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Dispersed by Coronavirus, Harvard Students Innovate Ways to Connect

Students have found new ways to maintain friendships and relationships as they scattered across the globe due to the coronavirus.
Students have found new ways to maintain friendships and relationships as they scattered across the globe due to the coronavirus. By Margot E. Shang
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

When Harvard mandated that students vacate campus two weeks ago to prevent the spread of coronavirus, undergraduates were forced to bid hasty, uncertain, and often tearful goodbyes to their friends, fellow club members, and significant others.

In order to sustain the relationships forged on campus, many students recently scattered across the country — and the world — say they are leveraging their newfound overabundance of time to improvise ways to stay close.

Charlotte Ruhl ’22 said that she has availed herself of Houseparty, a social networking app that alerts you when your friends are online and allows groups to spontaneously form over video chat.

“You just open the app and other people get a notification that you're in the house, and then it can prompt them to open the app,” Ruhl said. “I like it because you don’t have to organize or pre-plan when you’re gonna do it.”

“It's also really nice because I have different friend groups, but they're all on Houseparty. So I can just keep in touch with everyone,” she added.

Jeffrey R. “Jeff” Prince ’22 also said he has convened with groups of friends through “Playstation parties.”

“I've always been a big advocate for video games as a form of art and a form of storytelling, but they also provide nice portals into worlds that are not dealing with pandemics,” he said. “It's a great way to join up with a couple friends from around the world.”

Student organizations have also been innovating means of helping members keep in touch. Cathy Sun ’22, chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, said she hosted a four-hour-long social where eight members used the “Netflix Party” Google Chrome browser extension to simultaneously watch the political drama “The West Wing” while sending instant messages via Zoom.

“We ended up just chatting over Zoom for around four hours and we messed around with the virtual background, putting all sorts of images of viruses on each other's faces,” Sun said.

Sun said the group has faced some issues with lagtimes on Zoom due to members’ varying internet speeds. She also noted that socializing through a screen lacks the intimacy of on campus interactions.

“But honestly, when we have these really fun conversations that last for hours, you can forget that,” she said. “And you’re just reminded about how lucky and grateful you are to have a community like HPOP to lean on.”

Sun said HPOP plans to host a Zoom face mask night where members can casually converse while exfoliating, virtual wine nights, and online games of Cards Against Humanity.

Alexander S. “Sandy” Koenig ’21 said the Harvard Political Union debate society is mailing snacks to members for consumption during their weekly meeting, which will now take place over Zoom.

“We're trying to be hygienic, so we sent out little snack-size Hershey's bars, snack-sized M&M’s, snack-sized Reese's, snack-sized Kit Kats. The ones that fit into little envelopes,” Koenig said.

“Along with my executive team, we were discussing different ways that we could foster that sense of community and stay a little bit fun and keep that sort of mischievous vibe,” he said. “This is a tough time, but nothing will stop the HPU.”

Campus cultural organizations have also been discussing how to connect their community members through online events.

The South Asian Association began a “virtual dates” program where members are matched and assigned to get a meal over FaceTime once or twice a week.

“This gives people the chance to really socialize with people that they know but also get chances to meet new people within the organization, which is like an important component of our community back on campus,” SAA member Nikhil Dharmaraj ’23 said.

Dharamaj also launched an initiative called “Corona Care Cards” where members mail handwritten notes and care packages to a partner.

Sun said she thinks strengthening social ties is more important now than ever as students confront coronavirus anxiety away from their campus support systems.

“We definitely want to keep the social community alive even while we're not together and scattered all around the world, especially because this is a very tumultuous time for a lot of people and everyone could use some emotional support,” she added.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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