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‘A Ghost Town’: Harvard's Resident Tutors Cope with Changing Roles, Empty Houses

Since students' departure, House resident tutors have balanced their responsibilities for their students, Houses, and jobs — all the while taking care of themselves in the middle of an unprecedented time in the history of Harvard's campus.
Since students' departure, House resident tutors have balanced their responsibilities for their students, Houses, and jobs — all the while taking care of themselves in the middle of an unprecedented time in the history of Harvard's campus. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Declan J. Knieriem, Crimson Staff Writer

For Lowell House tutor Evander L. Price, having students to support is what keeps him going during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I, as a tutor, have built a lot of my identity around the fact that I've got these 400 some undergraduate students who look up to me for no particularly good reason except for the fact that I have the word tutor next to my name,” Price said. “That's an awesome, awesome superpower. It gets me out of bed.”

Price is among the ranks of resident tutors who remain in Harvard’s undergraduate houses after most students vacated campus in March due to the growing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Joined by the several hundred students still residing in the Houses, they have carried on their duties as tutors while their students have scattered across the country and the globe.

Since students’ departure, House resident tutors have balanced their responsibilities for their students, Houses, and jobs — all the while taking care of themselves in the middle of an unprecedented time in the history of Harvard’s campus.

‘Struggling with the Isolation’

In March, the Dean of Students Office began enforcing strict social distancing guidelines in residential spaces, including restricting gatherings of more than two, assigning individual living spaces and bathrooms, and reducing dining service. Tutors living under these guidelines are experiencing House life differently from any other time they’ve known.

Lowell tutor Hannah R. Shaffer described the House as a “ghost town” and said she rarely interacts with other tutors in person.

“Typically I would hang out with other tutors, just because we're all friends,” she said. “So, like everyone else, I've been struggling with the isolation that comes from quarantine.”

Though typical tutor responsibilities such as connecting regularly with her entryway have become more difficult, Shaffer said other duties remain relatively normal, such as her role as a Lowell fellowships chair.

“Around this time, we would always need to write letters for students who are being nominated for House prizes,” she said. “That obviously didn't change at all, I spent many hours writing recommendation letters.”

Khin-Kyemon Aung ’14, a tutor in Dunster House, said that much of the difficulty in performing tutor duties remotely is due to lack of personal interactions with students.

“So much of what a resident tutor does is not only the advising sessions that are formally scheduled, but it's really about those interactions in the dining hall where you catch up with someone and get a pulse on how things are going,” she said. “It's really where you become a family.”

‘Focused’

In addition to shouldering responsibilities to students, tutors continued to perform jobs outside of the Houses. Ranging from research to residencies to teaching, resident tutors have also made the often bumpy transition to working from home.

After finishing her Business School classes this spring, Aung will begin a year of residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She said preparing — both physically and mentally — for the assignment has taken up much of her time in the last month.

“It's very much in the front of my mind of: How do I prepare to become a good doctor to prepare for my intern year?” she said. “Can I brush up on my skills and be ready to go on day one of intern year? And so that's what I've been thinking about a lot in the past couple of weeks.”

Lowell tutor Kelly A. Miller said that teaching has kept her focused and grounded. Miller teaches ENG-SCI 96: “Engineering Problem Solving and Design Project,” and said she checks in on her students’ progress multiple times a week.

“Having the classes and the teaching to focus on has been really helpful, it's provided like some structure to my day,” she said. “I'm a little bit nervous about what it's going to look like after this is over. Just going back to regular research and stuff is going to be tough.”

Shaffer said working on her research — which concerns the criminal justice system — “saved” her. Shaffer also said she spent roughly 10 hours every day on Zoom working with a colleague for the past month.

“I've mostly been working, which has been nice to have something,” she said. “I’d say motivation is very high on that front, which I'm very lucky for.”

‘Temporarily Erased’

Outside of House responsibilities and job demands, tutors say they are struggling to cope with empty Houses and a lack of daily interaction with their students.

Price said that he built his “identity” around his role as a tutor. Without students in the House, however, he feels that identity has been damaged.

“All of the things I normally do for fun that I have incorporated into things that are too for students are just gone,” he said. “So, for me as a tutor, I feel like a tremendous structure of things that I've built my identity into has been temporarily erased.”

Price also said he has struggled a “tremendous amount” to maintain a daily routine.

“I think I'm disappointed in myself with what I've come up with to do in that time and also I'm not sure what precisely I am supposed to do,” he said. “I think unmotivated is the word, I think we're all a little depressed. I think it would be unhealthy if you weren't.”

Aung said the lack of students left her feeling like there was a “hole” in the House.

“When I come back to my room, you look at empty halls with some of the name tags still left on the doors and you can't help but wonder how those students are doing,” she said.

“You might send them a text message just checking in on them, but not to be able to just say, 'Hey, what's going on?' and know that you have students living next to you who could come by and say hi at any time. It's something that I definitely miss,” she added.

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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