On the morning of March 10, after Harvard mandated students vacate their dorms to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Caroline S. Kristof ’20 sat at her desk staring at the stack of thesis books towering before her, the pages overflowing with five thousand little post-it notes.
She weighed a couple courses of action in her mind while sitting there. The responsible thing to do would have been to buckle down, carefully peel each of the sticky notes from the pages, and return the books to Widener Library before packing up the rest of her dorm room.
But as campus changed around her, she couldn’t.
“How could I waste a single second doing this when I could be spending time with people who I don’t know when I’m ever going to see again?” she said.
Despite reports of the coronavirus’s escalating toll, students had largely gone about their lives as usual in the weeks before Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced the campus closure. They rushed from classes to clubs, buoyed through waves of exhaustion by the far-off promises of warm nights, picnics, and outdoor concerts. Seniors toiled over their theses, fueled by excitement for the weeks of celebration and release between exams and graduation.
Upon waking to Khurana’s email, the Class of 2020 lost innumerable traditions, farewells, and last memories of places and people they might never see again. With just five days left on campus as Harvard students, they had to pack up all their possessions, bid uncertain goodbyes, and reconcile themselves to an unknown future.
With the weeks leading up to graduation spent in their childhood bedrooms, many seniors have reimagined the canonical senior spring experience, trading spring break trips for service projects, final sports seasons for at-home gyms, and stage performances for virtual fans.
After the shock Kristof and her classmates felt wore off, they entered a season of losing and gaining — losing Senior Week, Commencement, and thesis celebrations, and gaining something strange and new.
“The night before one of my friends left and I just remember talking and raving about how much of a dream it’s gonna be when we get the email from the University saying, ‘This is the day you guys are coming back,’” Eric J. Cheng ’20 said.
“I think that this senior spring that we didn’t get is just a reminder that we can have what we wanted to have and constantly be looking forward to it for the rest of our lives,” he said.
Before Harvard’s announcement on March 10 that students must vacate their dorms in five days, Adam E. Harper ’20 said he felt he had been awake for “10 days straight.” Having just returned from his rugby tournament in Los Angeles, Harper spent the entire night before the news working on his thesis. Sleeping for just two hours, he rushed to rugby practice at 7:30 a.m.
When he returned to his dorm, he and his roommate read the news: “Harvard College students will be required to move out of their Houses and First-Year dorms as soon as possible and no later than Sunday, March 15 at 5:00pm.”
“Literally within seconds in the class of 2020 Facebook group, it was like, ‘Senior week starts now,’” Harper said.
For many, it did. Immediately after the announcement, students poured out of their dorm rooms, coalescing in the streets to drink, dance, and cry. Seniors ditched classes and tuned out the daily drum of obligations, eager to spend their final days on campus differently. They flooded the Class of 2020 Facebook group with messages urging any secret crushes to confess their feelings and corralling friends to gather on Widener steps for an impromptu senior class photo.
“You’re walking, then someone’s suddenly like, ‘We’re going to the steps, we’re going to the steps!’” Kristof said. “Somehow we gathered a thousand of us. You know how impossible it is to schedule a single meeting with a single person? And then somehow in two hours, we got our entire class on Widener steps.”
“I think that the mentality of the first few days was just ignore, push this under the rug, let’s just appreciate each other and do everything we had dreamed up doing in the last three months,” Kristof added.On some days, that meant nonstop drinking with friends and dancing at bacchanalian final club parties that stretched from day to night. On others, it meant picnicking by the Charles River at sunset or taking one last trip into Boston.
“It was the least amount of sleep I've ever gotten in my entire life,” Aishah Ahmed ’20 said. “I don't think I slept for probably 96 hours."
“I definitely thought in my head, ‘I'm supposed to be social distancing,’ but it's really hard to not succumb to the allure of spending time in massive crowds with all of your friends,” she said.
They undertook unusual activities, too: playing Leonard Bernstein ’39’s piano, sliding down the Widener steps on a mattress, holding roasts of friends, hosting sleepovers, pouring cheap booze under the Lowell Bells, climbing onto dorm fire escapes, and dancing on the tables of the Lampoon.
But the pandemic that had caused all the commotion wasn’t completely absent.
Hakeem Angulu ’20 said news of the College’s mandate swept him into a “whirlwind” of logistics and emotions. While some could party before a road trip home, he knew he couldn’t return to his hometown in Jamaica.
