Since Harvard returned to full residential density, House teams have had to really stay on top of things to keep life running safely and smoothly for students as protocols and guidance changed. The Gazette spoke to five members of Mather about their efforts to keep their House humming, the challenges they’ve faced, and the moments that have made it all worthwhile.
For teams running things, COVID times have been about flexibility, reinvention, and good canine therapist
Luke Leafgren, resident dean there for 10 years, says they have had to adjust virtually all aspects of House life to fit COVID constraints and restrictions, including dining hall rules, cleaning schedules, tutor sessions, events, meetings, study breaks, common room usage, open houses. All have been reformatted at one time or another for remote or in-person use.“In many cases, the students, tutors, and staff are new so they might be organizing something for the first time,” Leafgren said. “But even if a veteran tutor or I host an event that we also held two years ago, we need to relearn the details and the process since we've been doing things differently for the past two years.”
Recently, the biggest challenge has been regaining momentum for in-person events and activities. Leafgren says intramural participation is lower than usual, and the staff is trying to determine why and adjust to it.
“So much of what we do involves coming together and being a community — playing intramurals together, studying together, late night conversations in the dining hall, sitting down with students and talking through an issue,” Leafgren said. “Just sitting down to have a conversation with a student is the most rewarding thing. Those are the ways you build a relationship and feel like you’re making a difference. That’s the sort of thing that gives us energy for working through the challenges of all these changes.”
Organizing carnival-style gatherings and even building snowmen after a storm
Anh Tran knows that making sure everyone feels taken care of is more important than ever, whether she is rallying around another tutor who is having a tough time or helping a student get through a positive COVID test.Tutors this year have the added responsibility of making sure students are following COVID-19 policies and protocols. When a positive case occurs, tutors are often the ones walking students through the process, dropping off care packages, and checking in with the ailing until they recover.
One of Tran’s toughest chores is being in constant response mode and keeping up with changing policies and protocols, such as isolation guidelines, dining hall rules, and testing cadence.
She does this work along with her traditional responsibilities as a resident tutor, which include fostering a sense of community. In COVID times, this has meant lots of outdoor activities as the weather allows — things like carnival-style gatherings and even building snowmen after a storm. In the fall, the tutors divvied up Mather’s courtyard so students could host events of their own, safely and within University guidelines.
“We’re trying to make up for lost time,” Tran said. And she said the House will get there “together.”
Creating meals that are both nutritious and ‘good for the soul’
Paul Gabbidon and Nelly Gonzalez
Paul Gabbidon and Nelly Gonzalez, who oversee dining at Mather and Dunster houses, have a saying: Mealtime is showtime, and pandemic or not, the show must go on.The two say the core of their jobs during the pandemic has remained much the same: designing menus, gathering local, sustainable ingredients, and making sure the kitchen staff have what they need to create meals that are both nutritious and “good for the soul.”
Since residential life resumed in full at Mather, they have added little touches to make meals a little special. During grab-and-go dining at the start of the fall semester and again in the first months of the spring, they added comfort food items such as mac and cheese, chicken soup, and Rice Krispies treats. “That always makes their day,” Gonzalez said.
As restrictions eased, they’ve kept up those special flourishes. Recently, they hosted a walk-through dining experience with multiple food stations, and when sit-down dining resumed, they celebrated Mardi Gras with a Cajun-inspired lunch and dinner. They have also gotten creative with dishes that hit on the cultural ties of both cooks and students. Take, for instance, a recent Colombian beef stew.
One student wrote in the House’s online review system, Text & Tell, that it was amazing. “It reminded me of mom’s cooking,” they noted in all caps.
An informal therapist, especially for the pet forlorn
Cori (held by owner Anas El Turabi)
Cori’s role is mascot, greeter, and morale booster.“What he’ll often do is position himself right in the middle of the courtyard or right underneath the entrance to the House and just wag his tail and greet people as they come in and try and garner as many cuddles or as many scratches behind the ear as he can get,” said Anas El Turabi, his owner and a scholar in residence at Mather. “They line up for him.”
Cori’s side gig, however, is informal therapist, especially for the pet forlorn.
Students tell Cori (and his owner) how they miss their dogs or how their family used to have a cavalier King Charles spaniel (like Cori). There have been more than a few times when students have come up simply to cuddle with him for a few minutes in silence. Being one of the more unathletic dogs at Mather, Cori both loves this and is usually just hanging out anyway, El Turabi said.
“They then say: ‘Wow, I really needed this. This is the best thing that happened today.’” Cori just wags his tail — and he never reminds anyone their time is up.
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