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School Year 2020-21

Repositioning Harvard House Life

3.26.21

Close-up image of an "ice lantern" (a light set in an ice casing) in the snow on Radcliffe Quad

Cabot House members cheered up the wintry Quad with their hand-crafted ice lanterns. 

Photograph courtesy of Cabot House faculty dean Ian Miller and resident dean Meg Lockwood. 


Cabot House members cheered up the wintry Quad with their hand-crafted ice lanterns. 

Photograph courtesy of Cabot House faculty dean Ian Miller and resident dean Meg Lockwood. 

On a Tuesday night in early March, the Pforzheimer House Committee convened on a Zoom call, the virtual analog to the Hastings Room where it once met on campus. The crew had a reputation to maintain, and did not take its present task lightly. Juniors Javin Pombra and Kiana Ziadkhanpour, the committee chairs, led the way in scripting the year’s Housing Day video for the freshmen who would soon be sorted among Harvard’s 12 upperclass Houses.

This year’s Pfoho Housing Day song would be Ariana Grande’s “positions,” a pop hit which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 after its release in late 2020. Pombra played the song, which opened with the following lines:

“Heaven sent you to me
I’m just hopin’ I don’t repeat history”

The group riffed through a couple of different Pfoho-related lines that mirrored the couplet, finally settling on a verse that highlighted one of the Quad House’s greatest assets:

“Larry sent you to me
I just know that I’ll get an n+1 suite”

Housing Day, held this year on March 12, highlighted the importance of generating spirit and community among students now scattered across the world—students from all classes, not only freshmen. During this past year, the undergraduate Houses have experimented and innovated in attempts to revive the effervescence that once characterized their student communities. 

When Harvard shut its gates last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Houses scrambled to adapt activities to a virtual landscape. Pombra said two main aspects of pre-pandemic Pfoho life needed to be transposed to the new setting: organized programming such as open houses, speaker events, and Taco Bell nights; and the organic community that flourished over late-night study sessions in the dining hall or serendipitous interactions on the Quad lawn. “Online, you can still have a lot of those events—we can still ship free food, we can still ship paint-by-numbers kits and have trivia nights and new virtual escape rooms,” he said, “but you are missing that second aspect of being in the same location at the same time, and having interactions that blossom into friendships.”

 

 
The winners of Dunster House’s most recent trivia night on March 5, 2021: (from the top) Nour, Meiling, MyeongSeo, Sanjana, and Sam.
Their team beat 12 other Dunster teams and more than 50 competitors.  
Photograph courtesy of Dunster House resident dean Michael Uy. 
 

Many Houses dug into that first programmatic aspect in order to make up for the loss of the second. They continued virtual entryway gatherings, community dining halls, and organized discussions. But these events didn’t always yield great turnout. Zoom fatigue, the pervading exhaustion that has accompanied any interaction with a screen, deterred student attendance. “The success rate is probably around 25 percent,” noted Dunster House resident dean Michael Uy. Some events that would otherwise have drawn hundreds of students now bring in only a handful, he added, “but we have had some events that have garnered more student and tutor participation.”


Art materials were provided to students and tutors to make segments for a COVID Quilt.
Photograph courtesy of Adams House Dean faculty dean Sean Palfrey.  

“It’s really hard to attend those [events], just because pretty much everything is an online event, said Ellie Loigman ’21, a senior in Dunster who’s living off-campus in the Cambridge area. “After being online for classes all day, it seems like a better use of time to make dinner with my roommates, and actually have some sort of in-person interaction, than to go to all the House events. I definitely appreciate the fact that they have them, I just haven’t fully taken advantage of them.”

For many students living at home for the semester, House life has felt like an additional commitment to be fulfilled on top of an already busy and tiresome schedule. “They’ve definitely put in the best effort possible,” shared Alex White ’23, a sophomore in Leverett House who’s currently in Virginia. “Just from having to balance everything with online education…I haven’t necessarily been able to take advantage of a lot of that stuff, but they’ve made it as easy as possible for those of us that can to do so.”

Even for students on campus, life under lockdown has presented tremendous challenges to engaging in typical House culture. “We’re in the same physical space but…you can’t really run into people, like in the D Hall, because you’re in the D Hall for five minutes. You pick up your food, and then you go back to your room,” said Kendrick Foster ’22 of Winthrop House. “I would say the two other people that I interact with almost exclusively are my two roommates. That’s my social bubble on campus, it’s two people.”

Seeing this disengagement among their undergraduates, House deans, administrators, and student committees have sketched more creative blueprints to build a sustainable community amid lockdown. Central to this work has been understanding the different circumstances that students now confront. “One big challenge was realizing how diverse people’s experiences were, and therefore potentially how diverse their needs were,” said Anne Harrington, the Pfoho faculty dean. “It was a worry about not quite knowing what everyone needs, and how you find ways to wrap your arms collectively around people but also attend to people’s individual needs.”

On campus, for instance, students bemoaned the loss of gyms to stay in shape; in response, Pfoho bought resistance bands and jump ropes. Off campus, students’ circumstances and capacities for House life varied much more widely, a problem that required a more tailored approach. So, deans and tutors turned to individual outreach. That became one of the most successful methods of reaching students during the pandemic, explained Adams House faculty dean Sean Palfrey.