His friends staged last-minute graduation and thesis photoshoots on Widener Library’s steps. Since his own thesis remained unfinished at the time, his friend lent him a traditional black binder.
They were generous in other ways, too, opening up their homes for those in need of accommodations and quietly commemorating their time together.
“There was a lot of sitting in each other's rooms and crying and reminiscing and making promises and plans for the long future,” Angulu said.
Despite classmates dancing, hugging, crying, and planning, Elias W. “Eli” Russell ’20 said saying goodbye to campus felt most real when he was alone.
“I went crazy decorating my room this year, and I had an amazing setup because I was in Cabot. I had my own bedroom, bathroom, and common room and all the walls were covered in stuff,” Russell said. “I think when I finally took things off the wall, that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, this is just a room.’ That was when it felt like, ‘Oh, I'm out of here.’”
As she arrived home in New York City, the last days on campus past her, Isabella Di Pietro ’20 faced a “pretty big reality check.”
Her family owns five restaurants in the city, and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio had ordered all restaurants to close except for takeout and delivery on March 15. Soon, her father had to close four of the places they owned and lay off 95 of their 102 employees.
“It was a pretty devastating thing,” she said. “Telling them they have to go home is just awful.”
But the family had an idea: they could keep the lights on and the staff employed by taking donations to provide meals to frontline healthcare workers. All they needed was a website for the operation.
“I studied history and literature, so that was not in my wheelhouse,” Di Pietro said. Luckily, she could enlist the help of a friend from Cambridge, Edith Herwitz ’20, who has a background in computer science.
“We actually started working on the website together and 18 hours later, we launched,” Di Pietro said. “And right away, we saw an incredible outpouring of generosity.”
Between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. the first day, Di Pietro said they received $12,000 in donations. They have thus far raised over $1.4 million and delivered over 100,000 meals between Di Pietro’s family’s restaurants and the 18 other collaborating restaurants.
The organization, named Feed the Frontlines, is now transitioning to combatting the “staggering” food insecurity in New York City.
Di Pietro works full time on Feed the Frontlines with many of her closest friends. Though she will still “walk” in virtual commencement, she decided to take a leave of absence this semester to fully devote herself to this project.
“School feels very far away from me right now,” she said.
Other seniors have also traded studying on campus for relief work at home.
After quarantining together for two weeks in New York, Harper and Kristof said they were also seeking ways to confront the pandemic.
Harper said he reached out to a friend from Harvard, Cara Kennedy-Cuomo ’17, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s daughter. He asked her if there was anything he and Kristof could do to help in the state government.
“She said, ‘You can't really help remotely, but you can come to Albany,’ and we're both like, ‘Oh, okay,’” Harper said.
Harper and Kristof moved into an apartment hotel in New York right before the peak of hospitalizations in the state. They began by assisting with sourcing masks, gowns, and gloves — then quickly transitioned to hospital coordination, stockpiling, and testing. They also copy-edited Cuomo’s slides each morning, fielded calls about potential partnerships between businesses and the state of New York, worked with a crisis hotline service to create resources for frontline workers, and wrote briefs for senior aides about testing, supply chains, and contact tracing.
“It was so crazy seeing how every single person who was working was doing 97 things at once,” Kristof said.
“96 of which they've never done before,” Harper added.
Around Easter, he and Kristof said they received daily notifications to their state email inboxes every morning at 6 a.m. updating the increasing number of coronavirus-related deaths.
The responsibilities and reminders immersed them in the reality of the pandemic, Kristof said.
"Obviously, it was such a privilege to be able to watch the press briefings live and copy edit the slides and see in real time how a government is reacting and handling it and how transparent they are about how much they don't know,” she said.
One day, Harper said a receptionist in the office asked him to read a letter addressed to Governor Cuomo from a Northeastern Kansas farmer named Dennis Ruhnke.
“He basically said, ‘Governor Cuomo, you'll never read this letter, but I have a wife who has one lung and has diabetes, and we're really scared. We have five N95 masks — we’re keeping 4 for us — from when we farmed in the 70s,’” Harper recounted.
He and Kristof shared the letter with Cara Cuomo, who passed it on to her father. Days later, Governor Cuomo read the letter on national television — and it quickly swept national headlines as an emblem of selflessness during the pandemic.
