By Angel Zhang

‘Crazy Times’: With Graduation Approaching, Seniors Reflect on Harvard Journey Bookended by Crisis

The Crimson spoke with dozens of seniors about their memories of a Covid-19-hued transition to college and how they reclaimed a vibrant student life amid four years bookended by crisis.
By Azusa M. Lippit and Cam N. Srivastava

BOSTON — Dressed in all black, hundreds of Harvard College seniors flooded into the basement of Game On, a sports bar in Fenway Park, on May 15, dancing to the pulsing synth bass of 2010s pop hits.

About halfway through the senior week event, the music paused as Senior Class First Marshal Fez S. Zafar ’24 took the stage. Looking out over the crowd, bathed in a dim red glow, Zafar had every opportunity to give a profound or even sappy speech on the end of college and everything the group had experienced together, from Covid-19 to graduation.

Instead, he took a simpler approach.

“Let’s get loud!” Zafar yelled. Right on cue, the DJ came in with the pounding first notes of Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us.” The crowd went wild.

It was a merry end for a senior class that had been through quite a lot.

Their tenure on campus began with a pandemic and ended with fears that their Commencement ceremonies could be canceled due to the pro-Palestine Harvard Yard encampment. And in between, they had to navigate to an unfamiliar and fragmented social scene, resurrect forgotten traditions, and try to restore normalcy to a decidedly abnormal start to college.

“When I started running for Class Committee, and I think a lot of the other people who were running as well, we all had this goal of, let’s try to make up for the lost freshman year that we had,” Zafar said.

Though the final weeks of the semester were full of last hurrahs and bittersweet goodbyes, they also provided time for reflection. The Crimson spoke with dozens of seniors about their memories of a Covid-19-hued transition to college and how they reclaimed a vibrant student life amid four years bookended by crisis.

“We’re also going to be the only class ever to have gone through Covid freshman year,” Alexi Stavropoulos ’24 said. “Navigating that together is something that we can always look back on.”

Covid-19 restrictions posted by Harvard on a bulletin board.
Covid-19 restrictions posted by Harvard on a bulletin board. By Pei Chao Zhuo

‘Making Do With What We Had’

When freshmen arrived at Harvard in August 2020, they were moving into a nearly unrecognizable campus.

All of the traditional difficulties of freshman year — making friendships that could last four years or more, finding their footing with classes and extracurriculars, and acclimating to a new phase of life — seemed orders of magnitude more challenging, with students scattered across both freshmen dorms and upperclassmen houses, attending remote classes, and following strict social distancing guidelines.

Many decided to postpone it altogether, with nearly 20 percent of freshmen opting for a gap year instead of trying to navigate a maze of Covid-19 restrictions.

But for the ones who stuck it out, all they could do was make the best of a bad situation.

“A lot of us say stuff about how we lost a year, and stuff like that,” Neeyanth Kopparapu ’24 said. “I feel like we did a pretty good job of making do with what we had.”

Traditional ways to make friends — warming up to roommates or meeting people at parties or in classes, bolstered by the tight proximity of Harvard Yard’s freshman dorms — were replaced by more creative and intentional methods.

“It’s pure kindergarten because you can’t meet other people in normal situations — you have to just walk up to people as if you’re on a playground,” Zafar said.

Zafar made an Instagram account called @walkwithfez, and he would regularly schedule group walks before “a cool photo at the end.”

“We would just walk around and we’d be like, ‘Is that Dunster?’ and it would be Eliot — because we didn’t know, there were no upperclassmen to tell us what anything was,” Zafar said.

Fez S. Zafar '24 is the Harvard Class of 2024 First Marshal.
Fez S. Zafar '24 is the Harvard Class of 2024 First Marshal. By Frank S. Zhou

Stavropoulos recalled how his friend Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, started a GroupMe chat called “Harvard FC” after some of their friends had been “kicking a soccer ball around” in the Yard one day.

“It grew by the end of the year to be 160 people,” Stavropoulous said. “We’d essentially organize these public soccer pickups at this public field a little bit far back. That was a great way to meet people — everyone was always happy to make the walk over.”

