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Six Ways Covid-19 Transformed Harvard

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Harvard’s campus has undergone a series of radical transformations over the course of the pandemic. From last year’s sparsely populated dorms to this year’s masked instruction, current students have seen a Harvard unlike any other.

A few vaccines later, a sense of normalcy finally seems to be around the corner.

By mid-March, students entered classrooms maskless. By exam period, they no longer received Covid-19 testing reminders. Upperclassmen stormed freshman dorms on Housing Day, undergrads bore it all for Primal Scream, and Swae Lee lit up Harvard Yard for Yardfest. Students flowed into lecture halls for hourslong exams, and seniors will receive their diplomas at an in-person Commencement this week.

But despite much of the Harvard experience returning to its pre-pandemic state, many affiliates have remarked on the profound effects the remote year has had on the school’s academics, social scene, and more. One fact is certain: Harvard will never be the same.

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Here are six ways affiliates say Covid-19 transformed Harvard.

1. Some extracurriculars lost institutional memory.

Graduating seniors are the only class on campus to have experienced a year at Harvard uninterrupted by Covid-19.

First-Year Outdoor Program leader Lisa Wang ’22-’23 said she believes there has been a “loss of institutional knowledge” in her organization because most FOP leaders, despite being “well-equipped to lead,” have never actually been on a trip.

Alec J. Fischthal ’21-’22, who was a head delegate for Harvard’s Model United Nations, also said his club has seen a loss of institutional memory.

“That resulted in a social experience and a club experience that was a little less robust,” Fischthal said. “You look back to the good old days and you’re like, ‘Man, I missed that.’”

Others, whose clubs were highly dependent on in-person experiences, have watched membership dwindle.

“We used to travel a lot abroad, but because of Covid, the club has kind of died,” said Simon Arango ’22, former president of the Harvard College Japan Initiative.

Still, some students saw a silver lining to this loss of institutional memory in the form of new opportunities for tradition-building within campus organizations.

“It enabled a cultural reset for a lot of groups that are now seeing a large uptick in membership since we’re now back in person,” Abigail J.H. Ory ’21-’23 said. “People really want to be doing this stuff and everyone is just so excited.”

Some student-athletes also reported feeling a renewed sense of motivation and commitment upon returning to in-person training.

“When we were finally able to compete as a team again, I think that our individual and collective level of play was a lot higher,” said Jay T. Driver ’24, a pitcher on the baseball team. “That was a product of everybody on the team buying into the idea that — rather than be upset about losing two years — to use it to our advantage of really developing as players.”

2. As house life faltered, final clubs and off-campus spaces solidified their monopoly on Harvard’s social scene.

On any given pre-pandemic Saturday night, one could find undergrads partying in staple house spaces like the Mather Junior Common Room, the Currier Treehouse, or the Pforzheimer Igloo.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, many of these spaces were temporarily shuttered. But even now that the rules have relaxed, some say Harvard’s once-vibrant house social scene has lost its grip on students’ Saturday nights.

Mather House Committee chair Ailie S. Johnson ’24 said her group has attempted to bolster house spirit and boost engagement in events post-pandemic, despite challenges.

“Covid definitely changed a lot of our traditions,” Johnson said. “People weren’t as engaged with a lot of the house stuff, and now we’re just rebuilding it.”

On top of that, the population of students living off-campus more than doubled last fall.

“Not only do you have that institutional memory leaving with people graduating, but some people who are seniors aren’t even in the houses — they’re in off-campus apartments,” Katyon Rotenberg ’23 said.

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With a mask mandate and other restrictions in place into the spring, socializing in Harvard’s houses was significantly constrained. Meanwhile, final clubs could do as they pleased.

“The only places that were able to have parties were final clubs because they had their own space,” Jahnavi S. Rao ’22 said. “I don’t think that’s good — it feels very dangerous.”

Joseph T. Johnson ’21-’22 said the impact of pandemic restrictions on Harvard’s social scene was exacerbated by the College’s move to drop its controversial sanctions on single-gender social organizations in June 2020. Johnson believes this increased the social capital of final clubs.

“The University had this goal — decrease the potency of clubs and their effect on social life on campus,” Johnson said. “And five years later now, they’re probably more powerful than they’ve been in 10 years.”

Without the Mather JCR and shut out from the Spee, freshmen have flocked to off-campus spaces, like the Tasty Burger basement — affectionately known as “Tasty Basty” — which clubs and sports teams rent out for socials.

