Home Among Strangers
There is a familiar rapture that engulfs the beginning of an academic year at Harvard. The September sunshine glimmers against the Yard’s red-brick buildings, the motley Luxembourg chairs dot the crisp beds of grass, a momentary levity permeates the entire student body, from impassioned first-years to blasé seniors. Classes have just begun—there are no “real” homework assignments yet. Extracurriculars have yet to inundate the schedules of first-years and sophomores. And the vulture that is recruiting—be it for corporate careers or social organizations—has yet to descend on its prey. The beginning of the year means Convocation, Shopping Week, the Activities Fair, and Crimson Jam, among other rituals.
When I visited Harvard over Labor Day weekend, I witnessed this particular beginning unfold from the vantage point of a ghost—recognizable to some, imperceptible to others, and lurking in the shadows nonetheless. Making a trip to what I now call my alma mater just three months after graduating from its (virtual) ranks felt phantomlike. Given that I’d never met a member of the Class of 2024 or Class of 2025 in person, I lingered somewhere between the typical, pre-pandemic recent graduate who still recognizes three-quarters of the student body and a seasoned alumna who recognizes no one. Even Harvard’s current juniors—the Class of 2023—are students with whom I’d only interacted in person for a few months before the pandemic erupted in March 2020, when I myself was a junior.
I chose Labor Day weekend to fly to Boston, conveniently receiving that Monday holiday off from my Washington, D.C., summer journalism internship. I had just a couple more weeks left of my time in Washington—and in the United States—before moving to the United Kingdom, where I’ll live for nine months in the other Cambridge and pursue a master’s degree. I yearned to spend a few of those waning days in the U.S. visiting friends from college—many who still lived in Boston, either after graduating or as fifth-year seniors who had taken time off from Harvard during the pandemic.
I stayed with a college classmate originally from my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. Chris, who works as a high-school teacher with Harvard Teacher Fellows, lives in the city’s North End—a comfortable distance from Harvard, I reasoned, but close enough for me to commute back and forth to spend time during the day with friends on campus. I hesitated to live at Harvard with current undergraduates, although the College this semester lifted its ban on outside guests, including overnight guests—just one of many steps it has taken to reintroduce a sense of normalcy into student life. Part of me was worried about being infected with the coronavirus had I stayed in a Harvard dorm—and another part of me felt too awkward simulating a bygone undergraduate experience by sleeping on campus as a graduate.
Aside from my shock at recognizing less than half of the student body—a drastic shift from last semester, when I recognized a majority of students, who were largely seniors, living on and around campus—I was surprised by the extent to which pre-pandemic norms were in place. Other than mandatory indoor mask-wearing, it seemed normalcy had been restored, at least to a certain degree: in-person classes, a bustling dining hall, and previously shuttered libraries, common rooms, and study spaces were once again fixtures of campus life. On Sunday, a friend, Jess, and I walked past Tercentenary Theatre, where a crowd of approximately 100 people had gathered to watch an a cappella jam on the steps of Memorial Church. We quickly put our masks on, despite being outdoors, and lingered along the periphery for a few minutes before deciding to leave out of caution. I couldn’t help but think of my own Commencement ceremony, which was supposed to take place on those same steps just three months earlier.
“I’m shocked by how normal Harvard is pretending things are this semester,” Jess confessed to me as we walked to Davis Square. We agreed Harvard’s relatively lax policies despite the Delta variant’s spread seemed premature—although the College has taken steps to increase the frequency of student testing for COVID-19 and has indefinitely postponed social events like the annual Crimson Jam. Still, large outdoor events like the Activities Fair proceeded as planned—giving concerned students like Jess pause. “I still try to only study in my bedroom,” she told me, even though the libraries are now available.
As someone who spent most of the summer in Washington, D.C., where I avoided indoor dining and mingling with large groups, I couldn’t help but feel the dissonance between my experiences and those of my friends who are still at Harvard. In Washington, I started wearing a mask indoors in late July. But Boston and Cambridge, in a state with high vaccination rates, did not implement indoor mask mandates until late August and early September, respectively. It felt like Harvard students, each fully vaccinated and tested three times a week, lived in their own bubble. But without last semester’s rules preventing students from traveling off campus overnight and outside guests from staying in dorms, the bubble was tenuous, at risk of bursting any moment.
Photograph by Meena Venkataramanan
The dissonance between campus life and my own extended beyond the pandemic, as I began to recognize the impacts that graduating from college had made on my day-to-day routine. My four-year stint at Harvard was perhaps the final time I didn’t have to worry about doing my own dishes, I thought, while carrying my crumb-filled tray to the conveyor belt in the Adams House Dining Hall after eating Sunday brunch there, outdoors in the House’s courtyard with a friend. And while I regularly griped about the dining hall food when I was an undergraduate, I found myself now savoring the HUDS stuffed chicken breast—a Sunday staple—appreciating both its taste and nutritional value in comparison to my own, insipid attempts at cooking.
Between re-experiencing Harvard in its quasi-normal state that weekend and wishing my time there hadn’t passed so quickly—and hadn’t ended so anticlimactically—I wondered whether I should have taken time off from Harvard during the pandemic, as many students did. Returning undergraduate friends tell me that it feels like coming back up for air after being held underwater for the past 18 months. Whether the breather came too early is yet to be determined.
On the final evening of my trip, I met a friend, Emily, for dinner on the outdoor patio of the Cambridge Common restaurant near the Radcliffe Quadrangle. I’d always wanted to try it, but never had the chance while an undergraduate. Emily, a self-proclaimed bar-food connoisseur and Quad resident who has one semester left at Harvard, had spoken highly of the restaurant’s mac-and-cheese bites. We agreed to meet there.
Before I left Adams House to make the 15-minute trek up Massachusetts Avenue to the restaurant, another friend named Kyra, who also has one semester left at Harvard, told me that Cambridge Common was a popular spot among graduate students.
“But I guess you’re a graduate student now, too,” she said as she escorted me to the front door of the newly renovated Claverly Hall, where we had been lounging in a common area, sharing sliced watermelon cubes from the dining hall.
I paused at the threshold, door ajar, and felt the breeze drift inside with the feathery stealth of a ghost. Standing on Mount Auburn Street, orbiting the nucleus of a campus I’d called home for the past four years, I hadn’t yet thought of myself as someone other than a Harvard undergraduate.
“You’re right,” I said, my fledgling identity as a student of another Cambridge cemented by the words of a friend in this one. “I guess I am.”