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  • Writer's pictureJoy Zhang

Why I turned down my Harvard graduate school offer

As the year 2019 draws to a close, reflecting on a difficult choice between two universities

I've only had the pleasure of seeing the Milky Way twice so far in my lifetime. Each time I was overcome by a sense of hope and freedom

My close friends know that March and April of 2019 were challenging months for me. They've been in phone calls, in-person chats, and hangouts where my uncertainty about a decision seeped into (and sometimes dominated) innocuous conversation.

It was the decision between spending the next two years studying Design Engineering at Harvard, arguably the most renowned university in the world, or getting a dual design and engineering degree at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College of London (for the rest of this bit, I'll refer to them as RCA-IC for short).

The root of all this turmoil was my decision to pursue higher education. Instead of going straight to work, I wanted to dedicate my next years to social innovation design. After completing my undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech, I was still left with this unsatiated curiosity about all the ways I can give back to our society.

How could I - a single, idealistic human in our tiny, gigantic earth - more effectively build solutions that gave other humans dignity and access to healthy environments? How can I nudge us towards practices and products that would help future generations flourish?

We all approach these questions differently, depending on how we grew up and how our moralities are structured. Some people like my grandpa focused on nurturing the local community, the children who will become the leaders of the next generation. Some of my friends shop ethically to weld their power as a consumer. Many center themselves on providing for their family, so that they can accomplish their dreams.

I wanted to be at the site of all the activity, joining the makers and doers who shape development of technology and design. It's the promised land where my day-to-day work can help push for sustainability at a faster pace than the messy play of geopolitics could.

My acceptance letters seemed to be keys to that promised land. But the question was - Boston or London? Financial security or unfettered adventure? Urban design focus or biodesign focus?

From the beginning, I leaned towards the latter. RCA-IC's Innovation Design Engineering program had an incredible history of interdisciplinary design, and its alumni have built projects that I hope to be able to build one day. But Harvard's program was just as strong, in different ways. Its interconnected, cross disciplinary campus allowed for catalytic collaborations. Its faculty housed some of the leading thinkers in fields that provide inspiration for everything I make. I couldn't choose! I wished I could do both!

The world we live in is not neatly separated into options. In fact, the world is more like the canvas of stars we see in the Milky Way: infinite possibilities, infinite paths, many of which are invisible until we dare to dive into the murky skies.

I clicked "submit" for my rejection letter on accident, while steeling myself for my decision.

My mom was furious. Although RCA-IC are well known in Europe, they're unheard of by the mass population in the US or China. As a single mom who supported two kids through undergrad, she wants us to live a more comfortable life she did. Graduate school is a financial luxury, and to her, rejecting Harvard was like spitting in the face of the Asian American dream of the Ivy-League-to-riches story. Rejecting Harvard was throwing away the keys to prestige, security, and excellence. It made me question my decision, too. Am I abandoning my family to pursue a sudden fancy without a (US-known) prestigious name attached to it? Will I find what I'm looking for?

One semester in, I know I made the right decision. RCA-IC has all the ethical discussion, playful creativity, and trans-disciplinary collaboration that I had hoped for. My current Innovation Design Engineering program feels like a playground where I can develop and challenge my circular economy ideas with abandon.

Even now, my mom tells her extended Chinese family that her daughter "got into Harvard" for graduate school. But she's proud of me. She can see my progress, and my obstinate dedication to my goal.

No matter what happens, one thing is clear for me: I'll make sure my two years in London are going to be worth more than whatever bills I rack up or obstacles I encounter.

I realize now that comparing Harvard and RCA-IC has created this false dichotomy. A false forking of a path and a false sense of unique sets of keys to unique doors. The world we live in is not neatly separated into options. In fact, the world is more like the canvas of stars we see in the Milky Way: infinite possibilities, infinite paths, many of which are invisible until we dare to dive into the murky skies.

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