Young Students Grow, Adapt to Life at Harvard
Just 16, Saheela O. Ibraheem ’15 waited in line, anxious to participate in a Harvard Square ritual—watching the R-rated Rocky Horror Picture Show late Saturday evening.
Her friend whispered to her in line, “Don’t worry, just give her the card, and she won’t notice.”
Ibraheem slipped her HUID card under the glass window and waited.
“It felt like an eon and a half, waiting anxiously as she inspected my card, seeing the date and meticulously calculating in her head exactly what it meant,” Ibraheem said.
The cashier passed the ID back. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you in. You must be 17 to buy a ticket.”
While most Harvard freshman are 17 or 18 years old when they arrive on campus, every year Harvard also admits much younger students. Though these young students prove their academic prowess in the admissions process, their age can pose challenges. Some of these are legal hurdles: none of the students in this story will be of legal drinking age while in college. None were able to apply for internships, vote for their preferred political candidates, or even buy cold medicine at the local CVS during their freshman year. Perhaps more importantly, some young students say they face social obstacles when they arrive on campus.
But for the most part, these students learned how to be the youngest person in the room before they ever got to Harvard.
“It was more noticeable in high school, because I went to a small private school so everyone knew,” Ibraheem said. “People would view me differently.”
Now, at Harvard, other students help her fit in.
After getting turned away for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, she found a stranger old enough to help her buy a ticket.
Embarrassed by the experience, Ibraheem said she doesn’t expect to head to an R-rated movie again until May when she turns 17.
“It was embarrassing as a college student to beg someone to buy me a ticket.” she said. “[But] as bad as it sounds, it was an experience, and I’m glad I can tell the story.”
‘NO AGE LIMITS’
Harvard does not consider age as a factor when admitting students to the incoming freshmen class, administrators say.
“We have no age limits. We’re really looking at individuals on the basis of individual achievement and personal characteristics,” said Marlyn E. McGrath ’70, the Harvard College director of admissions. “Certainly, maturity and self-direction and the capacity to thrive and benefit at Harvard is always a factor, but none of those qualities are associated in any way that we know with chronological age.”
McGrath said that Harvard does not keep statistics on the average age of entering freshmen, but she said she believes that the average age is just shy of 18. McGrath said that the College has even admitted students older than 60.
According to “Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936” by Samuel E. Morison, Class of 1908, “The median age of entering freshmen rose from a low of little over fifteen years in 1741 to seventeen years in 1769, and stayed at about that point for the rest of the century.”
By 1869, the average age of a Harvard undergraduate entering the freshman class was 18, until President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, raised that average to 19 in 1883, according to Morison’s book on Harvard’s history.
“The real issue is readiness to use Harvard well in all the normal ways, whatever someone’s age might be,” said William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, dean of admissions and financial aid.
GROWING UP AT HARVARD
Once admitted to the College, young students say that, for the most part, they’re able to fit in.
“Harvard … treats me like any other freshman,” said Lelaina E. Vogel ’15, who turned 17 this past July and won’t turn 21 until after she graduates.
Some students said that before moving into their Harvard Yard dormitories, they were nervous about being among the youngest people on campus.
Martin A. Camacho ’14 said he felt apprehensive about fitting in socially; he was not sure if he’d be accepted because he was a couple years younger than everyone else. He entered the fifth grade at age five and matriculated to Harvard at 15.
High school had been difficult, he said, but fortunately his social experience here at Harvard has been a positive one.
“I think people are much more respectful,” Camacho said. “High school was very hard to fit in socially for the first couple of years. Everyone would recognize that I was younger than them.”
Ibraheem said she had a similar experience in high school, but when she arrived on campus many students simply didn’t realize that she was younger than they were.
“I feel like when they know I’m younger, it’s usually after they’ve already gotten to know me, so it doesn’t affect our relationship,” she said.
Camacho said he doesn’t really tell people his age because no one really asks. “If I do tell them, it’s because I know they’ll be fine with it,” he said.
For many of these students, being young is a piece of their identity.
“It’s a part of who I am, I suppose. I’ve always grown up quickly,” Vogel said. “I come from an area where I had a life that I had to grow up quickly in order to make it.”
Even if students did treat her differently for her age, Vogel said she wouldn’t know how they would treat her otherwise.
Academically, these young students thrive in their respective activities and classes around campus. Vogel is involved in the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and American Repertory Theater; Ibraheem is a member of the Harvard Shotokan Karate Club and a daring Math 55 student; Camacho is on the Harvard Quiz Bowl team and a course assistant for this semester’s Math 25a course.
Camacho, 16, teaches weekly sections for the course, which consists of students generally two to three years older than him. Still, Camacho finds the circumstances completely normal.
“I find it funny at times just because I know they’re older than me,” Camacho said. “I’m very comfortable with it. I don’t think most even know how old I am.”
Furthermore, Vogel said she believes that her age may actually serve to benefit her academically.
“I’ve been working at the same level of people who are older than me, which means that I have time to achieve higher levels, whereas other people might be limited,” Vogel said. “I have that space of time to mature my experiences and gather knowledge that I feel other people have less of.”
The young students agree that their age differences have actually widened their ranges of experiences, in comparison to other people of the same age.
Said Susie J. Yi ’13, who was 16 as a freshman, “I think I’ve been exposed to a lot more things than people my age [because] people my age are generally just entering college.”
Staff writer Cynthia W. Shih can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.