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Incoming Harvard Freshmen Imagine an Unprecedented Start to College

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Angela Y. Zhong has been dreaming of a freshman fall in Harvard Yard.

“I’m actually really excited to decorate my dorm,” Zhong said. “And just being away from home, since Harvard is so far from me, and the Northeast is different in culture — that’ll be exciting. I’ll have a lot more freedom to do what I want without that much supervision, which I think is great.”

But amid a public health crisis with no cure or vaccine yet in sight, college life for Zhong and her peers this fall could look very different from a conventional term along the Charles. Zhong’s first college “dorm” could be her bedroom in Houston.

On-campus classes, parties, and performances at the College came to a halt in mid-March after Harvard forced most students to vacate their dorms in Cambridge. Following spring break, professors held courses online for the rest of the semester.

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In late April, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 announced the fall semester will resume on time, though he did not specify whether students would be returning to campus. While they await final word on how the College will operate through the coronavirus pandemic — a decision is expected by July — many students are urging the administration not to pursue a virtual term. University President Lawrence S. Bacow said Harvard’s 12 schools may adopt different responses as they strive to “de-densify” campus while continuing their educational programs.

As the Class of 2020 graduates without the fanfare typical of a grand commencement ceremony, the Class of 2024 looks forward to entering Harvard as the world continues to fight an era-defining virus.

Admitted students’ transition to college has already taken an unprecedented form, as senior traditions like prom face cancellation and the Visitas admitted students weekend moved online. The Class of 2024 will continue to face challenges and uncertainties related to the pandemic, but students say they remain hopeful about the beginning of their college career — whatever form it might take.

‘How Do We Abate Those Anxieties’

As incoming freshmen make the transition from high school to college, they are already burdened with a long list of concerns — making friends, living far from home, finding their passions. This incoming class could face even more worries: how courses will be held, how to connect with other Harvard students, financial security, mental health, and how the ongoing pandemic will affect all of the above.

In the eyes of some incoming freshmen, the pandemic may threaten the very core of what makes Harvard special. Many said they are concerned about maintaining the vitality of interpersonal connections if the educational experience takes a different form.

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Amen H. Gashaw, an incoming freshman from Snellville, Ga., said she speculates that class formats may shift and facilitate “a new sense of working with other students” to allow for social distancing on campus. She said she is concerned about a lack of usual resources and obstacles to interaction.

“We might be at a bit of a loss, especially since we won’t have access to the same libraries or really know how to navigate the ropes of communicating with our professors,” Gashaw said. “So, we might have to figure this out on a more solitary basis rather than being able to learn from our peers.”

Students who hope to pursue different concentrations said they anticipate that accommodations for COVID-19 could affect their freshman studies in varying ways.

Caitlin A. Beirne — a matriculant from Long Island, N.Y. — said she plans to pursue Theater, Dance, and Media, a concentration featuring “individualized” and “very interactive” classes she anticipates may be especially difficult to conduct virtually. She said she hopes they are held in person.

“Most stuff in theater is about connection and being able to do a hands-on workshop,” Beirne said. “I think that would be significantly harder than the liberal arts classes that I’ll be taking.”

Alexander J. Chen, who hails from Pleasanton, Calif., said he hopes to concentrate in Neuroscience and pursue biotechnology research — one of the reasons that drew him to Boston. Though concerned that an online start would deprive him of proximity to this “ground zero” for scientific advances, he said the circumstances have reinforced his aspirations.

“COVID-19 has made clear that no matter how far we advance in technology, how good our hospitals are, how many tests we do — if these tests and if no hospitals admit or treat patients equally, without consideration for different socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds, then that’s a huge issue that needs to be solved,” Chen said.

Extracurricular life, too, will almost certainly look different come September.

Beirne said she hopes to participate in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program and has spent the past few weeks watching her brother train virtually through the Army ROTC program at the University of Notre Dame, imagining how it might work for her.

“Watching my brother having to do it online because of quarantine is a little different,” Beirne said. “What he tells me is, when they’re supposed to be in the woods outside, he’s in his bedroom — and the cadre, which are the people in charge, are like, ‘Okay, so pretend you’re in the woods and pretend you just broke your leg.’ So it’s more about explaining as opposed to actually doing.”

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Greenville, S.C., admit Jacky Q. Huang said he is concerned about how the coronavirus pandemic could impact his financial situation, especially if undergraduates will be learning from home.

“If I would be at home, that is already an extra mouth to feed,” Huang said, adding that being on campus “would really help with that because, at Harvard, I wouldn’t have to depend on them for food, and I can take up a part-time job on campus to cover personal expenses.”

