After being fractured for almost 18 months, the Harvard College student body will finally descend upon Cambridge this coming fall, reunited as a whole. For some students, the upcoming semester will take the form of a homecoming, for others, an introduction. What rings true for all, however, is that the end of our exile provides the opportunity for what might be the sharpest cultural reset that Harvard College has ever seen.
By the time we all set foot back in the Square, our collective idea of how it feels to be a Harvard student will be hazy at best. Some of us may have lived in the Yard or the Houses for parts of this academic year, but with physical gathering so heavily restricted and such a small percentage of students in Cambridge, what meaning, if any, has the notion of “campus culture” carried this year? When we return, only one class, the rising seniors, will have spent a full year on campus: Only a quarter of students will have been to Yardfest, attended the Houses’ spring formals, and watched our campus thaw from the bitter winter.
Harvard College’s institutional cultural memory is hanging by a thread. This reality, while a reminder of what has been lost over the past year and half, also holds the great potential to reshape campus culture. Now is the time to interrogate what might have discolored the Harvard student experience in the past, and to explore how we might resolve these issues moving forward. At the same time, we have been handed a chance to reflect on what we cherished about campus life in the past, and to identify what we wish to reignite, kindle, and sustain moving forward.
Indeed, we are the architects of post-pandemic Harvard. Instead of accepting whatever new campus forms passively, now is the time to determine which structures to tear down and which to build up.
After being torn from our lives on campus or leading solitary existences in the dorms, many of us have been longing for the social interactions we associate with in-person Harvard. But living on campus, surrounded by hundreds of peers, can still be lonely.
Too often, our relationships at Harvard are transactional, based on what one person can offer another: help with problem sets, access to elite social circles, and networking opportunities in the future. Yet, such empty, transactional ties demonstrate a deep-seated disconnect between the relationships that most of us need and those that we actually tend to form.
While by no means characterizing all friendships at Harvard, this transactionality seems to be a norm, and it is incredibly easy to feel deeply, deeply alone. But the past year — spent maintaining our most genuine friendships over distance and helping each other navigate the pain wrought by the pandemic — has taught us a great deal about authenticity, compassion, and true friendship, which we must now draw upon.
During the pandemic, it became normal to not feel normal. Between awkward Zoom silences, we told peers calling in from across the globe that our pandemic-dominated weeks, like theirs, have been difficult and draining. When we were finally able to have serendipitous run-ins with friends on the street, we skipped the plastered smiles and fake defenses. In this world of uncertainty and distance, many of us have found ourselves with little energy to waste pushing falsity in our interactions; we have somehow become closer and more real.
Soon, the pixelated screens, and even the masks, may disappear; but the way we conceptualize relationships at Harvard need not go back to the old normal. Instead of eschewing conversations with distant acquaintances, let’s get way too candid. Rather than climbing social ladders, let’s sit and laugh together (or collectively cry, if it’s a bad day). Above all else, let’s look for authenticity in our connections — because, at Harvard and beyond, we all have the most to gain from simply being real.
While striving for more genuine, honest relationships will take us far towards a warmer campus culture when we return, there are still social and institutional structures in place at Harvard that can contribute to a cruel campus.
For most, forming relationships starts with getting involved in campus extracurriculars. This mandate becomes particularly challenging within Harvard’s gates, where joining organizations often first entails undergoing a competitive comp process. This particular experience — a token of Harvard life in which students must earn their membership to a given extracurricular group — inherently breeds discord.
As we push for coveted club memberships, we measure ourselves up against our peers, and external tensions simmer. As we get sucked in by shallow markers of success, we forget about the interests and passions that drew us to a given group in the first place. And when we fail by these subjective standards, inward pressures seethe. In their elitism and selectiveness, groups like final clubs tend to epitomize this culture; such selective and elitist comp and punch processes dignify the idea of an in-group and out-group, and a hierarchy of students.
This hyper-competitive extracurricular culture then intermixes with daunting academic pressures, often turning the campus into a pressure cooker. Students pull all-nighters to meet deadlines, attend class while feeling sick, and sacrifice their mental well-being to adhere to a syllabus. We often forget how to take care of ourselves, or how to just be ourselves.
But during the pandemic, many of us felt these tight, cutthroat pressures loosen their grip — particularly within the classroom, where previously immutable course requirements were made more flexible at a large scale across the College. Deadlines were softened due to the extraordinary circumstances. Extensions were often offered more liberally. Office hours were made more accessible. Absences and lateness were treated with profound understanding and care.
While such offerings were appreciated — and enormously necessary — during the pandemic, it is troubling that it took such dire circumstances for these provisions to become normalized. Personal, individual-level struggles and catastrophes have been affecting students’ lives long before the pandemic started, and will continue to do so afterwards. This is particularly the case when it comes to students with uniquely challenging circumstances — first generation, low income students, students who need accommodations, students who have disabilities, and beyond — that make academic survival disproportionately difficult. With this in mind, our goal should be to become more accommodating and understanding all the time, not only in moments of universal crisis and mass tragedy.
Harvard’s cutthroat culture creates a dynamic in which it becomes all too easy to abandon compassion and inclusivity. When we return, eliminating the competitive comps and retaining the academic flexibility can help reduce the pressure, and make it easier for students to breathe.
We can base our cultural reset on humanism and compassion, starting on an individual scale: We can interpersonally be more open. We can relish our peers’ insights, and fight the urge to be constantly critical. We can redefine what it means to be successful, recalibrating our standards to understand that the greatest feat of all would be cultivating a truly unifying college experience — one that’s just as inviting as it is enriching.
With Covid-19 vaccines distributed and mask mandates lifted, the world has become more eager than ever to resume their normal, pre-pandemic lives. While the idea of a full return to campus has become synonymous with a return to normalcy, many students do not know what a normal year at Harvard looks like. As Harvard welcomes the Class of 2025, it will have to reorient the rest of its population as well. With the Class of 2024 never having stepped foot into Harvard’s physical classrooms and the Class of 2023 returning after an abruptly truncated freshman year, Harvard has to do more than return to normal.
For our part as students, we must take seriously the responsibility of establishing a new and improved campus culture — but we need the University to help us repair the tear the pandemic has caused in campus life.
Harvard must help its students come home: We will need a deliberate and thoughtful reorientation process, not only for its freshmen. The College should make an effort to reweave the social fabric with events and gatherings, and help the senior class preserve the quirky traditions that characterize Yard and House life.
Upperclassmen coming back must pass their torch, teaching the underclassmen how to properly enjoy the Harvard-Yale Game and the hype for Housing Day, appease the River Gods, and yes, run around naked for Primal Scream.
In preserving our favorite old traditions, our return in the fall need not discard the new habits and activities that we have developed during the pandemic. In fact, we should defend any newfound sense of self the pandemic has brought us, and new tricks we may have learned along the way. We should not lose sight of the importance of taking care of ourselves and the world around us, even as the days shorten and the assignments lengthen.
So, let’s not go back to normal. Let’s be thoughtful, and use our hard reset — a once-in-a-385-year-history chance — deliberately to create a new normal in a warmer, more compassionate Harvard College.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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