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“Maybe you have mono,” a new friend suggested whilst searching the internet, as I lamented a growing list of symptoms: fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and a fever. Just days later, after my first trip to Harvard University Health Services, my diagnosis of mononucleosis was confirmed, and I disappointedly joined the ranks of students who deal with an illness during their first semester of college.
Before I officially received my diagnosis, I had already realized that I was not prepared to deal with being sick away from home and my family in California. I lacked a thermometer to verify my fever and food to supplement meal times when I was too exhausted to walk from Pennypacker Hall — the most remote of the freshman dorms — to Annenberg. I didn’t understand how my brand new health insurance worked, and was unsure how to prove to my professors that I was really sick before I had a proper “sick note” from HUHS. Out of desperation, I even offered to send my instructors photos of my brand-new thermometer that read my alarming 101.6 degree fever.
At first, I felt very alone as I dealt with these uncertainties, but I soon realized that my experience getting sick less than a month into college was not unique. In recent weeks, I’ve encountered countless friends, entryway-mates, and acquaintances who are dealing with illnesses ranging from Covid-19 to severe sinus infections to the most mysterious and undiagnosable of them all — the “frat or freshman flu.”
Besides these personal experiences, countless news outlets have also chronicled this phenomenon. The Daily Pennsylvanian wrote about the “freshman plague” last fall, and The Crimson itself published a piece last October that referenced a “college sickness” spreading throughout campus. National news organizations like NBC and U.S. News and World Report have also reported on this, offering suggestions for combating the inevitable. The high rates of sickness are most commonly attributed to the increased frequency of contact among students — think communal bathrooms, large lectures, and use of shared spaces like common rooms and libraries — in contrast to the decreased contact students experience while living at home.
With this experience being so widespread among freshmen, one might expect Harvard to have some sort of guide for students who are sick besides the suggestion in the student handbook to seek guidance from HUHS. Though HUHS provided me with practical medical advice, they were unable to advise me on how to navigate the stressful logistics of an unfamiliar college lifestyle while sick, beyond a suggestion to speak with my proctor or resident dean to deal with the “academic impact.” While resident deans, proctors, and Peer Advising Fellows contribute to a larger network of support in order to close this gap, it can be hard to understand how to utilize this system when you are new on campus.
The issue first-year students face when dealing with sickness is not a lack of adequate resources, but rather a limited understanding of what exactly is available and how to access those things.
Harvard must bridge this wide information gap among its younger students. First-year Orientation is the perfect platform for such a conversation to take place and doing so would likely decrease the stress around contracting an illness on campus. Helping students navigate illness on campus is more than providing a brief overview of HUHS in an orientation module or requiring students to get flu and Covid-19 vaccines before the semester ends. It’s increasing awareness about the process for ordering bagged meals from Annenberg, offering specific examples of what your proctor can assist you with while sick, and clearly defining how to report a sickness-related absence (if HUHS has not yet confirmed your diagnosis or been able to see you for an appointment, for instance).
Dealing with sickness in college presents a learning curve. While some might argue that this experience presents an opportunity to develop one’s sense of independence and personal accountability, taking the time to make Harvard’s resources widely known makes it easier for students to learn to tackle such a situation on their own. Given the prevalence of the “freshman flu,” a more comprehensive orientation event and guide to handling sickness as a Harvard first-year seem a worthwhile project.
McKenna McKrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Pennypacker Hall.
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