieroglyphics," he wrote. "Or maybe it was calculus.... I wasn't sure. For some reason, I felt my chest begin to tighten. Next was a picture of a student relaxing with a magazine in his dorm room. It wasn't a magazine I'd qualify as 'leisure reading'... It was 'The Economist,' and the guy was giggling with delight while reading it. My hands felt sweaty as I quickly turned the page."

Course selections

Part of Harvard University's campus Elise Amendola/AP

Kester says he was initially intimidated by the course offerings when he was supposed to choose classes, but soon went with a policy of seeking out classes whose course descriptions did not include "any words ... longer than four syllables." His final schedule was a class studying the history of gladiators, a course about fairy tales, a science class focusing on dinosaurs, and a class in the anthropology department about aliens. "On paper, my schedule of 'GLADIATORS–FAIRY TALES–DINOSAURS–ALIENS' looked strikingly similar to a list I had written as a five-year-old entitled 'MY FaVoRiTE ThINgs!!!!!,'" Kester wrote. "It wasn't exactly the type of rigorous curriculum you'd expect from The World's Greatest University."

Behavior in an emergency

Kirkland House at Harvard University Elise Amendola/AP

On the day Kester was supposed to have a midterm exam, there was what was rumored to be a bomb threat. Kester says he didn't exactly keep calm. "Apparently there was a precedent for this at Harvard, and soon the whispers began to spread through the aisles: bomb threat," he wrote. "I thought of the barks I heard echoing from the hallway earlier.... did those woofs actually come from a bomb-sniffing dog? I wasn't sticking around to find out. Neither were any of my classmates, who began to rush toward the exit in a panic. Even though I suspected this was most likely a false alarm, I wasn't taking any chances. Sprinting through the mass of students bottlenecked at the doors, I even body-checked one slowpoke into a trash bin. It wasn't my finest moment."

Exam isolation

A student on the campus at Harvard University Elise Amendola/AP

Kester wrote that during his time at Harvard, if anyone became ill during an exam, the patient was taken to an isolation chamber in the hospital at the school, where the patient was forbidden from communicating with anyone until they finished the test. "My buddy Ryan experienced this prisoner-of-war treatment one time after he fainted in the middle of an exam," he wrote. "He woke up in the hospital, where he stayed for the next four days.... his parents became concerned when he wasn't on his flight home for winter vacation. When they called Harvard inquiring into Ryan's whereabouts, the university informed them that their son was recuperating from a case of meningitis, and – good news! – the doctors were now confident he would recover enough to live a full and active life, after he regained his vision and completed his exam, of course. Ryan's parents asked to speak with him, but their request was denied in case they happened to know a thing or two about quantum algorithms."

Injury doesn't mean exemption

A 1968 Harvard University football game against Yale University AP

Kester, a member of the football team, at one point slipped in mud during practice and twisted his knee, so for some time, he was unable to run. "Of course, just because I couldn't run didn't mean I couldn't stay in shape," he wrote. "So during practice Coach Mac forced me to perform endless army-crawls around the field, dragging my body along the ground using nothing but my forearms and elbows. He would tail me every inch of the way."

Final clubs

Gates on Harvard University's campus Taylor Weidman

The final clubs, of which there are eight at Harvard, all have a hazing period during an initiation week, according to Kester. He remembers working on a project one night in his room with a classmate who was a "neo" (neophyte) in a final club, the Porcellian, when there was a knock on Kester's door. "I'm not sure what freaked me out more," he wrote. "That the Porcellian knew to find James in my room, or that the guy summoning him was dressed in all black with a top hat and a terrifying mask featuring a long, sinister beak. 'Can I help you?' I asked, even though no, I definitely could not. The Avian Reaper was silent as he ominously pointed at James and beckoned him outside with a wave of his index finger."

(Finally) finding peace at Harvard

Mary Knox Merrill

Throughout the year, Kester felt pressured and anxious, struggling in classes and feeling like he was having trouble fitting in. He said he felt somewhat better when a friend of his, Hannah, who worked as a tour guide shared a revelation with him: the statue that many believed to be John Harvard is in fact not Harvard, and Harvard didn't even found the school. "This information stunned me," he wrote. "The most iconic image of Harvard wasn't even real.... 'It's funny,' Hannah added. 'Some people take the John Harvard statue so seriously. When really it's all just a big mirage.... The statue fits in perfectly with Harvard: a guy pretending to be someone he's not.'" Later in the semester, Kester decided on a major and began to do better in his classes.