She applied to Harvard just for the fun of it. Now, GHS grad Michelle Kuroda reflects on her freshman year at the Ivy League school.
Michelle Kuroda never dreamed she’d get into Harvard. During middle school, she struggled to earn passing grades and to keep herself out of trouble. By high school, however, Michelle had turned herself around and spent hours every week tutoring other students. She knew she wanted to go to college and study education reform, but college wasn’t in her family’s budget. She pursued scholarships and hoped for acceptance to a respected school. On a whim, she says, “I uploaded a humorous essay I had written and submitted my application [to Harvard] minutes before the deadline. After that, I didn’t give Harvard a second thought.”
Michelle heads back to Harvard for her sophomore year this fall. Here she reflects on the opportunities and challenges of her freshman year.
How did a Georgetown girl end up at Harvard?
People think it is impossible to get into Harvard—I certainly believed that. A lot of people view Harvard as the place where snobby rich kids or astonishing geniuses go to school. In my mind it was unreachable, but I applied with a “what the hell” attitude. When I found out I got in, I thought it was a glitch or a mistake. Upon meeting other admitted students, I realized this was a common thought.
What was your first day of class like?
My first day of class wasn’t tense or intimidating as I imagined. Before students officially enroll in classes, we have a weeklong period called “Shopping Week” when we can visit any class to preview it. The professors were friendly and passionate and helped me feel welcome in my classes. I was able to test out the classes I wanted to take to see if I liked the manner in which they were taught and to determine whether I was truly interested in the material.
What was it like to get your first grade back?
My first graded assignment was an essay for a class on “The World of the Roman Empire.” I worked on the essay for a week, starting over three times. The professor announced a lot of the papers had to be rewritten, so I dreaded receiving my essay. I couldn’t even open the grade envelope, so my friend opened it and read the comments. I ended up earning a B, and I was thrilled. I still am. College has made me value learning more than anything. I wish I had understood long ago that education is much more important than evaluation.
What was the worst day you had?
The worst day—or several days—was during finals week my first semester. After having two exams the previous week, I had to complete two seven-page papers, a ten-page research paper, and a final exam in four days. I hadn’t been slacking off—I became overwhelmed because of multiple deadlines falling close together. I didn’t sleep for five days, and I wouldn’t even leave my desk. I did surprisingly well in each class, but without friends and understanding professors, I don’t know how I would have made it through.
Have you ever felt out of place at Harvard?
I have never felt out of place at Harvard. Professors know how hard you had to work even to be considered as a prospective student, and your peers share your motivation and understand the effort you put in to get there. Not once has someone at Harvard questioned my credentials or done a double take when I walk into a class. No one asks me if I know how to speak English or if I’m in the wrong place. Students of every ethnic group have respected me as an individual and as a scholar, just as I have respected and appreciated them. No one looks at you differently because you’re Hispanic or Indian or Croatian or Salvadorian. You are brilliant and you are you. From the moment I was admitted, I have felt welcomed, appreciated, and loved.
What was the hardest adjustment coming from Georgetown?
For me it was the cold weather. When I was forced to endure two blizzards and six months of brutal winter, it was quite a shock. I was freezing in early October at fifty degrees, so imagine how life was at negative twenty degrees with the sun setting around five o’clock. The first week or so of snow was fun, but I grew tired of it after that. The cold made me truly appreciate the Texas summers I used to complain about.
Besides warm weather—and your family—what were you homesick for?
Definitely Mexican food, though the freshman dining hall looks like Hogwarts. Nothing compares to my mom’s arroz con huevo [rice and egg], and my grandma and aunt make killer Mexican food all the time. Nothing can beat that.
How has Harvard fed your passion for education reform?
I joined an afterschool program in Southie [South Boston] to tutor minority first through third graders. I bonded with the kids, and each week I couldn’t wait to go and hang out with them. Some of the kids have learning disabilities, and most are behind academically. On top of that pressure, they have a sense of inferiority when it comes to school. These kids have twelve more hours of school a week than their peers, all so they can hope to be on the same page as the other students. I am passionate about education reform because my experience has shown that education can change your life. Tutoring at Southie reminds me that so many children will never be given the opportunities I now have, but I can do something about it with these kids.
As you head back for your sophomore year, who are you now?
When I left for Harvard, I was confident, driven, and responsible in all the wrong ways. I failed miserably at maintaining the image of perfection I crafted for myself. I learned that a bad grade is not the worst thing ever, that going out with friends does not mean you will ruin your future, and that you have to love a class for more than half of a semester to commit your life to the discipline. I am still a confident, driven, and responsible young woman, except now I am all of those things in a more practical and experienced way. I will never push myself as hard as I did my first semester of college. Motivation is necessary, but not to the point where you nearly burn yourself out. I realized that there is more to the college experience than that.
In October 2011, Michelle, then still at Georgetown High School, wrote a “What Matters Is” article for the View.