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‘A Slow Rebuild’: Undergraduates Reflect on In-Person Semester

Students dine in Eliot dining hall on Tuesday.
Students dine in Eliot dining hall on Tuesday. By Pei Chao Zhuo
By Noah J. Caza and Vivian Zhao, Crimson Staff Writers

After his freshman year was truncated by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Roderick P. “Roddy” Emley ’23-’24 said he is slowly adjusting to life back on campus.

Emley spent his gap year working as a field organizer for the Biden campaign.

“It took a while to get back into gear,” Emley said. “I honestly hadn't had a really set schedule for a while, and so it was just adjusting back to that was definitely different.”

While he said part of him feels like a freshman all over again, Emley noted that a significant part of his semester has been reconnecting with old friends.

“Most of my blockmates I hadn't seen since we left campus and so it was like, ‘Oh my God, we're back in person, and this is exciting,’” Emley said. “But we’ve also had these 18 months where we've had very different life experiences that have changed us.”

For a vast majority of Harvard undergraduates, this school year marked the transition back to on-campus living and learning, after the Covid-19 pandemic scattered students across the globe in March 2020.

A year and a half later, when the College invited back all undergraduates to campus, some students said this semester has been an adjustment period to the idiosyncrasies of the “new normal” Harvard experience.

House Life and Dining

“You just had really no sense of community,” Alexandra P. Grayson ’22 said about life on campus last year. “I was in a suite of four people, and that was pretty much who we ever saw just because of all the Covid restrictions.”

Di Ai, a tutor in Lowell House, described the residential experience last year as “a little creepy.”

“It's completely silent. No one's in the halls. All the lights are always off,” Ai said. “So I definitely appreciate everyone being back. It’s a lot more energetic this year.”

Ai said he also found it challenging to foster camaraderie among students in his entryway, since all events had to be held over Zoom.

However, this semester Ai said he has enjoyed hosting in-person events again, such as his League of Legends watch party in the Lowell screening room.

Another facet of house life abuzz following a dormant year are the dining halls.

Though Harvard University Dining Services resumed full-scale operations this semester, some students said that they miss some of the pre-pandemic menu offerings.

“Our dining hall staff has obviously worked really, really hard. They're still short staffed and — love them so much — they do a lot of great things,” Grayson said.

“But there’s been some minor changes that just feel weird, like they're trying to brush under the rug, like there used to be an omelet bar,” she said. “There’s only vegan entrees now; it's not just vegetarian or vegan.”

HUDS spokesperson Crista Martin said that the HUDS menu is “constantly evolving based on taste, based on trends, based on the needs of students.”

“In the fall, it just was part of the menu plan to get things open and see how people were moving about,” she added.

Socializing in a Pandemic

Miguel A. Fuentes ’23 said “it was kind of a shock” to transition back into the Harvard social scene.

“It's weird socializing again after the pandemic because you couldn't — at least for most people — you couldn't go out with your friends, and stuff like that, or meet new people,” Fuentes said.

Even in the houses, where undergraduates traditionally see the most familiar faces, students said they are surrounded by new people.

“Usually when you enter the house, you meet people in chunks. When you first enter as a sophomore, everyone works really hard to meet you,” Grayson said. “But because no one knew anybody, I remember walking into the dining hall and being like, ‘Who are all these people? I have never seen you before in my life.’”

Grayson added that it was “stressful” gauging out people’s comfortability with masks and level of adherence to other Covid precautions.

“One not so great thing was just the beginning of the semester with all the uncertainty of not knowing, when you're hanging out with somebody, their socializing habits,” Grayson said.

“You don't know like, ‘Oh, should I be more spaced out from them because they hang out with lots of different people?’ or ‘Oh, they keep their movements really strict, I feel fine about them,” she added.

Some students said this semester has been “quieter” than pre-pandemic times, with many students electing to attend intimate gatherings over larger parties.

“Covid is still a thing for me, you know?” Emley said. “Just being aware of that socially, and so it's much more focused on getting meals or having a few friends over, but not big gatherings.”

Some students said the College’s indoor gathering restrictions — which, until November, prohibited indoor gatherings with more than 10 participants — shifted the social scene to invite-only off-campus spaces, such as final clubs, nearby apartments, and the Tasty Burger basement.

“This year has been hard because there's a lot of parties that I can't necessarily automatically go to. I have to find a friend who can get me on the list or find a friend and then pay money to get on the list,” Grayson said. “The great equalizer before was all the Quad parties.”

“It's just not accessible,” Grayson added. “By not having Harvard-approved parties, that's where you created sort of those divisions because the final clubs are in spaces that aren't owned by Harvard.”

Changes in Campus Culture

While Covid-19 has caused an undesirable interruption to collegiate life, some Harvard affiliates explained how the pandemic evinced the strength of the Harvard community.

Lowell House administrator Elizabeth Terry wrote in an email that she predicted a “gap in the cultural experience” in the houses but said the “unique traditions and culture” remain.

“It feels almost like we had to start at ground zero in September, yet there was not much energy or staff to do that very effectively,” she explained. “It will be a slow rebuild. But the goal of offering an intergenerational House experience, with unique traditions and culture, remains.”

In addition, some students said an unexpected upside of this semester has been a newfound sense of understanding among students and faculty.

Rowena N. Wilson-Olivo ’22-’23, who has a chronic illness, said the shared experience of the pandemic “has made it a lot easier for students with disabilities on campus, students managing chronic illnesses to negotiate with their teaching staff and feel like they can take the time to be sick when they need to be sick.”

“I think also just having professors and lecturers and TFs have more of a frame of reference as to the vocabulary of sickness and getting well, I think there has been reconsideration of the role that health has to play in a setting like Harvard and that health is really important,” added Wilson-Olivo, who is a Crimson News and FM editor.

Tosca G. Langbert ’23-24 said she believes before the pandemic, “a lot of people were on autopilot — going through the motions of what they thought they ought to be doing.”

“My hope coming back for everyone was that we would all recognize how much of an opportunity being here together is and how the conversations we have in passing — or for you to be able to walk up to me in the dhall and randomly ask me about what I do — is a very limited resource,” Langbert said.

—Staff writer Noah J. Caza can be reached at noah.caza@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Vivian Zhao can be reached at vivian.zhao@thecrimson.com.

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