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When I left campus, I was a freshman who had just, in the few weeks before being kicked off campus, found a place for herself at Harvard. Now, I’m a wanna-be junior, off-cycle sophomore simultaneously struggling to find the bathroom like it’s her first day here and trying to lead a student group with little to no institutional knowledge of what that should look like.
The pandemic took something unspeakably large from us. But so too did Harvard itself.
To be clear, I believe that Harvard’s biggest decisions — forcing us to leave campus in March 2020 and instituting online classes for the 2020-21 school year — were warranted, and, in the end, proved to be the right call. But it was Harvard administrators — the same Harvard administrators that we place trust in as a matter of necessity — that, with no warning, sent us emails asking us to leave campus and not come back.
No matter how much you agree with or respect Harvard’s decisions, that’s going to change your relationship with your institution. Harvard has given us so much, but it has also taken it all away in an instant.
I walk around campus and I see the places where I first met my friends, the places where I said goodbye to them for 17 long months, and the places where I recently reconnected with them. I see the classrooms where I had the most engaging conversations of my life in, and the classrooms I might have had, but didn’t. I see the meals I did have in Annenberg, the meal I had the night we were told we had to leave campus, and the meals I didn’t get to have in Annenberg.
The Harvard of 2019 feels familiar and I yearn for it, but the Harvard of 2021 feels distant, a confusing reality. I walk into buildings expecting to see people who have graduated. I didn’t recognize the people I had worked with for an entire year over Zoom. I can see what was and what should have been, but not what will be. And even though it’s irrational, I blame Harvard for that.
We’re trying to put a puzzle back together again, but some of the pieces are missing, and some have changed their shape, and we’ve never seen the puzzle put together, and we don’t know what the puzzle was supposed to look like. We know we must rebuild everything we lost, but we can’t even remember what must be rebuilt, let alone how we rebuild it.
The disease’s presence in our lives is slowly shrinking, but the reality we’ve been left with is permanent. Our experiences at Harvard will forever be split into two by a painful memory. We are different people, each scarred in a different way. Our puzzle pieces no longer fit.
This is the reality we have to grapple with — forever-changed relationships to Harvard and to each other. More bad memories than good ones. Flashbacks to March 10, 2020. Would haves and could haves and should haves. Lost opportunities.
Of course, there is so much good, too. Vibrant class discussions, the ones you keep thinking about for hours afterward. New friendships that make you smile. River sunsets so beautiful you have to take a photo, or forty. Saturdays spent exploring Boston as an unapologetic tourist. Mornings in the Yard before anyone else is awake. Hugs from friends and mentors you haven’t seen in far too long. More hugs and hellos and see you tomorrows because those things are possible now. So much laughter. So much happiness.
But until we acknowledge that we can’t come back to our 2019 campus and neatly pick up where we left off, we won’t be able to fully enjoy our return.
So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how much it hurts to be asked for directions on campus and not know where anything is, because yes, we’re juniors, and we should know these things, but we’ve only been on campus for six months. Let’s talk about how much it hurts to walk past former classmates and professors and not even recognize them, because you’ve never seen them in person before. Let’s talk about missed dining hall conversations and missed class discussions and missed walks through the Square and missed sunrises over the Charles.
Let’s talk about just how fragile our Harvard experiences feel, and how traumatized we all are, and how we might even blame Harvard itself for some of those feelings. Let’s talk about our year that wasn’t.
And maybe, just maybe, those puzzle pieces will slowly rearrange to create an even more beautiful image — one of trauma and triumph, of devastation and optimism, of loss and possibility, of isolation and belonging, of leaving and finally — finally — returning.
Orlee Marini-Rapoport ’23-’24, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a History & Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, & Sexuality concentrator in Adams House.
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