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“Finals clubs are not as accessible to first-years, so I feel like that’s part of the reason you see so many first-years in Tasty Basty,” said Mallory E. Rogers ’25, a Tasty Burger basement frequenter. “If it’s going to be really hard to get into a party, I don’t know if I want to go. That’s part of the thing with Tasty Basty — you just walk in.”

“That’s the fun of it,” she added.

3. Harvard reconsidered widely-beloved traditions.

Though unclear if Covid-19 was a catalyst or a coincidence, some of Harvard’s decades-old institutions met their demise over the past two years.

This semester, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to end shopping week, a long-time scheduling quirk that allowed students to sample classes before they began. Although the faculty committee that reviewed shopping week was established in 2019, some students charged that Covid contributed to the loss of shopping week, which has not occurred in-person since early 2020.

“Shopping week was a really unique and special thing about the school,” Rao said. “I think [Harvard] used Covid as a nice smokescreen, and it just went away.”

FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on student criticisms about the end of shopping week.

Dorm Crew, a 70-year old program that employed students to clean dorm bathrooms, completely halted throughout the pandemic. It will resume next semester, but with a smaller cohort of students doing audiovisual work.

Some students charged that the College used the pandemic as an opportunity to end the controversial program.

Harvard spokesperson Michael Conner has previously declined to comment on student criticisms regarding changes to Dorm Crew throughout the pandemic.

4. Zoom created greater academic flexibility.

Even though most of Harvard’s classes have returned to in-person instruction, Zoom is not a relic of the past.

Instead, many classes now offer students the option to attend lectures virtually when they are sick.

“I myself Zoomed into some in-person classes a number of times, which was actually really helpful because it meant that even though I missed a day, I didn’t miss a lecture,” Ory said.

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Juhee Goyal ’22, who has served as a teaching fellow in engineering and physics classes, said the ability to host office hours remotely has made it more convenient for students to attend.

“They’d be all the way in the [Science and Engineering Complex] and not a lot of people would want to go, so having the hybrid option — like having Zoom office hours — helps that,” Goyal said. “If you have one small question, you won’t have to trek all the way to the SEC.”

Since classes resumed in-person, Hayato Shiotsu ’22 has had more take-home tests and Zoom options for sections, a change he said was “pretty nice.”

Arango, who has taken Japanese classes all four years at Harvard, said the department’s pedagogy itself has changed since the onset of the pandemic.

“Before, you had to memorize how to write the Chinese characters, but now you don’t because all the assignments are on Google Docs and the exams are online,” Arango said.

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5. Parts of Harvard went hybrid.

After more than a year of Zoom, some of Harvard has adapted to the digital age for good.

Hannah A. Bottarel ’24, who chairs the Institute of Politics’ John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, said there have been ongoing discussions with the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee about how the organization will look post-Covid, even as in-person events took place this year.

“We also are able to do more virtual and hybrid Forums, which has been actually really cool in bringing in more international perspectives and bringing in people who maybe wouldn’t be able to come to the Forum space,” Bottarel said.

The move to online has extended to Harvard’s workers. Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers director Bill Jaeger said he believes the increasing adoption of hybrid work is “revolutionary.”

“Our members will report that they’re settling into hybrid arrangements, which are expected to continue indefinitely,” Jaeger said. “For a lot of our members, that’s awesome.”

6. Greater attention is paid to mental health and wellness.

This semester, wait times for therapy appointments with Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services reached six weeks as demand soared. Still, some affiliates described a greater emphasis on supporting student wellness and mental health since the start of the pandemic.

“It was a big adjustment for me going to online school, and then it was a big adjustment for me coming back,” Ory said. “It was definitely a semester of regaining my foothold on how to actually be a student again.”

Kevin Huang ’22 noted that he has felt an “increase in empathy” among professors and hopes that it will continue beyond the pandemic.

“I think professors are willing to show more flexibility and understanding,” Huang said. “A lot of professors understand what their students are going through at a more personal level.”

Ian J. Miller, a history professor and Cabot House faculty dean, said he hopes this understanding remains long after the pandemic.

“I hope that it’s one of the legacies of this opening phase of the pandemic — that we continue to focus on well-being and to recognize it and normalize appropriate responses to student mental health needs,” Miller said.

For better or for worse, many Harvard students, faculty, and staff said they believe the pandemic has left many legacies on the school — ones that won’t go away with the masks.

College Dean Rakesh Khurana said in a May interview that he believes the pandemic has induced a change in philosophy about the importance of Harvard’s residential experience.

“After chalk, probably one of the most important pedagogical devices in the world is the dining table,” Khurana said. “And I think we will never take that for granted again.”

—Staff writer Kenneth Gu can be reached at kenneth.gu@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KennyGu8.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at leah.teichholtz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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