Harvard freshmen share the Yard with socially-distant tourists.
Harvard freshmen share the Yard with socially-distant tourists. By Zadoc I. N. Gee

A First for First-Years

Harvard freshmen — the only full cohort living on campus — have no choice but to try and get close to each other from six feet away.
By Marka F. X. Ellertson and Nicole B. Farina

These days, mornings at Harvard start the same way they have for decades: Some students set off on a daily riverside jog, others head to the dining hall to grab breakfast, and still others sleep in until just a few minutes before lecture begins. But unlike years before, every student now shares the same, abbreviated commute to class: a few quick steps from their twin XL bed to their dorm room desk. Harvard freshmen — the only full cohort living on campus — have no choice but to try and get close to each other from six feet away.

With classes online and on-campus gatherings strictly limited, this is a tall order. Ashley Herrera ’24 says she messages peers she gets along with in Zoom breakout rooms to get their numbers and hang out together outside of class. “So that’s one way I’ve been [meeting people], and I know a lot of people have been doing that too,” she says with a laugh. “You have to get over that initial step of it kind of being awkward.”

Online classes have lent themselves to debacles that would have been impossible under normal circumstances. Harry H. Shams ’24 recalls that during one of his classes, his philosophy teaching fellow taught the entire section with his screen upside down. Shams quickly switched to gallery mode, where he found a kindred spirit cracking up as well. He automatically deemed him a potential friend.

For almost all students on campus, meals are an al fresco affair. Limited by the official maximum of three dining partners, students must navigate strict regulations while being careful not to shatter their early and fragile friendships. Grab-and-go food from HUDS comes cold, and the microwaves provided to all dorm rooms are the only way to warm it. But once you’ve swung by the dining hall, who wants to leave their friends to heat up lunch? “We are eating cold chicken and stuff,” Madeline C. Kitch ’24 says.

Friends are met and made in the Yard or house courtyards, come rain or shine. “Today it was raining,” Melissa Meng ’24 says. “But a lot of my friends are like, ‘I’m going to go outside anyways.’” Because students can’t invite anyone into their suites, time outdoors is the only University-sanctioned way to socialize in person.

Students living in the houses traditionally reserved for upperclassmen say their closest friends have come from the shared courtyard spaces. “There’s always somebody to talk to,” says Hererra, who lives in Dunster House. Living in this community made up entirely of freshmanstudents was a sort of “gift,” says Neil F. Katzman ’24, who lives in Mather. “I haven't had any trouble meeting people because almost everyone is a freshman trying to meet people.”

Of course, such plenty is relative. Freshmen prefaced each story with the maximum group size allowed at the time: “this was when we could only be in twos,” or “once we were allowed up to ten.” The number of times a student has tested negative for COVID-19 shapes the geography of their life on campus. Katzman says it has been exciting to interact with people outside of Mather, which he says he was only able to do after his third negative result.

A socially distanced campus life doesn’t necessarily coincide with a surplus of free time to dedicate to academics. Libby Wu ’24 explains how, after making sure her mental and physical health are cared for, she feels as if she is left with little time to commit to her assignments. “I usually have to prioritize a social life over always having to catch up on homework, because it’s already so hard to meet people here,” she says.

Groups on campus were limited to ten students, all of whom must be masked and distanced outdoors. Students told Fifteen Minutes their class has thus far been very compliant, especially with mask regulations. But some, frustrated by on-campus limitations, have ventured off of Harvard grounds, to local cafes or public libraries, where they can gather in groups as large as they see fit.

Christy J. Jestin ’24 recounted a game of ultimate frisbee on the Quad lawn, shut down by a proctor who feared transmission between the ten masked students through touching the same frisbee. Jestin’s game ended, but he pointed out that if they had wanted to, it could easily have migrated to one of Cambridge’s nearby public parks.

Quincy House, where Jestin lives, had previously set up outdoor tables, but after some students were seen eating in groups of five or six — exceeding the ruled maximum of four — the tables were stacked away and wrapped in caution tape. “Everyone was understandably upset,” he says.“It seems to me like Harvard’s biggest concern is that we don’t transmit while on campus.”

Proctors and administrators aren’t the only ones looking out for social distancing violations. Known colloquially to some as “Yard Rats,” certain students have announced they, too, are prepared to call out others for noncompliance, sending pictures of too-large groups to proctors. Hererra is critical of Yard Rats — she feels people have been largely compliant, and this behavior doesn’t “foster a good community atmosphere.” Jestin agrees, but also pointed out that breaking the rules can be a privilege. “FGLI [first-generation or low-income] students can’t always handle just going home.”

Only a few weeks into college, freshmen have little certainty about the rest of the semester, as changing weather and changing restrictions may limit their social lives in new ways, unlike any class before. Yet, despite the fact that his first semester of college is not unfolding as he would have predicted a year ago, Katzman recognizes that “at least it’s a good story.”

— Staff writer Nicole B. Farina can be reached at nicole.farina@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @nicolefarinaa.

— Staff writer Marka F. X. Ellertson can be reached at marka.ellertson@thecrimson.com.

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