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One Student's Perspective on the Pandemic

This Harvard freshman moved from Texas to Massachusetts, knowing she wouldn’t step into the classroom. She has no regrets.

By Nia Burch

Photo by Lex Weaver

November 17, 2020

A young woman wearing a Harvard University crewneck stands with a face mask on.

By the time you read this, my 10-week freshman year on campus at Harvard University will officially have come to a close. As I write this in September, I am in Cambridge, at the forefront of my college career. But in just seven short weeks I will be back at home in Houston, trying my best to stay on top of schoolwork, almost 2,000 miles away from the city I am learning to call home.

Despite having started classes, it’s taken a while to process that I am a Harvard freshman. While the work has piled up and the need for daily caffeine intake has set in, these past few weeks have been a grand departure from my original expectations for college life. 

In a normal year, I would probably be writing to you from the depths of Widener Library, a cavernous building of books and knowledge at the heart of Harvard’s campus. But this year, Widener’s doors are closed. Nothing about this year is normal. 

2020 marks a historic year for Harvard and many other institutions of higher learning across the United States. Never before has remote learning been the norm, and even more interesting is the case of students like me who have decided to live on campus, knowing that we will not have the opportunity to attend live classes with our professors and peers.

My acceptance to Harvard was my mother’s greatest dream, and if you had asked my high school self, I thought it all but impossible. It was important for me to come to campus because I worked tirelessly in high school between dual-credit classes and extra-curriculars to have this opportunity, and when I experience occasional feelings of imposter syndrome, being on campus helps to affirm my belonging.

And, of course, though it may not be in the way my mother would have expected, my experience here will be one for the history books. One day I will tell my grandchildren about my college years, sharing with them the story of the Class of 2024, and how through our matriculation to college, we became tied together by an unforgettable shared experience.

That said, in the age of COVID-19, living on campus is a privilege. Per public health guidelines, first-years were invited to campus for the fall semester (only through November) and seniors will be given priority for the spring, though classes will remain online. Furthermore, freshman life on campus has been restricted by a set of stringent university standards aimed at decreasing the spread of COVID-19.

This means that libraries, like Widener, are no longer available for late-night papers and problem set grinds. Dining halls are take-out, and university residences have been redesigned to limit person-to-person contact.

This last piece has been the toughest to deal with. Freshman year is meant to be an introduction to the campus community and an opportunity to build meaningful relationships with peers. Though students are not forbidden from socializing, COVID-19 has made it difficult; university rules limit groups to 10 people and indoor gatherings are banned.

In light of these limitations, many freshmen opted to defer their enrollment or otherwise stay home. Many deliberated for months and pulled out at the last minute.

I never doubted that I would come to campus. Outside of my general yearning to leave the confines of my small high school, the prospect of pursuing my academic interests at Harvard was nothing short of magic. After years of working with EMERGE, a college access program that empowers and prepares high-performing Houston students from underserved communities to attend and graduate from selective colleges and universities, I was eager to begin the journey of intellectual exploration and self-discovery that a Harvard education would present me.

Navigating college coursework on Zoom seemed like less of a barrier and more of a challenge. Not to mention, after my acceptance, I became a part of an online community of Class of 2024 students through platforms like GroupMe and Facebook. We collectively bonded over our mutual hopes for a memorable year. These were my classmates, and at my core, I felt that we were made to navigate this historic challenge together. 

Now that I am here, I know that I made the right choice. 

While routine testing, Zoom classes, and grabbing my to-go meals have imparted a certain monotony to my days, there have also been pleasant conveniences. I can wake up at 8:45 a.m. for my 9 o’clock class, aptly located 5 feet away at my desk.

I also have fewer distractions. Unlike at home, I have my own room to study in and consistently reliable Wi-Fi connection. I have two amazing suitemates who have made the transition much easier. Given that on-campus events are not permitted, as soon as campus permissions allowed, we ventured into the city and made a bucket list of things to do together before we leave in November. If I had stayed home, I might have never met them, and I can already tell that we are going to be friends for a long time. Moreover, I have found meaningful opportunities to continue my passion for civic engagement as a volunteer tutor for local Boston youth, and soon I will be interviewing for a staffer position with Harvard Model Congress.

There is a certain aura of greatness that surrounds Harvard Yard. I would not trade this feeling for the world. My stay may be short and my classes may be virtual, but still, I made it here. So I find it hard to complain.