Most sophomores, juniors, and seniors were not permitted to live on Harvard’s de-densified campus this fall. But some found another way to be together, deciding to live and study with their blocking groups or with friends with common interests for part or all of the semester in less-populated parts of the country. The Gazette spoke to a few of the groups.
Claire Hotchkin, Gabby Schultz, Arianna Romero, Meaghan Townsend, and Gabrielle Fernandopulle would spend weekends hiking the mountains of New Hampshire during a typical, on-campus semester. So when the five seniors decided to live together as an off-campus pod for their remote fall semester, they knew the Granite State would be the perfect choice. They rented a farmhouse at the southern edge of the White Mountains only two hours from campus, 30 minutes from the grocery store, and five minutes from a lake where they kayak during study breaks.
“This space has really helped us get away from the stress of the outside world and allow us to focus on what is important,” said Fernandopulle. “Most seniors are in the depths of their theses, thinking about postgrad plans, or reflecting on what College has meant to them. It’s been so great to do this reflection here, in a safe, isolated space that is so close to many outdoor activities that we enjoy.”
Each day, the group splits up into a few of the house’s rooms, which they have affectionately labeled “d-halls,” [or dining halls] to attend classes and virtual extracurriculars and complete schoolwork. Townsend said that being remote has allowed them to have extra time to explore local hikes, go for daily walks, chop wood for nighttime fires, and have Korean cooking nights.
“Harvard is really wonderful in that it gives students a wide network of friends from all over the world. Yet, from this experience, I’ve started to really appreciate the depth of friendship that can unfold when you get to spend extended time with the same set of people,” she said.
The six friends didn’t know at first where they would take their fall courses, on campus or remotely. But the members of the group, juniors and seniors all, were determined to spend one of their final Harvard semesters with each other.
“When everyone’s summer activities and jobs were wrapping up, we were all looking for what was next. And we all really missed each other. We decided to spend this time together, especially since it is our last year at Harvard,” said Amanda Powers ’21.
Using an extensive spreadsheet, with potential locations ranging from Florida to Colorado, the group decided on a cabin in Vermont, right next to Stratton Mountain. There they have been taking fall courses, working remote jobs, and participating in extracurriculars. Marie Konopacki ’21 said that though it can be difficult to find the perfect academic space when they all have meetings or classes at the same times, the semester has largely been going smoothly.
“Because we can do classes together in the same space, it almost feels as if we have created our own small campus,” Konopacki said.
So far, the group of six has loved apple picking, baking, and hiking. They have started a new routine of watching a TV show together each night, and most recently viewed the entire “Twilight” movie series. On Friday evenings, the group has “family dinner.” On Sundays, they venture to the local farmer’s market.
“We are all spending more together than we usually would on campus, because even though we were living together on campus, we were always scattered to the wind, going to different activities and places at any given time,” said Molly Peterson ’21.
Together, with Ella Necheles ’21, Liv Weinstein ’21, and Courtney DeLong ’22, the pod has described the experience as rewarding not only because of the proximity to each other and the free time, but also because they are learning practical skills, such as how to grocery shop, cook, clean, and live independently.
“It feels like a gentle transition into adulthood,” Peterson said.
Bryan Head boasts a population of 83, but this fall that number surged 6 percent with the addition of five sophomores learning remotely.
“We tried to avoid bigger cities, COVID hotspots, and looked for a place near fun things to do. It was off-season so we got a good price for it, and it’s near Zion and Great Basin. All are within an hour or two of us,” said Jaxson Hill. “A few in my group are big into hiking, though I was new to it.”
Serena Wurmser, Ana Humphrey, and Hill are studying astrophysics and are also in Student Astronomers at Harvard-Radcliffe (STAHR). Hill brought a telescope and is teaching himself astrophotography, which is something he never could have done on campus.
“There’s a mountain three miles down the road at 11,000 feet,” he said. “We’ve been stargazing, and the sky is absolutely breathtaking. It’s horizon-to-horizon viewing of the Milky Way. We’ve seen Andromeda galaxy and Swan Nebula.”
The friends, including Chris Dolce and Loren Brown, shop every two weeks because the nearest Walmart is 45 minutes away. “We have to make those trips count,” Hill said.
Not being able to see other good friends is still hard, but Hill said he tries not to dwell on what’s out of his control.
“I’m glad I did this,” he said. “Even if we could have been on campus, there are so many restrictions, and it’s not regular life. I prefer to be out here doing our own things.”
This group of eight seniors saw remote learning as an opportunity to explore a new place that was different from both Harvard’s campus and their respective homes around the country. The group, hailing from Minnesota, Illinois, Florida, Alabama, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, converged in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. They arrived just before classes started and plan to stay until Thanksgiving.
“This location is a great combination of affordability and practicality. It is driving distance to all of the necessary places like the grocery store; there are relatively low levels of local coronavirus cases; and the house itself has access to internet connection that allows us to effectively participate in our classes,” said Alicia Zhang.
“The area we are in is really different from where a lot of us come from — it is rural and beautiful, and there is a lake just three or four minutes down the road,” said Joyce Lu. “The environment here is much more relaxed. At Harvard, we might be rushing from class to class, or meeting to meeting. Here, we can take more time to ourselves, and more time to be with each other.”
Veronika Melnik said that though the group is taking a variety of different classes, they are able to learn from each other and hold one another accountable for their schoolwork because of their proximity.
Jake Lazar, Annika McDermott-Hinman, Chris Sun, Graham Macklin, and Davis Tyler-Dudley round out the pod. At Harvard they live in Kirkland and Eliot Houses, but in the Poconos they have enjoyed the changing fall foliage on hikes and runs as well as learning about each other’s food preferences. They plan to organize group costumes for their Halloween celebration and cook a Friendsgiving dinner.
“We are very lucky to be in a position where we can have this unique experience. And though it isn’t the same as being on Harvard’s campus, it is still really rewarding and fun, and will definitely be something that we remember forever,” Zhang said.