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In just one week, fall will be upon us. Harvard Yard will once again be incrementally transformed by a canopy of spectacular red, yellow, and orange leaves — small reminders that beginnings and ends can rarely be separated. For some, the semester’s start signals the end of the Harvard experience they felt they had once been promised; for others, it is the end of life at home, but the beginning of a long-awaited dream, though one manifesting as a very different reality.
One way or another, students are returning to a school that will not resemble anything experienced, or even imagined, by their peers who have walked Harvard’s grounds for the past 384 years.
“It kind of feels exciting in a way and at least we’re getting some of the Harvard experience,” explains Manu Penenory ’24, as she settles into her new residence in The Quad, a place that students, just six months ago, would have complained is too far from the Yard. “So far, it’s pretty good and I think people are quite happy about being on campus,” she said. “I want to be optimistic and say it will bring us closer together because it’s such a unique situation that we’re living through and nobody has ever experienced university in this way.” Laughing, she shares the anecdote of another student helping her as she struggled to open her mailbox — the start of the kind of spontaneous friendship that only being on campus can unlock.
Ten thousand miles away, Micheal Zhang’s ’24 neighbors have no idea they live next to a Harvard dormitory. Previously strangers to one another, Micheal and a group of other Australian freshmen are leasing an apartment together in Sydney — an impressionist remodeling of the Harvard experience. He says, the roommates have become close “bonding over the tragedies” associated with not being able to obtain student visas. “We decided to make the best out of a bad situation,” he said. “It’s been really fun so far and I’m super excited for the upcoming semester.”
Even students who haven’t left home, such as Matti Tan ’24 from the Philippines, remain positive despite having to adjust to “a really broken sleep schedule,” which entails “intermittent naps” to accommodate 12:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. classes. Matti summarizes the practical optimism of his international peers, saying, “We’re not trying to sulk all of the time, because that will get us nowhere,” while emphasizing the need to “exert more effort” to nurture friendships.
The fall has been a new start for many, but for seniors like Samyra C. Miller ’21, the semester signals an end.
“It's sad, just like being completely honest — always say ‘no regrets in life’ — but I think this is the one time I regret not doing everything I wanted to do on campus,” Miller said. She says students no longer take for granted human connection, and she is doing her best to create for them a “sense of community.”
Since the start of Harvard’s diaspora, Samyra’s Instagram account has become a fountain of information and dialogue. Through screenshots and re-posts, Samyra’s fingertips rest on the arrhythmic pulse of our student body: Almost everyone at the College seems to follow her, or at least recognizes her name.
Samyra explains that “Harvard students want to do things very quickly,” so she converts long-winded emails into digestible news bites that are “best for our consumption.” She directs school traffic to a single place, but also plays school counselor, hosting live chats on Instagram for students to vent their grievances. While initially outraged at the decision to only bring back first-years, she now acknowledges that administrators are “putting forth the best plan that they can” and “they’re all just really trying to figure this out with us.”
It has become clear to me, after speaking with Harvard students worldwide in recent days, that to overcome the challenges of a virtual education, no matter how close or far from Harvard Yard, we must imbue our experiences, social and academic, with a new kind of intentionality — not to erase our disappointment, but to pragmatically navigate it.
“Making the most of it” and “doing our best” seem to be the only thing left to do. Our physical community may be dispersed, but new, makeshift webs of care and support have formed, as we collectively grab hold of an opportunity, taking the best of what’s on offer. Matti reflects that while Harvard is “a dream school for almost all of us,” ultimately, “we make the school.”
“What makes Harvard a good university is its students, not just its professors or its resources,” Tan said.
A virus can remind us that Harvard is so much more than just a place. Harvard is its people and their ideas, coming together across all boundaries — including time and space.
The Fall, in Genesis and the canon it has inspired, is about being cast out — from a green yard across the wide-spread world, from grace and ignorance, to knowledge, freedom, guilt, and responsibility. This semester — this fall from normalcy — leaves us with the daunting responsibility of making the most out of a previously unimaginable situation.
The weeks ahead are an experiment — a petri dish for what is possible for our educational, vocational, and social lives. These weeks also constitute what is possibly the most fascinating moment in the history of being a student. We are reconceptualizing community, probing technology’s limits, and experiencing monumental events in real time. What we are learning right now are things we couldn’t have learned in any other context, undoubtedly re-shaping our collective future.
This column is appearing as a first. In it, I will set out to give presence to Harvard stories that might otherwise slip between the cracks, peeking inside a kaleidoscope of patchwork communities, while my friends and I try to stitch together our own from our new off-campus residence in Central Square. I will be exploring and reflecting on the paradox of our separate co-existence, while trying to capture what matters most to us in these exceptional times.
Welcome to the beginning and the end. Welcome to the fall.
Aysha L.J. Emmerson ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a special concentrator in Resilience Studies in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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