Why the UA is better than Harvard

The UA is probably nearly 100 places behind Harvard on US News and World Report's list of colleges. The word ""Harvard"" may be synonymous with geniuses and old money, while ""University of Arizona"" is more commonly associated with cacti and sports teams.


But on a recent visit to see a friend who attends the hallowed halls of Harvard, I became convinced that the Old Main in the Old Pueblo has Cambridge's crown jewel beat in more than a few ways.

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On a purely superficial level, the UA gives students way, way more for way less. Harvard's dining halls are like Cactus Grill, but open fewer hours. The dorms are like Maricopa, but with fewer outlets. Sure, there are all the rainbows of cascading leaves and the ivy-covered brick buildings, but that's sort of a college cliché. We are the real innovators here: We have the Douglass building and we have a cactus garden. How's that for diverse?


Harvard is experiencing budget cuts just like the UA is ­— it had to shut down an entire library because it lost a third of its endowment (""Leaner Times at Harvard: No Cookies,"" The New York Times, Oct. 8, 2009). Somehow, the reduced hours at the Student Recreation Center are easier to swallow after hearing that. At least we have less money mostly because something completely outside of the university's control changed: Arizona residents paid less in taxes, or the state or federal funding structure changed. We don't have that many graduates who are supposedly the most brilliant, richest people in the world, who should be donating, and then still run out of money. The cost of UA tuition is not quite the $200,000 Harvard students can expect to pay for an undergraduate degree. The UA has its financial troubles, but at least it is not quite as ludicrous as Harvard running out of money.


Maybe it's just the culture of the place, but UA students have a healthier view of money, too. A poster in a dorm I visited at Harvard had a picture of a beach house with five Porsches in the garage and read ""Justification for Higher Education."" We want to be successful, but that's not the sense of justification I get from UA students. It requires a greater degree of passion to pursue an education honestly, without a big name attached to it.


Being a student at a school that is good, but not the best of the best, is liberating. We can try big things, take chances and be adventurous, because it's kind of OK if we fail. We can even laugh at ourselves.


Harvard has earned its elevated reputation and the chip on its shoulder, and everyone respects that. But then it cast that chip in marble, engraved it with a quote from an obscure philosopher in a dead language and named it after an alumni donor.


We Wildcats know who we are. We're proud of our achievements, but we don't think anyone else has to be. Harvard students are admirably self-deprecating, but they really do believe they go to the best school in the universe. At least UA students know we don't really matter to anyone else.


At the UA, you can chat with someone in the Starbucks line and be pretty sure he or she is not going to steal your dream job and make you feel like a washed-up loser at the age of 19. At Harvard, you might be talking to the person who will cure cancer or invent the next Facebook. You could be talking to that person here, too, but we're less obnoxious about it.


Everyone who gets into a school like Harvard is so exhaustingly interesting, it's hard to really get to know someone. You are supposed to be a number, a goal, a foreign country you come from and/or an uncommon language you speak. At the UA, we're just people. We don't turn down our noses at people who don't go to class or actually sleep at night; we give them a hug and a beer.


Wildcats have a sense of humor that I didn't really appreciate until I spent some time in another place that is in such contrast. For example, no grown men here wear pants with tiny ducks embroidered on them unless it's a joke. And people here do wear clothes as a joke quite often — a concept which has yet to infiltrate Harvard Yard. Maybe they're just already moved on to the next theorem in ironic fashions.


There are, of course, many things that Harvard has that we just can't compete with. It has the exalted name, for one. But its mascot is a color, and its sports teams are not exactly Las Vegas bowl material. We don't have presidents of countries visit us very often. But it's not like that means anything: heck, President Obama even visited that one place in Tempe. Harvard's newspaper is, admittedly, far higher-brow than this one — but I, for one, think it is a very good thing that UA students are not interested in reading articles about translations of Rainer Maria Rilke in the Wildlife section.


I obviously can't say that the UA is better than Harvard in very many ways, but there are a few. Everyone there was nice and friendly, but I never thought I'd be so glad to be back to this dusty town where basketball shorts are considered formal wear. While Harvard might be objectively ""better"" in some ways, after visiting there, I can say with more confidence that the UA is in every way a better place for me.





— Anna Swenson is a sophomore majoring in English. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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