Campus & Community

The cap (and gown) on a most unusual senior year

Class of ’21 reflects on experiences, gains, and losses

9 min read

Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

What have you done that you are proud of over the last year that you could not have done during a normal year?

Elle Shaheen ’21

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

I am a performer through and through and have not been able to perform live for an audience since March of 2020. I have not been able to do what I am meant to be doing. Fortunately, I’ve been able to be creative and do what I love most, just in slightly different ways. I put together a Theater, Dance & Media performance thesis called “RECORDED LIVE! The Great American Family Jukebox Cabaret.” The process was extremely cathartic as it allowed me to process this tumultuous year and how it’s affected my life. I’m thankful that this year allowed me the creativity and time to produce and perform this project.

It’s hard to concretely describe just how much loss I, along with my peers, have experienced over this past year. I also think there’s been so much gained over this time. Though this time still feels incredibly uncertain, the past year has allowed me to grow immensely and I’m ready to take on this next chapter of my life with the utmost strength. I cannot wait to get back on stage with the people I love most. I’ve already teared up at the news stories of theaters preparing to open up again in the coming months, and I’m preparing to grace those stages soon.

Elle Shaheen is pictured.

Prashanth “PK” Kumar ’21


Inspired by the front-line workers battling the pandemic, I realized I had the time to apply straight through to medical school as opposed to taking a year or years off after graduation. From my childhood bedroom, I was able to study for the MCAT, write up my applications, and work with my House pre-med team to apply in a very short time. This decision to hunker down and grind through an entire graduate school application process would not have happened without the pandemic, and my ability to reflect on my own experiences and goals and make an “adult decision” was something I was proud of.

I am extremely grateful that my family has been safe and healthy throughout this entire pandemic. I think the main losses I’ve felt have been experiences. I haven’t been able to see my grandparents and family in India for almost two years and will not be able to go in the near future. Additionally, the loss of 15 months with some of my closest friends and an in-person graduation ceremony with my family members are experiential losses that I was heartbroken to lose.

I’m looking forward to stepping away from the virtual world and being able to congregate at sports games and in classrooms, see my extended family and friends, and appreciate the bustle and environment of restaurants and cafes in person again.

Prashanth "PK" Kumar is pictured

Nina Uzoigwe ’21

Brooklyn, New York

Over the last year, I spent time completing and submitting my engineering thesis in bioengineering, studying pulmonary valve replacement in neonates with congenital heart defects. I felt challenged and honored to have worked on this project alongside a pediatric cardiac surgeon and a team of bioengineers at Boston Children’s Hospital and their Cardiology Department. Despite what was going on in the world, every moment made me understand what it meant to dig even deeper and work even harder toward creating a clinical solution for the benefit of others. And because of this perseverance, I was [lucky] to receive the dean’s award in the engineering sciences as well as a Hoopes Prize due to the excellence and caliber of my work. In the year ahead, I am looking forward to continuing my education in medical school as an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and serving my community in any capacity that I can as I become a physician-scientist.

Nina Uzoigwe is pictured.

Alyx Britton ’21

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Though I’ve been living without support from my family for a couple of years now, I didn’t really feel that independent until this year. Since I had to move off-campus, I was able to build a lot of skills that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I’ve become a great chef and baker as well as a whiz at budgeting and Boston tenant laws! Surprisingly, I found that the things I’ve missed most haven’t been the big events and milestones, but the little, spontaneous things: running into a friend I haven’t seen in a while, impulsively getting a coffee on the way to class, or making last-minute plans to go out. With all the anxiety of the past year, I’ve found my day-to-day getting increasingly regimented, and I miss those little elements of unpredictability.

Alyx Britton is pictured.