For international students, the majority of whom did not live on campus freshman year, the transition was even more challenging.

“I used to go to sleep every day at 7 a.m. and wake up at like 4 p.m. It was the dead of winter, so I didn’t see the sun for three weeks,” said Matilda Marcus ’24, who lived in London during the fall.

Ana Breznik ’24, an international student from Slovenia, said she performed a snack exchange with a friend she met in regular Zoom meetings.

“I had a friend who I would do weekly Zoom meetings with. We did a snack exchange — I sent him some Slovenian snacks, he sent me American snacks, so we managed to keep our friendship alive,” Breznik said.

As the spring 2021 semester only guaranteed on-campus housing for juniors and seniors, many freshmen chose to live in small groups off campus — both in the Boston area and more far-flung destinations. An “open invitation” in a class-wide GroupMe chat even led to 10 freshmen, mostly international students, sharing an Airbnb in Costa Rica for the semester.

“We weren’t friends or anything — we just wanted some community and to be closer to the time zone, because before that I was having midnight classes. We just met at the airport, basically,” Breznik said.

Though students said they tried to make the best of the unusual year, many were left feeling disappointed.

“It was tough. I could count on one hand the amount of friends I had. It felt like everyone is socially deprived,” William P. Pryor ’24 said.

They were ready for a change.

‘Can’t Be Replicated Over Zoom’

In the fall of 2021, members of the Class of 2024 — now bright-eyed sophomores — were eager to dive headfirst into a project of extracurricular and social revival. But first, they had a lot to learn.

“There were certain organizations, Harvard acronyms that I didn’t know sophomore year. There was definitely this catch-up aspect,” Pryor said.

Many students in the Class of 2024 said they felt their sophomore year better delivered the novelty and excitement typically associated with freshman year.

“Sophomore year was like my actual freshman year, because I did so many freshman mistakes,” Maria F. De Los Santos ’24 said, pointing to her decision to take three p-set classes in one semester.

“I do count my college experience starting from sophomore year instead of freshman year, because freshman year feels so fake,” Nicholas Castillo Marin ’24 said.

Blocking groups that had formed among loose acquaintances became less relevant, as students took advantage of their newfound freedom to seek new connections.

“I have three blockmates, and I don’t talk to any of them anymore. Not in like a ‘tea’ way, just in like a, ‘I don’t fucking know you,’” Marcus said.

For Rosanna Kataja ’24, who did her freshman year entirely online, coming to campus was a particular shock.

“I think one of my friends I met in the elevator — I didn’t recognize him at first. He was like ‘Hi, Rosanna,’ I was like, ‘Who are you?’” Kataja said.

Breznik, who spent her freshman fall semester at home in Slovenia, said as a sophomore “it definitely felt like some groups had already been formed.”

“Some of these people who I thought were going to be my closest friends over Zoom, I feel like in person then we just didn’t vibe in the same way,” Breznik said.

Students sit masked and socially distanced in the Smith Campus Center during the pandemic.
Students sit masked and socially distanced in the Smith Campus Center during the pandemic. By Truong L. Nguyen

Students also had to battle through a loss of extracurricular institutional memory as they tried to revive campus groups that had been previously consigned to Zoom screens.

“No one knew how to organize, which I think was a really big deal,” Castillo Marin said. “Even leading meetings was difficult, because if you’ve never attended a meeting you don’t know how to run one.”

In keeping old traditions alive within Harvard’s mountaineering club, Chris A. Partridge ’24 said he had to “work very very hard over the summer to reach out to old alums.”

“I think a lot of clubs relied on single people, like one or two people who remembered — who either took a gap or were just very engaged their senior year,” Catherine Y. Liang ’24 said.

Though Partridge said his sophomore year was “awesome,” he added that “a lot of things still died,” such as traditions in student clubs and upperclassmen Houses.

“Those prank wars between clubs, or generally something of more rowdiness or willingness to immerse yourself in college life, whatever definition it is — I think a lot of that died,” Partridge said.

But the struggle to resurrect old practices and traditions was accompanied by a distinct sense of possibility and excitement — the hope that students could win back the sort of college experience they had been denied the year prior.

