Around The Yard: Thomas Aiken

Returning to for a third season, "Around The Yard: Life As A Harvard Student-Athlete" explores life away from the playing fields for select Harvard student-athletes through their own first-person narrativeFor a full list of blog entries, click here.

For more student blogs from Harvard Admissions, click here.

Thomas Aiken
September 20, 2016

The typical summer training regiment for a Harvard Hockey player consists of lifting, running, skating, and, maybe most important of all, reading. Allow me to explain.

For the past two summers, the coaching staff has assigned the team summer reading books that follow successful organizations in both sports and business, identifying the habits and practices that lead to high-performance in competition. As a team, we have used the themes of these books to help mold the winning culture we work to build at the rink every day.

Last summer we read Legacy by James Kerr, an in-depth look at the New Zealand All Blacks rugby program, widely regarded as the most dominant team in sporting history. The book offered several themes that really resonated with the guys.

First was the idea to “sweep the sheds.” After huge international victories in front of sold-out crowds, two of the most senior players and leaders on the All Blacks can be found with brooms sweeping the sheds at the team facility. Not signing autographs. Not giving interviews. Sweeping the sheds. To our team, “sweep the sheds” has become a phrase commonly uttered in the locker room, on the ice, or in the weight room. It is a mantra that represents discipline, humility, accountability, and never being too big to do the little things.

Second was the idea that “Better people make better All Blacks.” While every team they face features talented rugby players, the All Blacks found that working as individuals to become better human beings away from the field would strengthen their team culture and translate to higher performance on the field. Bringing this idea to our team, we like to say, “Better people make better Harvard Hockey players.” This serves as a daily challenge to us all as individuals to hold ourselves and our teammates accountable away from the rink, meeting the same standard of excellence in the classroom and campus community that we expect on the ice or in the weight room. Whether it be getting involved with student organizations on campus, volunteering our very limited spare time towards community service work, or going above and beyond in the classroom, our team continues to work hard to become better individuals off the ice and, therefore, better Harvard Hockey players on the ice. 

This message from Legacy encouraged me to get more involved on campus beyond the hockey team. Harvard is a pretty special place to call home for four years. The college brings together the most diverse, gifted, and passionate students hailing from a wide spectrum of nations, backgrounds, and perspectives to form our campus community. Within that campus community there are over 400 student organizations to explore ranging from the performing arts to community service to religious faith and beyond. Too often it feels so easy and safe to stay within the comfort of our athletic bubble. It is natural. The guys on the hockey team mean the world to me. We live together, eat together, study together, and play together. They are my best friends. But as a team we are just one small piece to the bigger puzzle that is Harvard. To not immerse myself as much as possible into that incredibly unique community of students would be, in my mind, a missed opportunity.

So it was my mission to venture beyond the athletic community and get more involved. Sophomore year I applied and was accepted into the Peer Advising Fellows program here on campus, serving as a “PAF” to incoming students. Now a junior, I am extremely proud to be returning to the program for my second year.

As a PAF, I am paired with 10 incoming freshmen every fall, serving as a peer mentor to these first-year students as they navigate academic, extracurricular, and social life here at Harvard. PAFs play a key role in welcoming the new students to campus and facilitating many of the orientation events of Opening Days. The past two years this has meant sacrificing my last 10 days of summer at home to be on campus, participate in PAF training, and welcome the freshmen students on move-in day. Following Opening Days, I meet regularly with my advisees over the course of the year to catch up, talk about classes and extracurricular groups, and chat about anything else that may be on their mind as they transition to college life. In addition to investing in these individual relationships, I work on a team with other PAFs to help build a greater sense of community within the freshmen dorms. We host weekly study breaks in Hurlbut, the freshmen dorm my advisees call home, where we bring food, music, and games to the dorm, giving students a nice chance to get together and relax for a few hours each week.

The PAF community is an incredibly diverse group of students. Collectively, we represent almost every path of study and extracurricular group on campus. Most importantly, we all share a passion to connect with new students, build genuine relationships, and help students make the most of their own Harvard experience. I am often asked why, of the hundreds of student groups on campus, I choose this one year after year, and the answer is simple: I really believe we make a difference. Whether it is getting to know these unique students better, building freshmen community in the dorms, helping students through problems they face, or sharing in their many successes, it is so rewarding to be a part of that journey for first-year students. As a freshman, it meant a lot to know there was a PAF out there looking out for me. Today, I am proud to pay that service forward as a member of the Peer Advising Fellows program.  

This summer we read Good to Great by Jim Collins, a book following 1,453 good companies over 40 years and seeking to understand what separated the 11 companies that became great. While applied within the context of the business world, a familiar message is conveyed. High-performance organizations outperform the competition because of stronger culture, and stronger culture is fostered from the individuals that reinforce it. My favorite analogy by the author was the idea of a bus trip. If a team is on a bus with the leadership at the wheel, the first question of the bus driver should be who, not where. Too often organizations focus first on where the bus is headed, the destination or goal, without checking who is on the bus to help get them there.

As the hockey season approaches, I am confident that we have the right guys on the Harvard Hockey bus. Not just the right hockey players, but also the right human beings. While united by an unrelenting love for the game of hockey, we are a more diverse bunch than you see at first glance. As I look around our locker room, I see artists, engineers, neurobiologists, and musicians. I see community servers and volunteers. I see guys daring to venture beyond the sphere of varsity athletics on campus. I see guys immersed in the greater Harvard community and all it has to offer. I see guys I am proud to call teammates and brothers.