What Is Community at HDS Like?

by Nicole Collins, MTS ’24 

Editor’s Note: First-year student and HDS Admissions Graduate Assistant, Nicole Collins, reflects on her experiences balancing social life with academics, navigating campus culture, and building community in and outside of HDS.

One of the most common questions we’re asked here at Admissions is: “What is community like at Harvard Divinity School?” Though it’s one of the most important things for prospective students to know, it’s also one of the most difficult to answer. When people ask me this, I often reply with something along the lines of: “Which community?” The fact is that HDS is a graduate school and thus attracts a huge amount of people from all walks of life, and so with that comes a huge range of groups, communities, and clubs, spanning different styles, demographic and religious backgrounds, interests—you name it. Here’s my attempt to speak (from the obviously limited standpoint of my own positionality) to the dimensions of HDS’s wonderfully diverse, multifaceted, and genuinely exciting community. 

Above all, I think, the most important determining factor in how HDS community(ies) operate is that, more or less, we’re all adults. That is, the vast majority of HDS students are at least 22, with undergrad (or the equivalent) in the rearview mirror—in fact, this year, our students range in age from 20 to 63—and so community involvement here feels much more like a melting pot of professional and personal interests than it does the kind of cliquey or merely time-passing ethos I remember being prevalent in my undergrad.  

To give a more concrete (though necessarily limited) answer, community involvement at HDS comes by and large in three forms: identity-focused student groups (like one of the Jewish student groups, Jews for Liberation), non-identity-focused student groups (e.g. ones focused on hobbies, like the HDS Garden Group—which is, yes, exactly what it sounds like), and student academic groups (e.g. discussion groups, like the Mircea Eliade Reading Group or the more recent Trans* Religious Studies Reading Group). (Here‘s a full list from our website of active HDS student groups.) 

These categories are certainly not exhaustive, but they do give a solid general idea of what the general fabric of community life looks like at HDS. As a student, however, you’re by no means socially or extracurricularly tethered to the Divinity School. 

When I was admitted to HDS, I was worried that this community might be insular, foreign from the rest of the Harvard campus. However, I learned quickly that HDS students, on both academic and personal levels, are deeply embedded in the rest of Harvard University life. For example, the Harvard World Music Collective welcomes students from all of Harvard’s constituent schools. I know of a handful of HDS students who are actively involved in this.  

In line with maintaining one’s connections with greater non-HDS Harvard University life, an important maxim I’ve tried to stick to during my time here so far is, as I often joke to non-HDS friends and family, “to stay a real person.” By this I mean that it’s very, very easy to become immersed and, frankly, couched in Harvard Living, to the point where one wakes up one night at the end of one’s first semester and wonders: “Have I done anything in the area outside of university environments? Have I finally become a curmudgeon?” It’s obviously to an extent prudent, and a wise investment of one’s time, to network and dig one’s roots into the soil of academic milieux. But a widely acknowledged and vital aspect of HDS community life is simply to get involved in communities, organizations, and activities outside of Harvard University writ large. Of which, obviously, there is a variety.  

In my case, I’ve historically been involved—and continue to as much as I can now—with local LGBTQ+ and music-focused publications in the area. If you’re into this kind of thing, I recommend you go out and pursue it; Boston is drowning in cool, queer, diverse music and art scenes. 

It’s incredible to witness the variety of other activities in which other HDS students get involved. Many get involved in local food banks, volunteer with local churches and synagogues, work (depending on whether you’re MTS, MRPL, or MDiv, it could be field education) as hospital chaplains, or even just tutor high school students in their free time. This is one of the many benefits of attending school in a large metropolitan area: there’s certainly never a lack of anything to do. Most of the time, if you want to explore or get involved with something, it’ll almost always be there in some form. Which, frankly, I know isn’t the case for a lot of less-urban, more-rural schools (like my—otherwise wonderful—farmland liberal arts college undergrad). A major plus. 

