A few weeks ago, 1600 bright-eyed freshmen moved into the halls of Harvard Yard. Minivans full of dorm necessities pulled through the narrow, cobbled sidewalks; upperclassmen wearing matching shirts greeted families and helped haul boxes up freshly cleaned entryways. While I wasn’t on campus for freshman move-in, seeing photos was enough to throw me back to my first days of college. It’s funny to look back at this time last year, because I am today a very different person from who I was then.
The worst challenges of my freshman year came three weeks into my first semester, when I found myself impossibly behind after switching chemistry classes. I began to feel heart-wrenching panic at the thought of bombing such a fundamental pre-med course. Harvard is an intense school, and to do badly in a class felt very consequential. If I couldn’t get by in intro chem, would I be able to go into medicine? What about my dream of being a medical missionary? Over the course of a couple days, what started out as an unfortunate situation turned into a personal crisis as I wrestled with these questions and the anxiety that had overtaken my body. At the time, everything about college was unfamiliar and I felt desperately alone in my struggles.
The rest of the year was a long and arduous recovery process. While that period of intense panic only lasted for a few days, I faced physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual consequences for months. God used my school-related anxiety to expose my lack of trust in Him and my idolization of academic success. He broke down my pride and self-reliance by stripping away all of my control over my classes. I felt completely helpless and insufficient to live up to my own academic standards, not to mention those of Harvard’s achievement-oriented culture. At the time, it was so humbling and incredibly painful.
Yet, God didn’t leave me there. In that chemistry class alone, I saw God provide miraculous exam scores and open doors to necessary resources. While there were so many situations in my classes where I was completely insufficient to just get by, there were even more times when He gave me everything I needed and more. Absolutely none of my success was my own. My circumstances rendered me desperate and helpless, but God faithfully provided more than I ever imagined possible. My knowledge of His love and grace grew as He came through again and again, and many passages of scripture came to life as I began to understand transcendent joy. God had never before felt so personal, and I rejoiced at this newfound, experiential knowledge of His provision.
The passage that best encapsulates my freshman year is 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. In these verses, Paul describes his battle with a “thorn in the flesh” and recounts the Lord’s answer to his request for relief: “But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
God used my freshman year to break down my self-reliance and to deepen my knowledge of his surpassing faithfulness. Albeit painful, Harvard has taught me to delight in my insufficiency, because it is in that place of weakness that God works most powerfully. And sisters, let me tell you– even though my human heart may want to take control and rely on on my own abilities, God’s work is always better than mine.
Two weeks ago, I moved into the dorm that I’ll call home for the next three years. I’m no longer in Harvard Yard, and the peaceful courtyards of my dorm are a stark contrast to the bustle of tourists and traffic out by Johnston Gate. I’m learning to live within this new, quieter version of Harvard and have begun to navigate the subtle uncertainties and small transitions of sophomore year. While I’m no longer a freshman, there are many aspects of life at Harvard that still feel incredibly difficult, and I have no doubt that this semester will be challenging. While I’m often tempted to question whether or not I’m in the right place, I know that Harvard is a place of sanctification. The Holy Spirit will use my time here to further expose my weakness and further grow my reliance on Him. I cling to the knowledge that when I am weak, then I am truly strong because I must rely on Christ, who is far more sufficient than I. At the end of the day, this sanctification is hard– but it is the only way to joy.
For more on Ana’s experience at Harvard and the beauty of insufficiency (written during freshman year), check out her blog post for the Harvard Ichthus: