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Brits in America: hard work pays when nothing else will

While in the classroom at Harvard University, student wealth is hardly an issue. But come summer it is an entirely different story, writes Raphaëlle Soffe

  • Student life
  • Study abroad
Raphaëlle Soffe's avatar

Raphaëlle Soffe

July 3 2018
Cleaning at Harvard University


The one activity I didn’t mention in my previous article that I would be doing this summer was Dorm Crew Clean-Up. Reflecting on why I had not mentioned dorm crew, I realised that I was embarrassed by the fact I would be kick-starting my jam-packed summer by sweeping, vacuuming and mopping college dorms. 

I went from studying intensely for my last exam to cleaning dorms the next day. The transition was jarring and I found little time to rest. Starting at 6.30am every day and working an eight-hour shift, I found myself physically and mentally exhausted by the evening. What got me up every morning was the recognition that I needed to fund my summer plans and have financial security.

It was during this week of cleaning dorms that the real divide in the Harvard community became apparent. No student enjoyed cleaning dorms. Rather, they were cleaning dorms because they needed the money for next semester or to fund summer internships. It was almost impossible to find a student from a well-off family, both in terms of money and prestige, cleaning alongside you. 

Catch up on Raphaëlle’s  journey here

Harvard University
Brits in America: sexism, safety and strength
Brits in America: getting to grips with US politics
Brits in America: the international family at Harvard
Brits in America: ‘Look, it’s Bernie Sanders!’
Brits in America: a day in the life of a Harvard student
Brits in America: Ordering ‘chips’ is a very different thing here
Brits in America: Heading to Harvard

It was hard not to feel depressed, or even a little bitter, when Facebook friends’ photos of exotic holidays or luxurious penthouses began to surface and I was cleaning coffee stains off desks. I had spent two semesters studying with students from all backgrounds and, apart from the odd intellectual competitive rivalry, we found ourselves on an equal footing. It was only when we were removed from the intellectual setting that differences in background became obvious and the inequality surfaced. 

So why did I choose to write about cleaning dorms for one of my Times Higher Education articles? Even though it may not make for a stimulating or motivating read, I felt it important that this aspect of Harvard be discussed.

Nothing bonds people more than teamwork and a common boredom. I emerged from my cleaning dorms experience with strong friendships with people I had never met before. We discussed everything from our families to politics, and developed a mutual respect for each other. 

I felt that I had changed, too. I was no longer embarrassed by my dorm crew experience. Rather, it reinforced the value I placed on hard work and the importance of never letting financial problems hold dreams back.

Before, I felt like I was one step behind my peers with money concerns constantly pushing me down. After dorm crew, I feel one step ahead, striving towards a summer of excitement and learning, with nothing but my own hard work to thank for that. 

Read more: The choice between paying for student accommodation and a holiday in Dubai 

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