Seeking Purpose Amid Pandemic, Harvard Undergrads Reimagine Summer Plans

After evacuating the College in mid-March, undergraduates are adapting to cancelled internships and remote programming and even taking relief efforts into their own hands.
By Helen He and Alex M. Koller

During the pandemic, undergraduates are adapting to canceled internships and remote programming.
During the pandemic, undergraduates are adapting to canceled internships and remote programming. By Carolyn A. Wang

After turning in a final paper on Edo period paintings for his art history class, Andrew “Drew” H. Mammel ’21 started researching how to build a “tiny house.”

Upon learning his internship in Washington, D.C., was canceled in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Mammel decided to devote his summer to building a 20-foot by 8-foot house on a utility trailer, inspired by a love for watching tiny house construction videos on YouTube.

“Since I’m back at home, I kind of just wanted to have something to do so that I’m not just constantly watching TV or on Facebook or reading all summer,” Mammel said. “It’s very difficult to see accomplishment virtually for me, and so I really wanted to have something that I can physically look at.”

Mammel said he plans to build the diminutive dwelling on his family’s farm in Wyoming, funding the project with room and board fees refunded from the second half of the term. He hopes to eventually use the carpentry skills he learns to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds affordable housing around the world for families in need.

Mammel is among hundreds of Harvard students dreaming up alternative plans for a summer defined by COVID-19. After evacuating the College in mid-March, undergraduates are adapting to canceled internships and remote programming — and even taking relief efforts into their own hands.

From DIY Homes to Bedroom Investing

Mammel said his new plans are eliciting a range of reactions — but an altogether positive response — from friends and family.

“All my college friends have been kind of excited by it," Mammel said. "They’ve been kind of prompting me and they’ve been enthused by it; they all seem to think it’s a fun idea."

His family was a bit more surprised. They expected him to pursue a more “formal” opportunity, like another internship, Mammel said.

“I don’t know, I think they think I’m going off the walls a bit,” he said. “But I think they’re generally supportive.”

Like Mammel, a number of Harvard undergraduates are also pursuing opportunities from home.

McKenna C. Reale ’23 wanted to make the most of a final summer in her hometown while also earning some money. She decided to apply for jobs at nearby businesses like Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, and Chipotle. Some of the postings for temporary workers were specially adapted to the pandemic.

“I noticed Starbucks and Chipotle — I think they’re doing takeout,” Reale said. “So if I worked there I would just be probably doing food prep, or just making drinks.”

Aidan R. Gibbons ’21 had his summer internship with Putnam Investments in Boston moved online. But unlike friends whose finance internships were cut short or completely canceled, his 10-week program remains intact.

“I have full faith that they’re going to do a great job and that it’ll still be a great experience,” Gibbons said. “I’m thankful that they didn’t just cancel it through and through.”

Karly Hou ’23 had a position lined up in Houston with Two Sigma, a quantitative hedge fund, that is also shifting online. Hou said the company will be shipping some equipment to her house to support the remote experience.

“Obviously it won’t be as good, but I’m super grateful that they’re still trying to keep it going,” Hou said.

‘Rolling with the Punches’

As students adjust their personal plans for the next few months, extracurricular groups are reimagining how they engage with the student body and the world beyond Harvard.

Members of the Harvard International Relations Council were looking forward to spending part of the summer in the United Arab Emirates. They’ve since planned a virtual shift for an inaugural Harvard Model United Nations conference in the Middle East, originally scheduled to take place in Dubai this June.

The decision was difficult, according to Secretary-General of HMUN Dubai Nadine S. Bahour ’22. Bahour said the team had initially considered canceling the conference entirely, hoping to launch the first iteration in person. But given participant enthusiasm and already completed planning, they ultimately decided to go through with the conference — drawing high schoolers from around the world — but in a different form.

“We thought that a lot of people were excited for it and a lot of students had signed up, and we shouldn’t just take away the chance for them to participate just because they can’t do it in person,” Bahour said.

In its new online model, the group has spread the conference out from three days to five, intending to break up screen time for those involved through shorter sessions. Participant committees — which usually involve up to 200 students each — have shrunk to groups of 50 to facilitate interaction.

