A sublet in Somerville. A condo in Cambridge. An apartment in Allston. Denied the opportunity to live in Harvard dorms, some students at the College have returned to the Boston area on their own dime.
Harvard announced in July that it would hold all undergraduate courses online, welcoming freshmen — in addition to a select few upperclassmen — to spend the fall semester on campus, while taking classes from their dorm rooms. In a normal year, more than 90 percent of Harvard undergraduates live in on-campus housing.
Despite precipitous local real estate prices, a number of upperclassmen have chosen to take up residence in the Cambridge or Greater Boston area this fall. They say they hope living adjacent to Harvard will help them maintain the continuity of their College experience, facilitate socially distant meet-ups with friends, enable them to access library resources, and potentially allow them to resume work in local labs.
Although living off campus frees these students from the strict rules the College has put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, administrators have urged them to act cautiously.
“Whether you are living on campus or elsewhere, I trust that you will take seriously the values that animate our learning and standards of student conduct that are outlined in the Handbook for Students,” Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote in a late August email to students.
“Wherever you are living, you are an ambassador and representative of our community, which is why our Harvard Community standards apply to all enrolled students,” he added.
Khurana urged undergraduates to pay particular attention to the public health guidelines in their area, including wearing masks, maintaining appropriate physical distance from others, and avoiding large gatherings.
While they won’t have access to most campus buildings, several students said living in Massachusetts will allow them to retain a “sense of normalcy.”
“It was really difficult to make the decision to leave home, but I'll be going to an environment with friends that's hopefully as closest to the college experience as possible,” said Nivedita Ravi ’21, who is living with three other Harvard students in Cambridge.
Michael Yin ’22, who found an apartment in Boston with four friends, said taking online classes at home prevented him from being as productive as possible.
“At home, I very much feel like I’m in a summer mode, so I thought moving to Boston might really help with that,” Yin said. “I just felt stagnant and I thought being able to live with friends for a while would be a really big help in terms of feeling like things are moving again.”
Racheal L. Lama ’23, who is living with a group of four other Harvard students in Central Square, also said she moved to Cambridge to create a more optimal atmosphere for remote learning.
“The environment here feels a lot better knowing that the people around us in Cambridge, the people on campus, are also students doing schoolwork,” she said. “All of us felt that like at home — or in our respective countries, wherever we were — because we weren't around other students, it was really difficult for us to focus in the spring.”
Lama added that the group had an extra incentive to set up shop near campus because Harvard’s library system has begun offering contactless book pick-up.
Kyle A. Mueller ’22, who is living in Boston’s financial district with a handful of Harvard friends, said that he and his roommates were similarly interested in availing themselves of campus resources.
He said the group, who are all science concentrators, hope their location will allow them to access Harvard’s labs — currently in a phased reopening process — should they open more broadly over the next several months.
Undergraduates also cited less studious reasons for returning to Massachusetts — namely, the chance to socialize. Mueller and Lama said they hope to perhaps see friends in the area while respecting public health guidance.
Nazeli Hagen ’21 — who is living with three fellow seniors in Cambridge — likewise said her group selected their location with the goal of socializing with nearby college students, while practicing rigorous social distancing.
“Cambridge, being close to campus, seemed like the best option — the highest probability that you would be around other college people, whether that be people living on campus or just other people who had the same idea,” she said.
Michael A. Fein ’22, who is living in a townhouse just across the street from Annenberg dining hall, said if he were a College administrator, he would be concerned about a large number of students choosing to live in the Cambridge area in the fall, given the convenience of congregating on campus.
He estimated that roughly 25 percent of the students he knows are either living near campus in the fall or planning on visiting this semester.
“I think that having mainly freshmen back on campus kind of saves them just because the number of interactions between sophomores, juniors, and seniors with freshmen that they haven't really met is probably lower,” Fein said.
He added that he and his housemates plan to take stringent safety precautions like wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines to ensure they don’t contract or spread COVID-19.
For both students and administrators, undergraduates flocking to nearby rentals is just one more challenge in an already unusual semester.
Hagen said she feels administrators will struggle to “police” the activity of students living in independent housing close to campus since, historically, the vast majority of Harvard’s student body has lived in on-campus dorms.
“Off-campus living is like part of the ecosystem at other schools, whereas at Harvard, it's not there at all,” she added. “And so I think that trying to build in that infrastructure would just be really, really difficult. “
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.