“Stuff like that stuck with us as much as sitting in on crazy meetings and understanding what being at the forefront of the response is like,” Harper said.
“It also distracted us from our own kind of massive shift and trauma from graduating college,” Kristof added.
Harper said he and Kristof will return home for two weeks and continue their work as a summer job.
Other students have transferred their on-campus activism to advocacy work related to the pandemic.
Angulu said he is collaborating with Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Nicco A. Mele to advocate for prison reform related to COVID-19, to which the incarcerated population is particularly vulnerable.
Yong Han Poh ’20, who served as the co-Editor-in-Chief of the Singapore Policy Journal while on campus, said the journal’s staff had engaged local academics, activists, journalists in virtual panel discussions about migrant worker policy, among other social issues. She added that the pandemic has exacerbated “dismal” working conditions.
Po said the return home allowed her and her colleagues at the journal to be “more looped into the local news cycle.”
“I have to say though that it’s been really hard juggling all of this with school work — there were many points in the past two months when school just felt bizarre and completely pointless,” she added. “I've had some time to rest recently, especially since school is over, and I plan to use this time to re-group and figure out how best I should spend my time (and what I want to do post-graduation).”
Khurana said in an interview earlier this month that he was “heartened” to see how many students are rising to the moment and taking charge in this time of crisis.
“I've been inspired by students summoning all sorts of qualities of keeping their wells of empathy, expanding their circles of concern about how we can create a better world for the future,” he said.
For every new task a senior found, another gave one up.
Had Harvard not closed campus, Margaret T. Canady ’20 and six classmates would have directed a dance show in the Loeb Experimental Theater called “Like a Good Conversation.” The group had danced together for nearly their entire time at college — in the Ballet Company, the Modern Dance Company, Expressions Dance Company, and Eleganza.
“The show was supposed to be a celebration of the four years we've had together,” Canady said.
After returning home, she floated several ideas with the scattered group, including compiling a montage of previous dances. Eventually, though, they deemed such a video an underwhelming alternative. She ultimately decided on producing the original show online.
The dancers taught choreography over Zoom for an hour each day over the course of three to four days, navigating internet lags and mirrored webcam images.
The dancers then filmed their respective parts with their phones. Canady and Angie Cui ’20 edited the videos together into one synchronized dance, set to the song “We Find Love” by Daniel Caesar.
“It felt good to make work and collaborate on projects again and to do that within the constraints of being in totally different parts of the country,” Canady said.
Other seniors who participated in the performing arts on campus have developed solo performances.
Jessica L. Ding ’20 said she was seeking a sense of consistency after she returned home to Pennsylvania. She decided to post videos of herself playing the harp on her Instagram.
Ding started by posting excerpts of the pieces she learned for her dual degree program at the New England Conservatory. It wasn’t long, though, before her friends started sending song requests, like “Remember Me” from Coco and “Oogway Ascends” from Kung Fu Panda. She numbered her videos to mark the days since she left Cambridge.
“It's been nice just to have something regular to do everyday, and it's been really fun just learning new pieces — not for a purpose, but just because people want to hear music,” Ding said.
Elmer Vivas Portillo ’20 — who had developed an interest in photography while at Harvard — said he also learned to create from afar. He read articles about photographers who had used FaceTime to conduct remote photoshoots and decided to try the method out, reaching out to his friends to solicit their participation in his virtual photoshoot experiments. Accounting for the sometimes blurry images, he made collages and superimposed frames on top of one another.
“I realized this is not only fun, but it's a personal challenge that I think can help me grow,” Vivas said.
With little other than the internet to entertain them, some seniors have found new media to explore. As a class project for Music 284r: “Sounding Identity,” Cahleb E. Derry ’20 started a podcast featuring young black artists. Derry, an aspiring talk show host, said he hopes the project will outlast the pandemic.
He released his first episode, which featured Kaedi Dally, the bassist for the female a capella group Citizen Queen, several weeks ago.
“As my teacher said, there's a huge hole missing for black queer folks in podcast content,” Derry said. “I've been thinking a lot about the ways that black musicians and musicians of color are cut out of the picture so often, but their art forms are taken by white artists. I really wanted to counteract that by highlighting what black artists are making.”
On March 11, a day after the College’s message about campus closure, athletes received another disruptive notice: the Ivy League had cancelled the remainder of its events for the season. For some, this meant their last match had taken place in 2019, before most Americans knew what a coronavirus was.
