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Two years ago, as the Harvard student population was getting kicked off campus, I was celebrating my entrance into legal adulthood. On Saturday, March 14, 2020, I turned 18, the first of what I assumed would be the many steps toward the gradual transition from adolescence to adulthood. The transition I hoped would be picturesque and idyllic, however, was abruptly compressed by the entrance of Covid-19 onto the world stage.
My 18th birthday marked the beginning of quarantine, an event that precluded me from properly saying goodbye to many of my close friends, some of whom I have not had the opportunity to see since. This is not a unique experience, but rather one I share with countless of my classmates. Covid threw most of us into a foreign new world, with little guidance or precedent on how to navigate it.
Alone on campus, the Class of 2024 in particular felt the full effect of the break of tradition. There was no First Chance Dance, no Harvard-Yale, no Commencement, Visitas, or Activities Fair. Annenberg remained empty, and instead of getting Quadded by a mass of Cabotians outside of my dorm, we got Quadded by an anti-climactic Zoom meeting.
Covid-19 was like the little kid who, seeing a single file line of ants, steps on the middle, leaving the latter portion confused and with no path to follow. We arrived with no signposts or manuals, surrounded by stories of traditions we were missing and buildings we weren’t allowed to enter. We didn’t know what we were missing, what a normal year at Harvard was meant to be like. Quite frankly, though, we were the better for it.
As a freshman in what was supposed to be an intensely competitive and at times formalized social scene, I was thankful for this social vagary. The Class of 2024 is uniquely socially interconnected, owing to the pandemic and the lack of formalized sports, clubs, and societies by which our social lives would have been defined. Friendships were made that crossed what would normally have been solid social divisions. Relationships were had by people who typically would never have even crossed paths. The lack of in-person classes, clubs, and dining halls left people wandering around campus, introducing themselves to anyone who would listen.
The fact is, Covid-19 turned Harvard’s campus into virgin land, ready to be explored by a group of idealistic freshmen who didn’t yet know that Falafel Corner is a better late night food location than Jefe’s. Friends were made in the Mather courtyard, rather than Annenberg. Going into Boston became a weekly event, instead of a perpetually postponed plan.
This newfound freedom from tradition was’t limited to the Class of 2024, however. When we fnally returned to campus, only one class had experienced a full in-person academic year. The lack of experience allowed the entire student body to embrace an idealism that we’ve only felt when we first stepped foot on campus with our lanyard around our neck. For all intents and purposes, the pandemic made us all freshmen.
There’s value in being a freshman. With no elder guidance, there’s no one to tell you that you can’t organize a walkout while the University President is giving a speech. Thinking like a freshman has led students to run for the Undergraduate Council with a campaign to overhaul the entire system, or create an Instagram account devoted to imbuing within Harvard the school spirit of a state school. The pandemic eroded the forceful authority of history and replaced it with the promise of a future latent with possibility. Sure, the Institute of Politics may be historically full of cutthroat wannabe presidents, but this post-pandemic generation didn’t know that this was their role to play when they first comped. The past culture of competition, toxicity, and disillusionment is a positive feedback loop that can only be broken by something as jarring as a global pandemic.
Covid-19 shook us awake from that four year long trance that had many of us shuffling through Harvard, stepping where we were told to step. It changed the status quo, allowing us to ask questions of what we used to think was a fixed system. Traditions were lost, but new ones were made. Change is hard, and many times painful. But, many times, though, change is good.
Manny A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Cabot House.
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