The Dumbest One in the Room

           I sat in the library and was trying to muster some level of energy to begin reading the hundred or so pages that were due for my class in a few hours. After a month of college classes, I was finally starting to figure out a nice schedule and getting used to the homework load. I was knocking off the rust in my math and writing courses and finally building up the knowledge that I had lost after being away from school for seven years while serving in the Marine Corps.

           As I sat there avoiding my homework, two students sat at the table across from me and they appeared to be having an interview. I quickly learned that the older of the two was asking the freshman about his experience and learning about what skills he had to offer for the position. The conversation that followed left me both in awe and feeling entirely unprepared once again to hold my own among college students.

           The young freshman shared his fluency in numerous coding languages and about the half-a-dozen organizations he participated in at Harvard though he had only been a student for a few weeks. Meanwhile, I sat a short-way off still avoiding my homework as I was blown away by the credentials of a student who was probably seven years younger than me and a fellow freshman.

           The experience that I had in the library was not unique but had happened many times throughout my first year at Harvard. Even before coming to campus I was worried about how I would be able to go to class with some of the brightest minds in the world. Not only had I been out of school for so long but I had forgotten most of the information I learned in high school. How was I going to be able to speak up in class or debate with other students when I was so far behind?

            As I have met many student veterans, I have realized that I am not alone in feeling like a fraud who is waiting to be exposed in class or while speaking with other students. I had been out of the classroom for almost 7 years and everything I had learned in high school seemed like a lifetime ago. During my time in the military I had traded my understanding of algebra and chemistry for uniform regulations and operational procedures. I had always wanted to get back into school but even as I started the college admissions process I quickly realized just how much I had forgotten. I would stare at a blank word document trying to summon some level of creativity to write an application essay that was free of military jargon and the choppy writing style that was commonplace in the small amount of paperwork I had to complete for the Marines.

            But just like that moment in the library, as I overheard that interview, something clicked. I am the dumbest one in the room. That is not self-defamation or belittling for me to say that. In fact, I want to embrace how much I do not know. I was constantly reminded in the Marines that I did not have all the answers but that I had to either search for the information that I needed or ask the people around me for help. That is a skill that many seventeen- and eighteen-year olds lack and that veterans have learned from a career filled with many ups and downs. I cannot know everything, and I cannot expect to get better if I do not first realize that I have shortcomings that I need to work on. Student veterans have experienced trials and challenges that have forced them to lean on the people around them for support. There is real power in realizing that you cannot face every challenge on your own. As I transitioned to Harvard, I wanted to make sure that I continued to be honest in those areas in which I needed to work and ask the people around me for help.

           But truthfully, I was not the dumbest person in the room at all. Every student has that same feeling when they join in their first debate or a discussion for which they feel unprepared. That is why it is such an incredible experience to return to the classroom after all the challenges that I have faced. I now realize that I cannot expect to improve if I don’t admit that I do not have all the answers. The challenges and hurdles that I faced in the Marine Corps have helped me grow and mature in so many ways and allowed me to return to college with a new perspective.