Jeremy O. S. Ornstein ’23-’24 said seeing his roommate for the first time sophomore year made him feel like he was “back.”

“I just remember coming back and seeing my roommate and he’d been in Idaho for so long,” Ornstein said. “There he is, with his van — ‘Hey man’ — he comes in, we dap up, he’s like, ‘I’ll get your stuff from the car,’ and he grabs my stuff.”

“There’s not a second that passed, we’re jamming,” he added.

Erin Y. Yuan ’24, who played viola for the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra, said the group’s rehearsals saw “impeccable” attendance in the 2021 fall semester.

“Everyone was just so enthralled by the concept of playing together — it was so foreign during Covid — attendance was impeccable, for a very long time,” Yuan said, adding that the “energy” of playing live music “can’t be replicated over Zoom.”

“It was really magical,” she said.

‘The Real World Is Coming to Us’

As the Class of 2024 entered their senior year, the sense of normalcy which had returned after the pandemic was uprooted once again by crisis.

Shortly after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, 33 student groups co-signed a controversial statement blaming Israel for the attack.

The backlash was fierce and immediate.

Prominent donors and politicians trained national ire on the University. A doxxing truck came to campus targeting students thought to be affiliated with the statement. Pro-Palestine activists staged a series of protests and briefly occupied University Hall. Eventually, congressional Republicans summoned then-University President Claudine Gay to Washington to testify about antisemitism — sparking national headlines and ultimately paving the way for her resignation.

But though the turbulence was of a different character, some seniors said they were used to living through history.

“The class of 2024, we’re unfortunately no strangers to major historical world events, so this is just another one of them,” Pryor said.

“They’re two major world events that happened to us that we’re all living through together — those bring us closer,” Warren R. Sunada-Wong ’24 said.

The crises continued into the spring semester, when pro-Palestine organizers mounted an encampment protest in Harvard Yard. Before the encampment ended on May 14 after 20 days, many seniors were concerned that the demonstration could lead to Harvard’s Commencement ceremonies being canceled, as they had been at Columbia University and the University of Southern California.

In an email to Harvard affiliates two weeks after the encampment began, Interim University president Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote that it would be “especially painful if students who graduated from high school or college during the pandemic were denied a full graduation ceremony for a second time.”

Patches of dead grass on Harvard Yard after the pro-Palestine encampment was taken down.
Patches of dead grass on Harvard Yard after the pro-Palestine encampment was taken down. By Julian J. Giordano

According to The Crimson’s annual senior class survey, the favorability of the encampment among seniors plummeted after May 6, the same day Columbia canceled its own commencement, suggesting rising anxieties over the potential disruption of their graduation ceremony.

“A lot of us didn’t get to have our high school graduation. There’s a possibility of not having college graduation either,” Sunada-Wong said. “It’s some kind of shared camaraderie in that.”

Sydney E. Lang ’23-24 shared a similar sentiment: “I think that there is some form of camaraderie or community or something that people have built because of the irony of this situation happening to the same people twice.”

Even though a graduation ceremony was again up in the air, some students said they were merely happy the senior class would be able to celebrate together one last time.

“It’d be lovely to have a graduation, but I’m sure in these next couple weeks we’re just really focused on just being together and spending as much time together,” Stavropoulos said.

Though Castillo Marin said he was sad to miss high school graduation, “it also is a little cool to be like, ‘We are a little different.’”

“We were the first class to ever get a sophomore convocation, and that’ll probably never happen again,” he added. “We’ve lived through some crazy times.”

But Pryor urged his classmates to look at the exceptional circumstances of their college experience not as a source of regret, but as a learning experience.

“Senior spring, everyone’s scared of the future — like, ‘Oh we’re about to go out into the real world.’ In a weird way, with what’s been going on on campus, the real world is coming to us very fast,” Pryor said.

“It’s meeting us and you can’t avoid it — you have to deal with it straight on,” he added.

—Staff writer Azusa M. Lippit can be reached at Follow her on X @azusalippit or on Threads @azusalippit.

—Staff writer Cam N. Srivastava can be reached at Follow him on X @camsrivastava.

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