Despite logistical challenges like working across time zones, Bahour said the group is “rolling with the punches.” And moving to an online format comes with some benefits, she added. For example, it makes the conference accessible to more participants.

“It’s been beneficial for some students who maybe could not afford to travel to Dubai, or the timing just didn’t work for them to go all the way to the conference and spend that much time,” Bahour said. “We have a different target audience now, and it’s really heartwarming to see that people who really wanted to do it can now do it.”

Other organizations are creating opportunities to assist students looking to fill the summer with enterprising pursuits.

The Harvard Computer Society recently launched a two-part initiative to support students interested in exploring technology and entrepreneurship over the summer called the Summer Projects Initiative and the Builders Incubation Program.

The Summer Projects Initiative is an open-source spreadsheet that lists “project pitches” — ideas students propose to pursue during the summer — and “people pitches” — contact information for students who are looking for a project to join. Creator Anna Wang ’22 said the project encourages students to think innovatively, build their tech portfolios, and come together to bring these ideas to fruition.

One Summer Projects Initiative pitch is Congregate, a platform for virtual gatherings co-founded by roommates Bryan Y. Lee ’21 and Jacob V. Ajit ’21. According to Lee, Congregate allows users to engage in more unstructured, personable group conversations than possible on existing video conferencing alternatives.

“The VC club that I’m a part of, we host a bunch of events — particularly networking events — that are really unstructured that are super valuable to just build relationships, and we realized that those just aren’t replicable on things like Zoom because Zoom is too static,” Lee said. “It’s really only made for one large presenter, one main event; it doesn’t let you jump between conversations very easily.”

Instead, each event hosted on Congregate is broken into multiple topic-oriented conversation rooms which users can easily preview using a “lobby” screen, enter, and exit. Since its inception, the service has hosted events ranging from office hours to socials for members of Harvard’s incoming class of 2024.

“I think it’s a super unique opportunity just to be able to help a bunch of people gather,” Lee said.

The Builders Incubation Program, meanwhile, will provide support by way of funding, workshops, mentorship, and other resources for entrepreneurial projects, including those born out of the Summer Projects Initiative spreadsheet. Founder Ryan K. Kim ’21 said the initiative is geared toward peers “who just purely want to create something.”

“I think a lot of students have hit some barriers or hesitation when it comes to ‘what money do I actually use to create whatever projects I want to do,’ and so eliminating that and enabling people just to use all their creative juices, that’s kind of what we’re going for,” Kim said.

Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

In the face of an unprecedented public health crisis, other students have become motivated to spend their summers directly addressing both the spread of COVID-19 and the socioeconomic concerns the disease exacerbates.

Carter J. Wilcox ’20, for example, has been working with COVID Safe Paths, a free, open-source contact-tracing tool developed out of the MIT Media Lab. Wilcox joined the initiative’s implementation team in March and plans to continue this work into the summer.

COVID Safe Paths is an app accompanied by a platform for public health officials that privately and securely logs users’ whereabouts. This way, if a user tests positive for COVID-19, his or her location data from previous weeks can be used to identify and notify others who may have been exposed to the virus.

“You and I at home, without giving anyone our data and without having to be tested for COVID-19, can get an alert if our paths have crossed with someone that's been uploaded onto that dataset,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox said that COVID Safe Paths prioritizes protecting users’ privacy by redacting sensitive locations — like homes and workplaces — before uploading any data onto the public server.

“It really is awesome to be working with a team that has created a piece of technology that not only solves the problem, but also does it in a really ethical way and really makes sure to put privacy at the center of its tech — ‘privacy-by-design,’ is what we call it,” Wilcox said.

As of early May, the COVID Safe Paths team includes over 1,300 volunteers, 40 of whom are Harvard undergraduates. Wilcox said the initiative continues to welcome additional support.

Other students have directed their support efforts toward widespread shortages of personal protective equipment facing frontline medical workers.

When Aishah I. Ahmed ’20 learned her Teach for America summer training session was moving to a virtual format, she started looking for ways to help her home city of Detroit, which she says has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Ahmed — who just completed a degree in Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology — said she realized her lab goggles from years of science courses could be reused by healthcare workers. That’s when she and her sister, Columbia University junior Sophia Ahmed, founded EyeAid Detroit.

