By Trinidad Lara, MTS ’24
Editor’s Note: First-year MTS student, Trinidad Lara, speaks directly to her “pre-HDS self” in this post, addressing her initial financial concerns and assuring her former self that she’ll find community and academic fulfillment while here at HDS.
Three cups of excitement, one of anxiety, five tablespoons of joy mixed in with two pinches of fear and two pints of gratefulness – I can still remember the mixed bag of emotional ingredients I felt in the weeks after receiving the HDS Admissions decision email. Looking back, the elements of anxiety and fear mostly stemmed from the uncertainty of how a future in Boston might unfold. If I could go back in time a year and tell myself anything, I would say “worry less!” However, knowing myself, I would probably be met with fierce stubbornness. This is why I would have to provide an account of what ended up unfolding as well as some tips for the pre-HDS version of myself to help her along the journey. This is what I intend to do in the following blog post. My name is Trinidad, I mostly go by Trini, and I am a Chilean American MTS student less than two months away from completing my second semester at HDS. I came to Harvard to study Sufi perspectives on madness with the aim of discerning how non-medicalized understandings of mental illness might contribute to the emerging field of Mad Studies. More recently, I have become interested in learning more about the contributions of female mystics to Islamic mystical traditions. In addition to being a graduate student, I am also a singer-songwriter and a lover of street performance and theater. I hope that describing some of my experiences and sharing some advice that I would give to myself might help soften and mellow some of the ingredients that make up your emotional landscape, especially if you happen to share some of the same ones I did.
Financial Aid & On-Campus Jobs
One of the biggest concerns that almost kept me from applying to HDS was affordability. After graduating from George Mason University and working at a non-profit in Washington DC, I decided to move back to my hometown, Santiago, Chile, where I taught English while attempting to figure out what the next steps in my career were going to be. My plan was to stay in Chile; however, a gentle inkling nudged me to apply to HDS. Despite devoting a considerable amount of time to working on my application, I was convinced that even if I was accepted into the program, I would most likely not be able to afford a life and education in the United States – my monthly salary in Santiago was about a third of the cost of monthly rent in Cambridge. Though I knew that Harvard offered need-based aid to its students, I didn’t think I would be able to accept an offer because of the financial circumstances I was experiencing at the time. Thankfully, the generous aid that I received has allowed me to study and live in Boston. I supplement my income by working part-time at Tozzer Library, the oldest anthropology library in the United States, where I have had the opportunity to spend time with incredible people, some of whom are my closest friends on campus. If I could go back, I would tell my pre-HDS self to continue to persevere through the doubts and to not worry so much about finding a job prior to arriving on campus as there are plenty of job opportunities that may unfold as the semester progresses. For those of you who definitely need a job prior to starting school in September, Katie Caponera, the Director of Student Life, will periodically send out emails with job openings on the horizon during the months leading up to your first day at HDS.
Friendships & Community
In addition to working at Tozzer Library, I am an active member of HDS Muslims, a community I was welcomed into with open arms, even though I did not identify as Muslim at the time. Through the process of organizing events (such as Sufi poetry and chai nights!) and becoming involved in activities planned by fellow classmates, I began to cultivate friendships that, I hope, will outlive my time at HDS. One of my primary concerns about moving to Boston was having to uproot the life that I was creating for myself in Chile. I was worried about being able to navigate the demands of starting a new life in a city where I didn’t know many people. A year later, I can say that the connections that I have made in the past couple of months have largely contributed to my overall sense of belonging and well-being here. I am honored to be a part of such a welcoming and supportive community, and this solid foundation has been crucial to me, particularly during challenging times. If I could go back in time, I would reassure my pre-HDS self that the stress of moving is worth the gain of meeting so many thoughtful, kind, inspiring people whom I would have the privilege to call my friends.
Something I wish I knew before starting the program is how remarkably profound the experience was going to be – both on an intellectual and emotional level. For many students at HDS, though not all, the academics may interweave with the personal and the spiritual in ways that can make the program feel particularly intense. This was definitely the case for me, even as an MTS student. I have experienced overwhelming moments in which, sitting in class, I discerned answers to questions that I have had stored in the back of my mind for years. I have found, for instance, that my personal life often reflects back the lessons that I’m learning in my Spiritual Cultivation classes, and that learning does not stop outside the classroom, but rather, my life itself has become it.
The educational resources available to me as a student have helped me through processes of fluctuation and change. I have had conversations with classmates and professors who have both supported and challenged my views, destabilized my assumptions, and who have not always agreed with me – I appreciate these perspectives for their ability to catalyze shifts in my thinking. Sometimes, these interactions (through engaging in readings and having conversations in person) allow me to solidify my stance or to approach a topic from a particular perspective I hadn’t considered or understood before. However, I have also found value in being able to take a step back and spend time reflecting in solitude. I would encourage my pre-HDS self to intentionally set time aside to practice grounding techniques during the summer months leading up to the start of the program. Being exposed to so many ideas and new people at the beginning of the academic year can be exhilarating, however, too many changes and new stimuli all at once can be stressful on the mind. Finding ways to center and balance one’s internal world will be critical to navigating the rigorous academic demands and personal challenges that lie ahead.
Today, eight months after moving to Boston, I am sincerely grateful for the generous aid, welcoming environment, and for the astounding educational resources available to me as an HDS student. Not only do I have the privilege of taking fascinating classes and spending time on the questions that really matter to me, but this chapter of my life has been illuminated by friends, classmates, chaplains, and professors who inspire me and who have catalyzed powerful changes within. I am excited to see how the next year will unfold and wish the incoming class the best of luck in the first leg of their HDS journey! I hope your experiences are just as fruitful as mine have been.