Interview: "More Than A Number"- The Ivy League Experience Through The Lens of A Minority

Within the digital space, there is often commentary on higher education being the ideal landscape for personal growth. And while every student does venture down a path of development, often times the differentiation of socio-economic, racial, and gender status proves challenging for some. In this feature interview, you will hear the personal accounts of Monique Hassel, 26, a 2016 graduate of Harvard University. A lifelong friend, she graciously accepted my invitation to share her perspective, one that is uncommon. With humility, tenacity, and perseverance, she earned her degree and the enlightening experience of a lifetime.

Give background on specifics of your collegiate studies; Major/Minor, etc? I majored in Philosophy - concentrating more on continental (European) political philosophy and Indian philosophy of mind, feminism, and the philosophy of race.

What were your initial feelings starting your collegiate journey at such a prestigious institution? As soon as I moved on campus, I felt uncomfortable. I moved into a single, so I already felt a bit isolated. My mom flew up to move me in, but we were just kind of lost every step of the way. My resident dean, two and a half years later, described this bumbling unease as, “Some students just slip through the cracks.” I have heard this phrase to describe the school-to-prison pipeline, and injustices in our education system as a whole, so I never thought it would apply so directly to me. More than anything that first month on campus, I felt my family’s socio-economic position. People talked seemingly incessantly about their vacations in Turks and Caicos, or their parents experiences in college. Like many college freshman, I did not find a community, a place with people where I could just be myself, immediately. This social isolation, combined with the fact that Harvard is a large institution with multiple graduate universities and a very large endowment, made me feel like I was just a number - a feeling that was particularly novel to me because I went to a high school that had maximum 12 students in every class.

Describe your educational and extracurricular experience as a minority female. Specifically, how were you treated? Originally, I planned on majoring in Italian and Portuguese. For the first two years of college, I had internships lined up with Morgan Stanley in New York City, and I learned the inner functionings of an investment bank - financial statements, resource and risk management, client relations - all only 2 years after the crisis. This work experience is common at Harvard - a little over 50% of the undergrads go on to have finance and consulting careers immediately after their senior year. It made me feel secure in the value of a liberal arts education and I chose my major not thinking about my potential employment, but rather my interests and beliefs. After taking a general education requirement in Ethical Reasoning, I quickly switched my major to philosophy. “The Just World” was taught by German philosopher Mathias Risse at the Harvard Kennedy School. Slowly thinking about moral arguments, laced with indisputable facts about global inequality, felt natural to me. The discussions carried a certain exigency with them, as I walked the hallowed halls of Harvard trying to understand why I was accepted to “one of the best universities in the world.”

Back at Morgan Stanley the previous summer, after a poor experience on a trading floor, I turned down an offer to return to the bank. While the compensation was lucrative and the work no doubt intriguing, working in finance made me feel different as a woman for the first time. The feeling was particularly shocking for me because I would have never described myself as a feminist before. But being talked over or down to, never receiving credit for my good ideas, being constantly aesthetically scrutinized, and not having any mentors who I felt were genuinely interested in my success and growth negatively colored my experienced and I walked away.

From that my point on, I’ve led a path that has allowed me to explore and stretch my own definition of freedom. I studied abroad in Italy, the first country I visited out of the United States and fell in love. Plagued by the curse of sophomore year, I took time off and traveled in Northern Italy for a year or so. While in Verona, Rimini and (for the most part) Venice, I strengthened my Italian skills and deepened my knowledge of philosophy. I taught myself ancient philosophy and history in Italian, taught English online and to children, and worked for La Biennale di Venezia, the largest international art exhibition in the world.

Now, I can look back with pride and say I “did” all of these things, but really I was learning how to cope with depression. I found the mental health and wellness resources at these elite institutions to be ill equipped and overworked. I felt like they were focused on preventing suicides on campus, even if that means asking students to leave (only to have them commit suicide in their own homes). The services felt more like risk management on Harvard’s part than someone who was actually interested in seeing you succeed at Harvard. Taking time off and living life at a slower pace seemed to be the remedy for me to gain a semblance of my self-esteem and self-confidence back.