Since launching last month, EyeAid Detroit has conducted outreach through channels like Instagram, Facebook, and GroupMe to amass hundreds of donations from individuals – and even entire school science departments – around the country.

“I think using a social media model and spreading awareness via social media and the internet is something that a lot of public service organizations should be thinking about in the future,” Ahmed said. “The new future that we’re entering might consist of less person-to-person interaction and might be less personable than what we were previously accustomed to.”

Other students, concerned that social issues will fall by the wayside during a public health crisis, are mobilizing to address the emotional and economic well-being of those around them, noting that the impact of the pandemic extends beyond the illness itself.

While social distancing and stay-at-home orders help flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections, studies have shown that social isolation can put people at risk for both physical and mental health issues, such as heart disease and depression.

For Allegra Rollo ’21, whose entire extended family lives in Italy, this problem is personal: Her grandmother has been alone for months.

Rollo and Campbell Erickson ’21, who said he also has grandparents in isolation, co-direct a COVID-19 Task Force of the Concordium, a Harvard-based organization that matches youth volunteers with seniors for conversations via video conferencing.

The organization matches each volunteer with a senior based on shared background and interests. So far, it has developed partnerships with senior centers and nursing homes in the Greater Boston area and recruited student volunteers from Harvard; it aspires for a nationwide reach by the end of the summer.

“It’s been absolutely integral to my happiness, my motivation, my feeling of agency during this time,” Rollo said. “It’s been really, really amazing to have something through which I can channel positive and productive energy.”

As Americans prepare for the possibility that the novel coronavirus may bring the worst economic downturn in nearly a century, other students are accepting chances to help alleviate socioeconomic challenges affecting their hometowns.

Reshini Premaratne ’21 planned to intern at a management consulting firm this summer, until her program went remote. Her firm gave interns the option to forego the virtual internship and volunteer with a charitable organization, all while still receiving their company salary.

With her extra time, Premaratne and her sister began work on a service project in their hometown of Richmond, which has the second-highest eviction rate among large cities in the United States. Dubbed the Richmond Block, the initiative plans to sponsor rent for those who have lost income and are at risk for eviction and homelessness.

“Five out of the top ten localities with the highest rankings for eviction rates are in Virginia, and it’s not a coincidence,” Premaratne, a Crimson editorial contributor, said. “It’s because Virginia, and Richmond especially, really favors landlords in terms of the legal rights in eviction proceedings.”

“I think the pandemic uncovers an issue that’s here all the time,” she added.

Premaratne said she thinks people in Richmond will want to help their neighbors because of a strong sense of city pride. To that end, she is recruiting donations from the area’s corporations, charitable foundations, and faith communities.

As K-12 students finish spring courses from their bedrooms and kitchens, other undergraduates hope to help create new opportunities for continuing learning amid the pandemic.

Inspired by the lack of remote educational support for students in her hometown and parents’ struggles balancing work and childcare, Hou decided to found the Wave Learning Festival.

Using Wave, college students and high school upperclassmen will teach free online seminars for middle and high school students, covering topics from “Philosophy and Morality of Emotions” to “How Cancer Works.” These classes will take place in “waves” every few weeks throughout the summer, with the first scheduled to launch on May 25.

With her internship with Two Sigma moved online, Hou hopes to divide her time between the two commitments this summer.

“A lot of my friends have mentioned that they really want to find some way to be able to help out during the pandemic, without having to leave their houses and jeopardize the health of their families,” Hou said. “So I thought that this would be a really easy way for people to be able to give back.”

While a number of online educational resources do currently exist, Hou said Wave aims to recreate some of the more interactive aspects of in-person classrooms that existing alternatives can’t capture.

“There are a lot of resources like YouTube and Khan Academy already out there, but with those things, you can’t have discussions on a philosophical text or hear opinions and critiques from your classmates, so that’s something that we’re hoping to simulate again,” Hou said.

According to Hou, the initiative is eliciting significant enthusiasm, with more than 50 students applying to be volunteer teachers within the first two days of Wave’s launch in early May.

“It’s super exciting to see how excited other people are to share their passions,” Hou added.

—Staff writer Helen He can be reached at helen.he@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenmhe_.

—Staff writer Alex M. Koller can be reached at alex.koller@thecrimson.com.

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