University People | The Undergraduate
Home, Harvard, and (Im)permanence
The complicated return to campus post-pandemic
I spent the first “post-pandemic” semester back on campus racked with homesickness. In retrospect, it was a familiar feeling: the same fog had descended upon me my first year at Harvard, in 2019. That was the first time I had been away from home for months in a row, and the distance hit me hard. Some nights, I couldn’t sleep.
The context of the pandemic is unique to my college experience and that of my peers. And though it’s tempting to see it as something now in the past, it has given me a much more fraught understanding of the boundaries between home and school. I see this in my friends as well. We returned in the fall of 2021 with a very specific way of approaching Harvard: after the campus closed with only a few days’ notice in March 2020, we could no longer pretend that this nearly 400-year-old institution could provide us with a sense of permanence or expectation of stability and place. Harvard persisted whether or not students occupied its halls.
Missing home and feeling guilty about being so far away from my family and other people I loved was nothing new, but these feelings had been amplified by that sudden break from campus life. As everything around me changed—classes moved on and off Zoom, first-year friendships cooled or disappeared altogether, loved ones moved in and out of isolation—homesickness was the closest thing I had to a constant.
What made the homesickness so suffocating was that it was the first time I’d felt such an acute sense of being adrift in more than a year and a half. I was forced to reassess; I realized that as I attended my freshman spring classes from my childhood bedroom, my stuffed animals visible on the Zoom screen behind me, my previous sense of what Harvard meant to me had disintegrated. I had originally thought of college as a transition to something close to adulthood, a shift predicated on leaving home and making one’s own decisions.
Now, the boundaries had permanently blurred. Having participated in virtual “campus” events and several months of coursework from home, but not having any real connection to Cambridge or my new professors beyond the screen in front of me, I retained the inescapable feeling that I was only vaguely a part of the University.
After choosing not to continue with Zoom school, I had taken a break from Harvard during the 2020-2021 academic year and spent those months working from home, in Miami. Though I was working multiple jobs simultaneously, being at home provided me with a break from putting on a performance for my professors and peers. In the apartment where my family had lived for all my 20 years—in the small, converted bedroom I had occupied for as long as I can remember—I felt secure.
Returning to Cambridge in the fall of 2021 was a shock. As I negotiated what classes I should take and what jobs I should apply for, how I understood myself relative to others—in Miami and in Cambridge—was, once again, in flux. It quickly became clear that my Harvard experience would remain defined by the relentless grind mentality I had hoped to unlearn. We would be expected to bounce back as though nothing happened. How was it that Harvard expected its students to do that? Like many young people, I was still slowly figuring out how to work through feelings of grief and loss from the pandemic.
I am the child of immigrants and will be the first in my immediate family to graduate from a four-year college, and my discomfort at returning to campus seemed exacerbated by my awareness of the University’s long, exclusionary past. For much of Harvard’s history, my discomfort and that of my peers would have been the point. And like the pandemic itself, the dislocation it caused would most harm low-income communities and people of color.
Vivienne, a fellow writer and student at the college, also points to feeling destabilized in her relationship to Harvard as “home.” After being among the few Black students at a predominantly white and wealthy high school—one less diverse than the College—she hoped that Harvard could provide a space for healing.
“I don’t know why it’s so hard to find a community,” she said. “I think the [affinity] organizations we have are wonderful…[but] I personally kind of struggle to find a lot of friends who are Black here. I just feel very out of touch with who I am, and I just don’t know why that is.” Vivienne mentions the communities she’s a part of—arts clubs, the English department—and laments that they’re often predominantly white spaces, and ephemeral ones. Like the rest of the College, they are affected by the constant turnover of undergraduates. The creative writing group one joins as a first-year is not the same one that exists the next year, nor the next.
I too had looked forward to meeting and creating community with other Latine first-generation students here. What I didn’t realize at first, though, is that intentionally seeking out primarily Latine spaces within the institution often would leave me feeling more frustrated than fulfilled. They couldn’t provide a replacement for the stability that I feel in Miami or Guayaquil, where my extended family lives.
Opportunities to connect with people of my background weren’t organic to the Harvard system; they existed in spite of it. In practice, this meant that Latine meet-ups felt forced, no matter how welcoming the organizers. It was difficult to build friendships through affinity organizations under the Harvard umbrella; the University does not lend itself to these kinds of relationships despite a student body that has begun to diversify in its more recent history.
That’s not to say I haven’t made meaningful friendships at Harvard. My friends here are among the most important people in my life, and they’ve been crucial to my survival within the academy. But Harvard, as an institution, is not built to welcome us to a sort of “home,” at least not without expecting us to sacrifice a part of ourselves in return.
Coming from a background of immigration, my life was already defined by the disconnect between a “true” home, and a place to reside.
This past summer, I returned to campus almost immediately after visiting my family in Ecuador for the first time since 2019. The vast majority of them live in Guayaquil, where I spent precious weeks with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and family friends. Coming from a background of immigration, my life was already defined in large part by the disconnect between a “true” home, and a place to reside. Growing up in Miami, but having such an endless network of connections in Ecuador, where I’d spent two months every summer, I had to contend early on with the idea that “home” could not be defined by a single physical space. As much as it is a trope of immigrant literature to say this, it really did feel like I was caught between two places. I couldn’t fully identify with Miami or Guayaquil because both were places where I spent my time, and those I loved lived in both. At Harvard, the feeling of disconnect between many “homes” has only become more acute.
My roommate feels similarly. “It’s like I’m not supposed to be here, but I made it anyway,” she tells me. Like me, she values Harvard for what the school can do for her and her family, economically, in the long run. But she is sacrificing the ability to spend these formative years closer to home, closer to her culture, community, and generational systems of support.
Halfway through the 2021 fall semester, my family sold and moved out of our apartment where I had spent most my life thus far. As of now, we’re still in between homes and lucky enough to have a place to stay at my grandfather’s house. When I’m home on school breaks, I join my parents, siblings, and dog, all of us living in a guest room. As with my perspective on my Harvard experience, I find some comfort in knowing this living situation is temporary, one that will eventually lead toward a better outcome for us as a family. I’m privileged in having a safe and welcoming place to stay while we’re in this in-between state. But as in my life at Harvard, the acknowledged impermanence of my family situation also introduces a note of precarity.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the bed of my shiny, renovated dorm room in Lowell House. I wasn’t originally sorted into Lowell, and my block mates—the group of people I’ve chosen to live with—aren’t here. My house in the Quad (Currier) had finally started to feel close to a “home,” but this week, after a year struggling with allergies, I was finally moved into my adoptive River House. I moved alone. I won’t stay here. I can’t imagine going through another two years at Harvard without the one thing that did, for a second, feel permanent: my roommate, our block mate, our routine.
Being in this new room for the time being, I’ve spent a lot of time meditating on the idea of home, and on where we can and cannot find it. Can we ever consider institutions like Harvard home? I’m not so sure. If there are ways forward, they must be rooted in a sense of community that extends beyond the limits of the University itself.