Respect our academics, but cherish our community

By Lucy Jackson

What set me apart at journalism camp this summer wasn’t my writing style, or my determination to walk 10 minutes to the nearest Starbucks every morning, or even my far too eager tendency to sit in the front row for every lecture and workshop, at least not initially. I was thrown into a four-story dorm with 87 journalism nerds from around the country whose backgrounds read a lot like mine, and yet as a Harvard-Westlake student, I stood out.

A friend I made there, arguably far more high profile than me, having appeared on multiple episodes of MTV’s reality show “The Paper,” knew the average SAT score at our school, and asked exactly how many kids we had sent to the Ivy League last year. While she may be an extreme example, she certainly wasn’t an isolated case. Other students joked about my over-achieving tendencies; aware of the breed of student Harvard-Westlake produces.

It seemed that everyone recognized the name, and, for better or for worse, found it to be synonymous with high-brow intellect. What they didn’t realize, and what many don’t seem to realize, is that despite its reputation as an academic powerhouse, the school represents a remarkable community, academics aside.

We may rank high up in the private school food chain when it comes to board scores and college admissions, but our community is something that we should be bragging about, too.

Last year, we hit a rough patch. Commonly known as the cheating scandal, it seemed to be all that anyone could talk about for the months to follow. Those outside the school’s walls and even some within them were quick to place blame on Harvard-Westlake for its lack of community.

With such a competitive atmosphere, how could students feel an attachment to their school strong enough to be discouraged from cheating?

The word community gets thrown around a lot at Harvard-Westlake, especially after events like that. The rant about the high-pressure environment is a common one among students, and maybe they’re right.

Maybe the administration does care more about their academic profile than about fostering community, and maybe students don’t feel the attachment to their school that they should. For my part though, I think they’re wrong.

I have a friend who just left for college. She misses a lot about LA, but it often comes back to Harvard-Westlake, which we commonly refer to as her boyfriend. While attending the school, she fell under the category of people who firmly believed we lacked a community. In fact, when I told her I was writing this column, she disagreed with the fundamental idea. Yet, she still misses the school, and I don’t think it’s the stress she can’t live without.

From what I’ve seen, she’s not the only one who suffers from Harvard-Westlake withdrawal. Every year before any big break, recent graduates come back to school to see old teachers and underclassmen friends. Harvard-Westlake is a place people want to come back to, a place they miss when they leave, and that can’t be attributed to anything other than the community students felt while here.

Not only do students feel an emotional attachment while attending the school, but it persists well after they’ve left Coldwater. Regardless of the way we tend to bash the competitive environment, we all still feel linked to Harvard-Westlake, and that’s a more profound example of community than most.

We’ve let others dictate to us whether or not we have a community; that because we have high powered, ambitious students, we all must despise each other. There must be so much negative feeling that we all decide to cheat on tests or violate the honor code in a number of different ways. One can’t deny that Harvard-Westlake’s students feel pressure; it’s a given in the academic environment that the school provides, but I don’t think high academic expectations and school community are mutually exclusive.

It’s no secret that we have our faults. Last year was a better example of that than most – the evidence is splashed on front page of The Chronicle’s February issue. But I think it’s time to move on.

It’s easy to dwell on the past, to attribute the scandal or any other of the negative events to the school itself. But how does that help? We need to focus on building up our community, rather than doubting its existence. I’d argue we have a pretty good head start.