Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

My Personal Reflections

Below is the text of a speech I delivered to the Class of 2021 during the Opening Days Faculty Lecture on Honor and Integrity in August 2017:

Good morning. Thank you, Dean Shapiro. As Dean Shapiro said, my name is Nina Srivastava, and I’m a senior in Mather House concentrating in Social Studies. I tell you these things because this is a typical Harvard introduction, one you will hear yourself repeating hundreds of times over the course of your four years here. This introduction tells you about three of the most important ways we define communities on this campus. Soon, you will assume many other identities, being a member of a certain club or team, being the kid who posts too much in the Harvard Class of 2021 Facebook group, being the first kid in your entryway busted for throwing a party (yeah. Some of you are nodding/it’s already happened to some of you). But unlike other parts of your identity at Harvard, you will never have to put in any effort to have these three identities. You will always be a member of the Class of 2021, you will always be a member of your dorm and house, and you will always have an academic affiliation here. These three types of communities: your social, your residential, and your academic ones; they’re permanent. I say this not to boil down your Harvard experience to three main facets, but rather to demonstrate that we live in a community where all three aspects of our identities work in concert. I am speaking to you today as one of the founding members of Harvard’s Honor Council – a body that began working in 2015 to reaffirm our collective commitment to truth and to the idea that the academic work we produce here matters. Today I’d like to share, though, why I believe that our work on the Honor Council is more than just about academic integrity, and through sharing some of my own experiences, demonstrate how the Honor Code helped make me whole.

Sometimes, when I tell people I’m on the Honor Council, I get the response, “so does that mean you’re honorable? You don’t tell lies??” As much as I wish that were true, the members of the Honor Council are humans just like everyone else. We have all lied. In fact, when I first joined the Honor Council, I thought nothing of telling white lies about my personal and social life. When my friends asked if I wanted to go to dinner with them, and I told them I needed to call my mom, when, really, I just wanted to watch the next episode of Gilmore Girls. Making excuses can become commonplace here; there are more opportunities than you can physically take advantage of, and you do more things than you’re capable of because you’re bursting with excitement or because everyone else is, and you hate to appear like the slacker. You get busy, you have to prioritize, but you don’t want to appear like you don’t care, and that you are actually prioritizing some things over others, so you tell a little white lie. What’s the harm?

In my work on the Honor Council, I hear many excuses. They are related to academic work, of course, but when I first began working on the Council, they caught my attention nevertheless. “I got back late from an away game last night, and I’m always the person who helps my entrywaymates with this class, so it’s fine if I copy their answers just this once,” they might rationalize. I realized how these momentary lapses in judgment could cause students with nothing but the best intentions to face serious consequences, and my involvement with academic integrity on a daily basis strengthened my personal integrity. I found telling the complete and total truth to be extremely difficult on a campus where few people admit their struggles. It is much easier to make an excuse than to admit you didn’t schedule enough time for yourself because you overestimated the amount you would be able to get done. While being totally forthcoming was harder initially, it made my life instantly easier when I got in the habit of doing it. “I’m swamped right now and don’t have time for dinner.” Or “I procrastinated this paper, and I can’t go to formal with you tonight.” These statements resulted in deeper relationships - ones where people brought me dinner when they knew I was stressed or offered me real support instead of me coping on my own. Interestingly, as my personal integrity was strengthened, so too was my academic integrity. I never realized that I could have been operating with more academic integrity than I was, because I thought following all the rules was all that academic integrity meant. I learned that it means a lot more. Prioritizing in my personal life taught me how to prioritize in my academic one too - I learned when I would be okay with having to submit a bad response paper because I wanted to be at Fenway Park when the Red Sox were in the hunt for a pennant, I learned to ask for extensions when I got sick and couldn’t finish an assignment by the due date instead of pushing myself to a breaking point.

I mentioned earlier how people sometimes respond when they find out that I am on the Honor Council. The Honor Council members around the room all equally familiar with these reactions. Sometimes, the response we receive is a slow but almost reflexive gravitation away from us, as if being in our presence is somehow going to get you in trouble. When I was sitting in the seat you’re in today during my own Opening Days, I had big dreams for my life at Harvard, and never in a million years did I think they included the Honor Council. Why would I willingly join a group whose goal was to deal with students who are often in their worst moments at Harvard?

You might be surprised to hear 1 out of 10 of you will likely be found responsible for breaking the Honor Code in your 4 years here. 4 of you will likely delay graduation because of violation. 10 out of 10 of you think that you will win the lottery before you will ever have an honor code violation. At Harvard, it is easy to make excuses, to get caught up, and to find yourself in a position you never set out for.

When I think about why I joined the Honor Council now, I realize that my experience with it is the one that has helped me connect my values to my actions and made me more whole. Yes, is easy to get caught up and to make excuses, but when you make integrity a priority in all facets of your life, it is even easier to stop and think about the consequences of any action before you take it.
 I encourage you to be honest to yourselves and to others about your priorities, to approach your time here with integrity, and to be whole, and if I can ever be a resource for any of you, once again, my name is Nina, I am a senior in Mather, and I study Social Studies. Thank you.

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