Accordingly, that’s not to mention the variety of restaurants, community centers, bookstores, and etc. in Cambridge (and in the general Boston area writ large). In all honesty, despite its size, Boston is a relatively sleepy city—on weekdays, most nightlife centers aren’t open past 10:30pm, and on weekends, you’re hard pressed to find anything with lights on beyond 1:00am. But if you’re a grad student, you’re likely going to be on a hectic enough schedule that you fall asleep at 10:00pm anyway. So, despite my night owl M.O. in undergrad, Boston’s somewhat subdued nightlife has actually worked out well for me—as I think it has for many others. 

That’s another important thing I stress to prospective students. Grad school really is, for all intents and purposes, a job in itself. And at this job you’re working well over 40 hours a week; most weekdays I find myself working, attending classes, and studying from about 8:00am to 9:00pm. This may sound grueling—and certainly at times it is quite tiring—but I enjoy every second of it. Don’t let this dissuade you; it won’t be any different at any other grad school. (And if you’re reading this, you probably already know that!) And so you, the grad student, settle into a schedule not dissimilar from other, office-job types. The lifestyle molds to fit the academic expectations, you settle into a rhythm, everything buzzes with synergy as you read your required Talal Asad reading for Theories & Methods and shut the lights off at a cool 10:30pm. I mention this all because it is a decisive factor in determining the shape of community involvement here, as it is both a limiting but also important structuring element in how HDS “life” feels and looks, qualitatively. Certainly academics, for the most part, come before all else here—but the HDS community is really what serves as the background to all of this academic work and scholarly grind. Community here at HDS is beautifully intertwined, both academic and social, fully divine and fully mortal, work-life balance always recognized and respected. 

But beyond all the (I hope helpful) specifics I’ve given, there is the important question of the almost indescribable “texture” of the HDS community, and of involvement in its various organizations-groups-clubs, that remains near-inarticulable and yet vitally important. This article spoke to some of the more logistical aspects of the community question, but I’ve yet to answer some of the broader, amorphous, subjective questions. What does being in the HDS community feel like? Is it easy to “fit in”? Is the HDS community close?  

I think these questions are valid, and also applicable to really any school community environment. And they are, of course, crucial to both prospective and admitted students when debating whether to apply and commit to the Divinity School, respectively. But they’re really difficult to answer in some kind of universal or concise way. Perhaps it’s easiest to answer these broader questions as a Q&A (from my limited perspective, of course): 

Q: Is the HDS environment more collaborative or competitive? 

A: Collaborative. I don’t think I’ve witnessed an atmosphere that could be described as “cutthroat” once in my time here so far. And I think that’s a shared sentiment. 

Q: How do students make friends? 

A: Campus events; student clubs; classes; organizations within the University outside of HDS; general Cambridge-, Somerville-, and Boston-area groups. 

Q: What do most people do between classes? 

A: Study. Then rest. Then socialize. 

Q: What do you do with your friends outside of HDS? 

A: For fun? There are so many things to do in the Cambridge, and greater Boston area, as a student at HDS. The local bookstores—Harvard Book Store, Brookline Booksmith, and Raven Used Books (RIP… soon)—are a focus of many a literary New England pilgrimage. More cafés than one can count (and, in the humble opinion of your narrator, the best and mostly-least-touristy ones are Andala Coffee House, Broadsheet Coffee Roasters, and Black Sheep Bagel Café). There is also a variety of dining options in the area, no matter one’s dietary restrictions or cuisine preference. (Some recent buzz-causing ones are Lehrhaus, a new Jewish tavern of learning (and dining); The Maharaja, wonderful Indian restaurant right in Harvard Square; Veggie Galaxy, a vegetarian old-school diner in Central Square, Cambridge; and loads more.) And in terms of nightlife, despite Boston’s more or less sleepy atmosphere, there are still plenty of exciting club and dance offerings. Middlesex, Manray, and the Sinclair are all somewhat close to campus, are all welcoming and (to a point) inclusive venues where both dance nights and concerts alike are hosted. Maybe this will be helpful for those visiting Cambridge soon, matriculating in the fall, or simply imagining their time here at Harvard. 

I hope this is all useful and maybe somewhat anxiety-relieving. I usually explain the general vibe of the community here to prospects like this: Adjusting to the community here often feels like falling asleep. When you’re falling asleep, and you think about falling asleep, you overthink and delay sleeping. But once you settle into a rhythm, everything kicks in, you don’t think about it, and you fall into a deep slumber. 

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