When I started at HDS, some of my fellow incoming classmates wondered aloud if there was any point in trying to make friends if we were only go to be here for 2 or 3 years, before moving on to something somewhere else. I’d say: make friends. You’re going to need friends in grad school, and you might even get to keep some of these friends for life. Like most prospective and admitted students, I didn’t know where I would end up after HDS (and I still don’t) but I’ve found it enormously beneficial to put down some roots—and like a plant that naturally puts down roots as it’s growing taller and fuller, you just can’t help it. So if you’re coming here this fall or thinking about coming here in the future, it might help to start thinking about what’s important to you in settling in.
It was important to me to live near campus, in an area where lots of HDS students live, and to live there for the whole duration of my program, so I could go to community events in the evening, study and hang out with friends nearby, and feel grounded in my home, with a sense of continuity from year to year. For me, being at Harvard Divinity School and living in the hip, urban Cambridge area feels like living in a world-class city and a provincial neighborhood at the same time. It’s densely populated, picturesque, and kind of ramshackle, with a solid public transportation system, all sorts of restaurants and boutiques, lots of community events and cultural attractions, and tons of students and young professionals.
Getting involved at HDS has given me a profound sense of community, which spreads into the surrounding area. I’ll run into classmates on the bus or at the corner store, or a professor walking his dog on my way home or another professor with her daughter at a street festival in Harvard Square. Every once in a while I’ll see a classmate on my street when she’s visiting my next door neighbor; one of my Teaching Fellows moved into the apartment above mine; a friend from school hung her head out the window and waved hello when she saw a bunch of HDS students headed up the hill, as we were going to another friend’s house a little further up. Seeing these friendly faces from school in my neighborhood and around town gives me a strong sense of living in, and being held by, community.
One of the first things I did when I moved across the country, before my classes even started, was look for a church, to ground myself in my faith and in the local area while in school. Being a member of the UU Church of Berkeley was such a meaningful part of my life in the Bay Area that I knew I needed a new spiritual home on the East Coast. So I went to First Parish in Cambridge, the UU church on the edge of Harvard Yard, to see what it was like and fell in love with it immediately. There, I met people of all ages and backgrounds who share my values, and who I care about and who care about me simply because we’ve chosen to be in community with each other. That summer, I started hanging out with the Young Adult Group and going to dinner at a local pub on Tuesday nights; the next summer, we went camping on the Harbor Islands; this summer, I’ll continue to see them in the pews. When my classes change from semester to semester and I’m constantly questioning everything, personally, professionally, theologically, and academically, it’s comforting to see the same folks every week and be held in a community that shares my values.
Gradually becoming part of the local queer community has also been important to me. It was, ahem, “fabulous” to see friends from school and church at the Boston Pride Parade. It’s also nice to have some queer friends outside of school and church, who I met through social networking sites, to just hang out with or go “queer shopping” with.
With its 60 colleges and universities, the Boston area is teeming with thousands of students and recent grads. So I’ve also run into a friend from college on the bus and, one time, I even ran into a friend from my study abroad program in Uganda as I was leaving a Red Sox game. There’s a small group of students from my college who moved to the area for different grad programs, so we get together for dinner every once in a while.
As big as the ideas are in grad school, my world is pretty small right now: my school, my church, some queer folks. It’s meaningful to me when I see people around and my communities overlap, because it reminds me of how many roots I’ve put down in the area. On the way home one day, for example, I ran into three people from three different parts of my life: an HDS student on the bus, a queer friend from the area on the subway, and a friend from college on the walk home. After going to the Gubernatorial Forum at Mass Equality that another queer friend from the area had organized, I ran into a queer couple from church on the way home. When the Dead Sea Scrolls came to the Boston Museum of Science, I went to see them with a friend from church who goes to another school in the Boston Theological Institute because we’d both been studying the Bible in school.
All this makes me feel settled here, like this is my new home—or, at least, my new home for a while. It makes me feel like I’m known, there are people in my life who share my values, and I have people I can count on. I’ve also found that it helps me keep my life in balance, to have community and intellectual stimulation both at HDS and outside of school—and that what I learn, see, hear, and do in one realm often influences what I do in the others, for a well-integrated life. So I would encourage you to think about how to put down roots if you’ve been admitted, or, if you’re thinking about where to go to grad school, to think about what the campus community and the surrounding area is like and what kinds of things you’ll do to settle in.