For my entire six year journey at Harvard, I was the only black female who majored in philosophy. Philosophy has less women and minorities in it than any STEM major. There are about 30-50 concentrators every year. While this space was the intellectual safe-haven I craved, I felt my blackness more. I was interested in racial issues, committed to knowing the history of African and American-American political philosophy, a field not really focused on in our department which is heavy in anglo-american philosophy of science. Most of the time, I felt I did not belong and I began to believe that. It weighed heavy on my grades. No one really cared or saw potential in me, so I “fell through the cracks.”I seriously considered not completing my degree out of fear of failure and inability to fit in, until my junior spring, when I finally found my community: The Dudley Co-Op. The co-op was started back in the sixties as a space for Vietnam War protesters at Harvard. (There was a particularly brutal put down of a march against the Vietnam War at Harvard). Here, I found like-minded individuals thinking about climate change, inter-sectional feminism, indigenous rights, the inequalities of our food system, and racial justice. I finally found a home.

Did your cultural difference ever impact you emotionally? I am still healing from some of the harsher experiences I had in college. Everything ranging from helping friends find reproductive services or file sexual/physical assault charges to reassuring myself that I did not get here “just because I’m black.” Mental health is my number one priority because I realized some of the support systems that my fellow classmates had were just not in tact for me - my mother stopped giving me money once I started working when I was 17. My family lived far away so there was no one to turn to in Boston. I come from a city with a ton of sunlight, so the sunless winters affected me. I’m a very emotional person, and I think we are living in an age with many emotions. My experience continues to teach me that we the classical divide between “emotions” and “rationality” is naive at best, and in order to affect real change you must have adequate control and use of both.

How did the overall experience impact your perspective on society?I remain convinced that we, as a society, do not listen to one another enough. This is a two-sided critique of those who believe they are speaking for or as a certain demographic, and those that would seemingly choose to silence them. Overall, I learned that we must engage in cultural humility and most importantly, empathy, when engaging with people of different identities - whether they be socioeconomic, religious, racial, etc. Perhaps if people were more willing to listen to each other we would not have such a deadlock and partisan divide in our political system.

If you could give your 18-year old self advice to prepare her for the journey, what would it be?It is okay to fail. In fact, failing is one of the best teachers. And you cannot possibly be perfect - because you are human! Get organized and show up. That’s half the battle. The rest is knowing yourself, being kind to yourself, and remaining confident that your voice matters. Without your opinion, something gets left unsaid in the room. Be patient, love yourself and it will all fall according to plan.

What is the best thing that has come out of the experience?The opportunities my college experience afforded me were blessings. I was able to travel to Italy and Turkey, to learn about the financial underpinnings of our economic system, and explore contemporary art. I had the privilege of meeting amazing people across the globe along the way, people who continue to push my knowledge to ends I would have never expected. For me, this is most important. People and experiences are life’s best teachers.

For any young women, socio-economically challenged students, or minorities who feel higher education is a long shot, what would you say to encourage them to pursue their education?We live in exciting times - things change frequently and rapidly, technology is disrupting and innovating the fabric of our daily lives. If you want to be involved in this conversation, if you want to have a seat at the table and become an architect of the future, if you will, you should pursue your education. And not pursue it just for some four year degree, a piece of paper that costs a bunch of money - pursue it as a lifelong instrument in bettering yourself and your community. There are so many resources, so many schools, and so many paths to higher education. Reach out to people! There are so many of us willing and waiting to help.

If our society wants to establish revolutionary change, we must first step outside of our own biased opinions. Soften our rough edges and learn to have respect for people of all racial, gender, sexual and socioeconomic backgrounds. We must learn to live life unfiltered. I chose to highlight this experience because too often vulnerable statements as these are looked past. I feel privileged to be able to use my platform to bring awareness to poignant issues in our society.

Sending love and light always.



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