Angela Ma, a resident tutor at Pfoho, concurred. “I love having a nice, hearty check-in. That tends to work because when you have too big of a group, there are lags and there are uncertainties about who should talk, and what ends up happening is it’s very quiet, though people do have things to say. So I think one-on-one works best.”

 

When they do plan larger events, Houses now emphasize intentionality and creativity in the process. Resident dean Meg Lockwood pointed out that Cabot House continued its years-old winter celebration, “Festivus,” under quarantine and mailed party hats out to students to enliven their Zoom rectangles. In Leverett, resident dean Katie Daily reported, House tutors were able to arrange remotely a virtual tour of a Costa Rican coffee farm led by experts from the country’s famous seed-to-cup coffee shop, Café Monteverde. The House ordered and shipped coffee from the farm to everyone, and the community congregated online for a virtual tasting session. Pfoho, meanwhile, purchased a virtual reality system to allow students to venture beyond its gates and explore the world safely.


One of the many virtual Adams House Uber Eats dinners with students, tutors, and Senior Common Room members.
Photograph courtesy of Adams House faculty dean Sean Palfrey, . 

Houses have also made sure to use the one resource that universally attracts undergraduates: food. The Adams deans repurposed in-person community funds to cover Uber Eats trips for students living elsewhere in the country and world. Students at Dunster organized a “Hot Ones” spicy wings challenge with their faculty deans. “That’s not just a virtual thing—people come to events for the free food in college,” said Pombra. “I guess it’s a college-student thing. So that’s definitely the number-one strategy.”

 
There were lots of wonderful pies at the Adams Pi Day celebration.
Photograph courtesy of Adams House faculty dean Sean Palfrey.

 

Culinary bribes boosted not only turnout at House events, but also engagement within the community as a whole. “Food is still an important uniter, and I think that’s why these ‘open houses in a box’ and these Uber Eats study breaks and these Trader Joe’s hauls are going well,” said Ma.

To minimize sustained screen time and include students from multiple time zones, some Houses incorporated asynchronous forms of engagement as well. Pfoho, for instance, began the Instagram “Super Mario 50 Challenge,” an homage to building manager Mario Leon, who shares his name with the beloved video-game character. As part of the challenge, Leon has been wearing a different Pfoho-crest-adorned vintage garment—some dating back to the 1980s—daily for the past few weeks, posting a picture of his ensemble to the Pforzheimer Instagram along with fun captions and tidbits of House history. As part of the challenge, students have also recreated Leon’s outfits with their own vintage garb for prizes. The initiative has been wildly successful, engaging upperclassmen as well as the freshmen and sophomores who have not yet lived within the northernmost House’s dorms.

Other platforms have also proven similarly successful. In late 2020, Dunster House set up a Slack space to foster conversations related to election season, which was just then ramping up to fever pitch. “If we were to have just a Zoom call for election night, then that would have lasted 10 hours with maybe a handful of students going in and out,” explained Dean Uy. “But if it was on Slack—which is what we did—then students can post in real time, while they can also catch up asynchronously.” Engagement over Slack can have a snowball effect, with a few well-timed and witty comments leading to entire threads of organic student discussion. As a result, Dean Uy said, the slack channel generated hundreds of comments from both the students and public-service tutors.

Finally, one of the most successful outcrops of quarantine House life has been the one fully divorced from any virtual platform: mail. Houses’ mailing campaigns have been wildly popular, with students even boasting on Twitter about the latest packages at their doorsteps. In place of faculty dinners, Dunster piloted “Cookies and Conversations,” which shipped students cookies in tin cans bearing the Dunster House shield. Pfoho has sent its students home-baked Harry Potter-themed goods and plush polar bears. Other Houses also have mailed students physical tokens to show they have not been forgotten.


Getting ready for an outdoor pizza-grab-and-go night at Pforzheimer.
Photograph courtesy of Pforzheimer House faculty dean Anne Harrington.  
 

Together, these efforts have worked to sustain community when it is both most invisible and most necessary. As Harvard plans to bring its entire student body back to campus next fall, its Houses will focus on ensuring that their new student cohorts—two-thirds of whom have never lived within their walls—feel included in their communities. “The juniors…are going to shoulder a big burden,” said Dean Palfrey. “They are going to need to be the leaders and the social and activity instigators of the House—to help the tutors, help the deans to recreate what is the core of Harvard undergraduate life academically and socially.” In the meantime, House faculty deans, committees, and tutors have already begun working to ensure that the classes of 2023 and 2024 get a proper welcome to their upperclass homes in the fall.

Some Houses also plan to retain certain community-building strategies developed during the virtual year. Dean Daily said that online office hours, for example, had become a convenient way for students to meet with their House advisers amid busy schedules. Daily also noted that the Leverett had partnered with a number of local companies—such as Taza Chocolate—during quarantine to mail food to students, forging a connection she hopes will persist long after the pandemic recedes.


Cake pops being prepared for mailing to students.
Photograph courtesy of Pforzheimer House faculty dean Anne Harrington. 

With the right blend of programming and spontaneous interaction, the Houses will be able to build upon the infrastructure they have already created to welcome two classes of students into the fold of House life. “Part of the magic of creating community is listening to the individuals who comprise it and what they need. So the community’s always a little different every year as new people come in and bring their ideas and creativity and desires,” said Dean Harrington. “[Community is] a word that’s easy to say, but it’s a project that’s always ongoing.”

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