I come from a Harvard familyno, there's no O'Brien Library, but every kid in my family (there are six of us) got a degree from Harvard College or Harvard Law School or Harvard Medical School. As first-generation Americans, we were firmly middle class: good students who aced our SATs and took out loans to pay for the privilege of a first-rate education. But when I was a freshman, my sister, who was in her junior year, told me she was being encouraged to drop her major, physics. The pressure was subtle, the message was clear: minority females were a rarity in the physics department, so she probably wouldn't succeed and might as well quit now. My sister stayed, went on to get her master's in physics, then her M.D./Ph.D. after that. Her experience has always made me wonder what happens to the students who aren't as stubborn. It's why I cheered Drew Gilpin Faust's appointment as Harvard's 28th presidentthe first woman to hold the job in the university's 371-year history. Faust, 59, has a lot on her plateplacating an often unwieldy and ego-driven faculty, making a Harvard education relevant in today's world, underwriting lower- and middle-class students who can't afford to paybut already, by her sheer presence, she sends a message to every 19- or 20-year-old who dreams of going up against the odds: you can do it too.
O'Brien is special correspondent for CNN: Special Investigations Unit
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