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‘Not What I Expected from Harvard’: Summer Research Interns Say Record Heat and Poor Communication Tarnished Experience

Winthrop House is one of Harvard's twelve residential houses.
Winthrop House is one of Harvard's twelve residential houses. By Mariah Ellen D. Dimalaluan
By Vivi E. Lu and Leah J. Teichholtz, Crimson Staff Writers

This summer, the temperature in the Greater Boston area reached highs of 100 degrees Fahrenheit plus humidity. Faced with record-breaking heat and no air conditioning, some students on Harvard’s campus for the summer reported adverse living conditions and minimal support from program administrators.

The University hosted 22 students on campus this past summer for its Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard — a ten-week program that connects undergraduates from other universities with research internships. The program participants lived in Winthrop House’s Standish Hall, a dorm that offers ceiling fans but not air conditioning.

Some SROH participants said their experience at Harvard was tainted by record-breaking heat and little communication from administrators. Some students left their doors open, stayed awake late into the night, or slept in labs, hallways, and house common spaces, according to four program affiliates.

SROH intern Lena R. Heinrich said living on Harvard’s campus left her in a “steady state of exhaustion.”

“I was up at 3 a.m. most nights during the heatwave. People were sleeping in the library, in the common areas, leaving their doors open and propping them with things so that we could get any kind of airflow,” Heinrich said. “It was really not pleasant. I really wanted to leave.”

SROH participant Abby N. Ross said an intruder broke into her dorm multiple times after she and her suitemates left the door propped open to improve air circulation. The trespasser, a 26-year-old man, was arrested on July 26 and charged with breaking and entering, per a Harvard University Police Department log.

When Denise Yoon, a peer mentor for SROH, asked program administrators to install portable AC units in the dorms to mitigate the heat, it took nearly a week — and intervention from a faculty mentor — for students to receive box fans as a substitute, according to emails obtained by The Crimson.

SROH participants were notified ahead of the program that they would be living in dorms without air conditioning, according to a Harvard spokesperson.

The lapse in communication between participants and administrators culminated in a transportation mishap in late July.

While preparing to travel to a conference in Hartford, Conn. with the other program interns, Heinrich noticed coolant leaking from the bus. Students were told to board the bus anyway, according to Heinrich.

The bus eventually stopped at a rest area due to engine problems, at which point a new bus — without air conditioning or windows that could open — arrived to transport the students. Heinrich said when a student on the second bus passed out due to heat stroke, the situation “devolved into pandemonium.”

“We were in this million-degree bus parked on the side of the freeway in the blaring sun, trying to deal with the person having heat stroke while the rest of us were actively unsafe and extremely overheated,” Heinrich said.

After the student was taken to the hospital, the other passengers were told to get back on the bus. Yoon said she later learned that this was because the bus could not stop on the highway and program directors had called for another bus for students to board at the next rest stop. At the time, the students believed they were traveling the rest of the distance to Hartford on the bus lacking AC.

“In some ways, that’s very understandable — you just can’t stop on the side of the highway,” Yoon said. “I think the major problem was that they got on the bus in the first place.”

In response to student criticisms, College spokesperson Aaron M. Goldman wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard welcomes participant feedback.

“We were delighted to welcome students from numerous academic institutions to Harvard's campus this summer for a variety of programs,” Goldman wrote. “Hearing their feedback plays a critical role in helping us to ensure that future cohorts have a meaningful and enjoyable experience.”

Besides the heat and transportation issues, some SROH affiliates reported a lack of clear communication from administrators throughout the summer.

“It’s almost weird to call it issues of communication because there just was none,” SROH mentor Dave Matthews said. “They never told us anything about when they were showing up or telling us about the research symposium that they had going on and making sure we knew deadlines.”

To improve the experience for future iterations of SROH, Yoon said she has engaged in conversations with administrators this fall.

Still, Matthews said he believes the program’s living conditions will make it more difficult for Harvard programs to recruit a diverse group of students in the future.

“You have all these students that have come here and had a horrible experience and been treated poorly by Harvard,” Matthews said. “It reflects poorly, and they now have a bad impression of what it’s like to be here.”

While Ross and Heinrich said they enjoyed their research in the lab, they said their impression of Harvard has been negatively impacted by their residential experience.

“The whole experience, in terms of people caring about your safety and just caring at all, I would say definitely put a bad taste in my mouth and was not what I expected from Harvard,” Heinrich said.

—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @vivielu_.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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