Christian E. Athanasian ’20 was gathered with his lacrosse team for a bonding event when they learned about the cancellation. Among other major milestones, Athanasian said the lacrosse team had high hopes for winning the Ivy League tournament and advancing to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament under their new head coach.
Now back home, Athanasian said he has been trying to supplant lost time playing lacrosse with other endeavors.
Recently, he started teaching himself yoga to become more flexible.
“It's just hard to take something away that was so important from your life that was also physical,” he said. “So I’ve been trying to adapt to new physical challenges that I hadn't necessarily gone after before.”
Baseball player Chad N. Minato ’20 was in the middle of practice when the announcement hit. Aside from the promise of games and championships ahead, he said he particularly missed the experience of playing with his teammates every day.
“I was just looking forward to being able to play out this last year with my teammates, my friends,” he said. “That's what I feel like we missed out on.”
But, like the artists who transferred their work online, athletes soon heard they might be able to play again as the NCAA announced that it would grant an extra year of eligibility to athletes due to the pandemic.
Because the Ivy League generally prohibits graduate students from playing for the varsity teams, Minato and several of his teammates began considering a transfer.
“It was actually exciting for us, and interesting to be going through the recruiting process again at this age, already having the perspective of having already played four years of college baseball,” he said. “It’s an entirely different feeling than when you're in high school going through this.”
Considering a potential career in professional baseball, Minato said he will play at Cal Baptist University in Riverside, Calif., next year while pursuing an MBA.
Cheng, the Class of 2020 first class marshal, said he spent hours agonizing over his pre-recorded opening remarks for Harvard’s virtual graduation.
With Harvard-provided lighting equipment suited on his phone and a teleprompter on his computer, he recorded the speech around 50 times, making mistakes and starting again.
On May 28, seniors would have streamed into Harvard Yard in their caps and gowns, sitting together with a now-laughable closeness. Instead, they will take part in a live-streamed celebration, receiving rolled up diplomas in the mail.
In any other year, Cheng and his classmates would use the ceremony to say their last goodbyes before entering adulthood. But, like so much else, the pandemic has forced them to say modified farewells.
Memie H. Osuga ’20 spent most of her senior spring off-campus finishing a film thesis, which she conceived in the fall as a meditation on online connection. Her goal, she said, was to bring “legitimacy and sweetness” to the concept of virtual relationships.
“Most of my senior spring was spent working on this film, which was joyous and weirdly self-reflective in light of self-isolation,” she added. “It was just kind of funny to work on a film about online connection living within the confines of my room.”
Despite spending months thinking about the power of digital connection, Osuga said virtual classes and commencement are no substitute for “truly experiencing” the last months of school.
Jeremy L. Tsai ’20 said that while he admires his classmates’ work to plan graduation, he feels the online ceremony lacks many of a traditional Commencement’s best features.
“There's a sort of recognition that feels less possible when everyone is anonymous and behind their screens just watching your pre-recorded video,” Tsai said.
“Once you're at Harvard, it's kind of like, ‘Go go, go!’ and you're constantly doing things and you don't always have the time or space to reflect,” he added. “I think a lot of us were looking forward to having the time and the space to rekindle friendships, to think about how we’ve changed and learned and grown over the last four years.”
But Maureen Tang ’20 said being home has actually allowed her to reflect more deeply on her time at Harvard.
“Often in school, we don't take a lot of time to be present,” she said. “Being alone for most of the days gets you to think a lot, and I think it made me reflect more on my college experience — maybe more than I would have if I was at school and busy with all the things going on like Commencement and Senior Week.”
For the Class of 2020, the spring has brought its own kind of math. The pandemic subtracted sports seasons and final performances, Senior Week parties and thesis photoshoots, extracurriculars and Commencement exercises. But, after a while, it added something, too: frontline jobs and rediscovered hobbies, time for self-reflection and moments of self-discovery, and — eventually — a new sense of what it means to be part of a class.
“I like to think that this time that we did not have will just motivate us to sprinkle these months that we didn't get into the rest of our lives, our five-year reunion, 10-year reunion,” Cheng said. “The process of being a Harvard graduate is not something that leaves you. It's a world that you're a part of, if you want to be a part of it, for the rest of your life.”
“I think in some ways it’s an opportunity,” he said.
—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.