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Students Stargaze, Adopt Cats, Cook Gourmet Meals in Off-Campus Housing

Harvard Yard is home to most of the first-year dorms on Harvard’s campus.
Harvard Yard is home to most of the first-year dorms on Harvard’s campus. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

In a normal semester, Jaxson T. Hill ’23 studies stars in his astrophysics classes. This year, he gets to see them firsthand from the Utah home he and his friends rented for the semester.

Hill and his blockmates are some of the many Harvard students whose off-campus living arrangements afford them a lifestyle far different from the Houses along the Charles. Shut out of the dorms due to the coronavirus pandemic, students have set up camp with friends and significant others from Hawaii to Utah, North Carolina to New York, and Rhode Island to remote corners of Massachusetts.

In their new headquarters, those students can dress up their standard school routine with culinary exploration, forays into pet ownership, and other adventures — whether to the Grand Canyon or their local Stop & Shop.

Hill and four classmates are taking a break from the bustle of Harvard Square by retreating to Brian Head — a tiny town in Utah with a population of 83, as of the last census. The five friends are taking Zoom classes from a ski lodge-style Airbnb located 40 minutes away from the nearest Walmart, where they stock up on provisions every few weeks.

Hill said the group is situated just a few hours from “tons and tons” of national parks, which they hope to visit on the weekends.

At nearly 10,000 feet, Brian Head boasts one of the highest average elevations of any city in the U.S. Hill said he and his friends often drive up an extra 1,000 feet from their house to Brian Head Peak, where they can stargaze with a telescope he brought.

“Since we're so isolated, the dark sky is just absolutely breathtaking,” Hill said.

Far from snowy Utah, Ana M. Mundaca ’22 is spending the semester in Hawaii with her partner, who is also a Harvard undergraduate. She said she has mostly kept herself busy with online classes, cooking, cleaning, and caring for her new cat, which the two adopted in the state.

Mundaca and her partner were eating at an outdoor restaurant recently when a stray cat approached them. She said they decided to take him home and have been fostering him since, nursing the animal back to full health.

“His name is Mr. Muffin. It used to be Muffin because he was a girl at first, and then we went to the vet and they were like, it's actually a man,” she added.

Mr. Muffin recently made a bid for Lowell House representative in the Undergraduate Council Election, Mundaca said, though the cat did not ultimately win a seat.

Other students haven’t ventured quite so far from Harvard’s campus.

Maxwell A. Gillmer ’21 — who is living with three friends — signed a lease for a lakehouse near Plunkett Reservoir in the Berkshires, a rural region in the mountains of Western Massachusetts.

“Being by a lake in a tiny town where the only excursion that we have is to go to the grocery store, sometimes I actually really forget that we are living in a pandemic,” he said. “We're already so isolated here that staying at home and social distancing don’t seem like an order right now.”

Gillmer said he and his housemates get most of their groceries from a farm owned by the local family for whom one of his housemates currently works as a nanny.

“Part of [the housemate’s] pay is, once every other week, they get a farm share,” Gillmer said. “They'll get a bucket of produce with things like squash and carrots, a lot of tomatoes, cabbage, onions.”

Gillmer said he and his housemates purchase the rest of their ingredients from a Stop & Shop 15-minutes away, keeping track of their receipts and costs using an app called Splitwise. They have cooked a variety of dishes together, including many kinds of pasta, shakshuka, and French onion soup. They plan on making pizza this week.

Otto Barenberg ’22 said he and four classmates converged in Providence, R.I., a convenient middle point for the students, who are all from different states on the Eastern seaboard.

Though Barenberg said he and his housemates spend most of the day in their bedrooms taking online classes, they try to eat dinner together every night. Each person is responsible for cooking dinner for everyone else one day a week, and people usually volunteer to cook the other two nights of the week on an ad hoc basis.

“It's been a little more work to manage extra responsibilities, but I think we've been managing okay,” Barenberg said.

“It's also a great experience to have because otherwise, I wouldn't have lived on my own like this until after college,” he added. “I feel like I'm gaining some basic skills like how to set up a utilities accountant, how to pay rent, and how to sign a lease that are actually very applicable and useful beyond college.”

Kevin T. J. Chew ’23 is living with five Harvard friends at an Airbnb in New Bern, N.C., a locale roughly equidistant from their hometowns.

Since Chew is the only one in his group enrolled in classes this semester, his schedule is rigid compared to his friends’. Nonetheless, he finds time to play basketball with them at a neighboring court.

The group also shares home cooked meals, which one of his buddies has spearheaded.

“He is an absolutely magnificent chef. He is a connoisseur of food,” Chew noted, citing a variety of curries and steak his friend has cooked up.

“He made a really good squash and zucchini marinara sauce. He fileted a salmon,” Chew said. “I’m eating better here than at home!”

—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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