Huang added that he hopes the Financial Aid Office will accommodate financial concerns related to technology necessary for completing summer requirements related to enrollment.

“I need a laptop to do all the work and, until I have a chance to file for laptop grants, I’m going to be laptop-less for this summer, which is kind of important to almost everything,” Huang explained. “Depending on what happens with social distancing, like if I want to do anything this summer with placement tests or things of that sort, I can’t just go to the library.”

The mental and physical toll of online instruction is also becoming increasingly apparent. A recent Undergraduate Council survey of College students found that nearly half of respondents indicated a decline in physical health, and over 80 percent of respondents reported experiencing worsening emotional health since the shift to remote coursework.

As incoming freshmen continue to await a final decision about the fall, students like David Kwak of Seoul, South Korea, believe physical distance among peers would not be conducive to emotional support.

“If you’re trying to grind through work all by yourself, you do have FaceTime and you do have other resources, but it’s much harder to reach out to people if you’re at home,” Kwak said.

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Travel bans, border closures, and suspended immigration services pose a unique problem for international students, some of whom worry they won’t be able to fly to the United States at all.

Ruth H. Jaensubhakij ’22, a student from Singapore who helps direct the First-Year International Program, said her team is thinking about how to best support international students concerned about securing visas.

“How do we abate those anxieties among the Class of 2024?” she said. “And how do we better facilitate information so that they know who to talk to about their visas, that they know where to get that information, what kind of challenges they might face as they're going through that process?”

Looking Forward

Many future members of the Class of 2024 said they anticipate that academic and social experiences may change and even decrease in quality due to the pandemic.

“I think it’s important for everyone to be flexible right now,” Chen said. “Having a gap year is an option.”

Regardless of disruptions to campus life, many students remain excited for the coming year. Following a month of Virtual Visitas activities, some incoming freshmen said they are already connecting with their soon-to-be Harvard classmates. In the absence of an on-campus admitted students weekend, some students have made extra efforts to foster friendships online.

Melissa Meng from Blacksburg, Va., said she already feels attached to her College class — so much that the relationships she has built thus far are dissuading her from delaying the start of her college career.

“We’ve been doing a lot of video calls — we actually have a regular Zoom call every two or three days, and I think the last one that we had actually went on for 30 hours,” Meng said. “We also have these mini-traditions in the group chats. For example, our Harvard 2024 chat. We have this daily poll, which is like a ‘would you rather’ that someone initiated.”

The students also created a collaborative spreadsheet with incoming students’ contact and social media information, hometowns, intended concentrations, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality types, and Hogwarts houses from Harry Potter in an effort to help students find others with common interests. Meng added that she has joined calls to share application essays or book and movie recommendations.

FIP and other pre-orientation programs have yet to finalize programming for the Class of 2024, but the Dean of Students Office has announced they “will not proceed as usual.” Michel B. R. Nehme ’22, who also helps run FIP, said the team hopes to keep its “family” group model to facilitate close-knit bonds between leaders and incoming students, regardless of potential restrictions on in-person events.

“We’d have some virtual activities where people are still meeting each other in large groups online. But then, instantly, we can have groups of five to seven — depending on whatever the guidelines are — still form clusters and then try to form relationships within those clusters,” Nehme said. “And I think that most of the activities are still amenable for that. You can have talent shows within your family, for example, you can still go out and walk around with your family.”

Many freshmen interested in extracurricular activities look forward to “comping” — training and vetting procedures required for joining many student organizations at the College — after meeting with groups of interest online.

“One of the organizations that I was thinking of joining was the Undergraduate Council — obviously, I would have to run for that. I did the Virtual Visitas event with them and got to talk with a lot of their current members,” Meng said. “I also really want to join the Asian American Dance Troupe; I attended one of their sessions for Virtual Visitas, and it was a lot of fun learning dances with them.”

Many extracurricular groups are already developing contingency plans for alternate comp requirements or activities, should the fall semester be online.

General Manager of a cappella group The Harvard Krokodiloes Channy Hong ’19-’21 said that a virtual fall semester would considerably alter the group’s traditional recruitment timeline. He added that the singers will adapt and could create a series of virtual performances, recording individual parts and compiling them together to produce a single recording.

“We are definitely, definitely thinking about how we can still further our mission of spreading joy and value of our music, especially throughout this pandemic,” Hong said.

—Staff writer Benjamin L. Fu can be reached at benjamin.fu@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenFu_2.

—Staff writer Dohyun Kim can be reached at dohyun.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @dohyunkim__.

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