My Challenges and Triumphs on the Road to a Harvard Degree
Student Success Story
Master of Liberal Arts, Journalism Degree '16
As a student balancing family, career, and courses at Harvard, Kristen Strezo remained persistent in pursuit of a degree. We found her story, which she captured in a speech at Harvard Commencement, so inspiring that we have adapted it to share here.
In August of 2012, my husband and I packed our family into our lime green Honda Element. There were four of us: my husband and I, our three-year-old daughter, and my 85-year-old grandmother—whom I cared for. We were moving from Atlanta to Boston, where we wouldn’t know a single person.
We would be starting over entirely in Massachusetts. I would begin my studies in journalism. My husband would start a new job. My daughter would start a new preschool. My grandmother would start over with new doctors and specialists and podiatrists.
I challenged myself in ways I never would have thought possible. My family believed in me enough to uproot their entire lives, so I owed it to them to work my hardest …”
It was a decision that took me years of careful planning. My family was gambling on my brain that everything would work out. We were kind of like educational homesteaders.
Later that night, I saw what I believed to be a nod from the Universe when a shooting star stretched across the inky sky somewhere over a South Carolina interstate. It was confirmation, I thought, that we were on the path to a better future. And though I couldn’t imagine what that would look like, I kept driving.
Once I started classes as a degree-seeking candidate, I challenged myself in ways I never would have thought possible. My family believed in me enough to uproot their entire lives, so I owed it to them to work my hardest and seize every opportunity I could.
I took three classes my first semester. I chased endlessly after interviews and meticulously sought after the perfect, concise edit. I learned that I was not afraid to interview politicians or executive directors. But I sweated over obtaining a quote from a pedestrian on the street.
On my journey, I’ve had to accept that pursuing my degree would not always fit into the timeline I had envisioned.”
Three months after I arrived on campus, I found out I was pregnant. I felt alone and overwhelmed because I was far away from my extended family. Shortly after, I accepted an internship offer at Harvard Magazine. I kept on writing. And when it felt like it was all too much, I cried in the bathroom at South Station while I waited for the commuter train to arrive.
I gave birth to my son that August. My family and I rejoiced and savored the moment for as long as we could. A week later, I rolled up my sleeves and began another semester.
From there, I plowed on through my course work until I arrived at my capstone. Then I strolled on up to Widener Library, checked out enough books to fill a suitcase, and read and researched and wrote some more.
Graduation. It’s one of those things you want so badly that you find a way to make it happen, despite whatever it is you have going on in your life. So, I completed my coursework.
We are not accepting our diplomas, and then beginning our lives. Many of us came to Harvard to enhance our already developed lives. We recognize that our education is vital to getting where we wish to go.”
They call us Extension school degree-seeking candidates “nontraditional students.” I wouldn’t describe us as “nontraditional” as much as realistic and worldly. We carry with us our backgrounds, our vast work experience, and we apply that to our studies.
Many of us have been in the workforce for decades. Some of us know the thrill of building a small business from the ground up. Some of us head international think tanks while submitting assignments.
We are not accepting our diplomas, and then beginning our lives. Many of us came to Harvard to enhance our already developed lives. We recognize that our education is vital to getting where we wish to go.
I did what was necessary to succeed in the programs here. I took time off work to make sure that final paper sounded “just right.” I snuck out of the office a few minutes early just so I could cram my car into rush hour traffic to make it to class on time. I bargained—pleaded—for help with childcare.
I renewed my Commencement visions by telling that naysayer in my brain to just “shut up” when times were hard, and by praying to the heavens that it would all work out.
That’s the “nontraditional student.” Passionate. Inspiringly determined. I had been ready for this challenge since Day One.
When I look back on my experience now, I still cannot believe that I completed my degree. And despite the shock of my bulging workload and home life, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about my Harvard experience. In fact, I now cherish it.
On my journey, I’ve had to accept that pursuing my degree would not always fit into the timeline I had envisioned. And, as a writer, I’ve learned when to defend my work and when to check my ego at the door. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s okay to ask for help because, despite it all, there was nothing that was going to block me from achieving my Harvard diploma.
I wanted it badly enough––panic attacks be damned. And today, I can wear the tenacity of my Extension School experience like a badge of courage.
Going forward, I ask myself to remember to do two things: to acknowledge the struggle it took for me to get here, even if it’s just a simple “way to go” pat on the back. And to promise myself that I will weigh my Harvard experience against all future struggles I may encounter to remind me that, “Yes, I really can do it.” Because I did.
Kristen Strezo is a writer and journalist who has written for Harvard Magazine, the Penn Stater, and the Harvard Summer Review, among other publications. She received a bachelor of arts degree from DePaul University in communication and women's studies. While at Harvard, she wrote about eldercare, caregiving, and the effect of each on women in America. She completed an internship at Harvard Magazine and received a Master of Liberal Arts in journalism from Harvard Extension School.