Lisette Leon ’21

Duarte, California

Because of the pandemic, I was able to go home for almost a year, which is the longest I had been home since I left for College. I’m proud to have spent a lot of time reconnecting with my mom, learning her recipes from Arandas, Jalisco, and going on morning walks with her around our hometown. I’m grateful to have been able to slow down in a sense and do some reflection about what I actually want to focus my energy on. One of the things that gave me a lot of purpose and stability while I was home was my internship with Bay Area Legal Aid. Because of everything being virtual, I was able to work with this organization based in San Francisco from my home in Duarte, and continue working with them during the school year as well. During my time with Bay Legal, I am really proud of my work with the economic impact payment team, where we helped people in the Bay Area overcome dozens of obstacles to secure their stimulus checks. This involved many frustrating calls with the IRS but I loved being able to talk to our clients on a regular basis and know that I helped in some way.

Thankfully I haven’t experienced any loss in my immediate family. They were able to all transition to work from home except for my dad, who is a machine operator, and my sister, who is a doctor. We have lost loved ones in Mexico and it has been very difficult not being able to mourn with our family as we have chosen not to travel. It has been extremely frustrating to see people traveling to Mexico and other Latin American countries to vacation when most of the people who live there have not had widespread access to vaccines.

Lisette Leon is pictured.

Justin Wei ’21

Hong Kong

After completing my citation in French sophomore year, I knew that I wanted to pick up just one more foreign language before I graduated. Despite having long had an interest in Japanese and Japanese history, the distance from Dunster House to Northwest Labs — where Japanese courses are typically held on campus — was just great enough to dissuade me from committing to a 9 a.m. class that met five times a week. Unexpectedly, and abruptly, the pandemic-necessitated shift to online learning removed this constraint. By simply clicking into the same Zoom meeting every day, I was able to learn about Japanese customs and dissect short stories with a group of warm, motivated classmates — who have all become good friends. Together, we built a pandemic-era community that helped sustain me through an academic year like none other.

I miss the warm hugs and short, 10-minute conversations you might share with an old friend from a first-year seminar or even pre-orientation as you find yourselves in the basement of Memorial Hall lining up for Fly-By together. These are also the kinds of interactions that have been the hardest to replicate in our virtual social world of late.

When conditions improve and circumstances allow, I look forward to returning to reading rooms and perhaps even having the opportunity to engage with some of the primary sources that I wish I could have accessed as I was finishing my thesis earlier this semester. Of course, when international travel permits, I am also incredibly excited at the prospect of gathering — offline — with friends I have not been able to see these past 15 months or so.

Justin Wei is pictured.

Photo courtesy of Justin Wei.

Maya Burhanpurkar ’21


Being outside Harvard for the past year has afforded me the opportunity to reflect and explore new frontiers to a far greater degree than I did when I was in Cambridge. As a physics major, I was rather singularly focused on my courses and research in preparation for graduate school before the pandemic. The change of pace of being at home prompted me to try a variety of new things, including volunteering with Harvard’s Small Claims Legal Advisory Service for low-income residents, trying my hand at science communication as a writer for the Harvard Science Review, and engaging in social-impact consulting as a part of the Harvard Data Analytics Group.

Maya Burhanpurkar is pictured.

Photo courtesy of Maya Burhanpurkar.

Koji Everard ’21


As someone who has taken time off previously prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel I had less to lose than many of my peers by staying in School since most of my blockmates/cohort had graduated already as part of the class of 2020. Nevertheless, I definitely feel my College experience was cut short — I spent a total of about 2½ years actually in Cambridge. Pretty surreal to think about.

I had to be quite creative in gathering both my secondary and primary sources for my thesis without the use of Harvard’s library resources. I was fortunate enough to travel domestically within Japan to access archives over the summer.

I think what I’m most looking forward to this summer is visiting friends around the U.S. and hanging out with them without major concerns over restrictions or public responsibility (to a large extent). I remember sitting outside in late November/December of 2020 in Boston in frigid weather on a porch all because of COVID; I thought I would freeze.

Photo courtesy of Koji Everard.