Dear Harvard College Students,
I am looking forward to seeing you back on campus next week. I have so missed looking out my office window and seeing the Yard alive with activity, stopping to chat with you across our campus, and having the opportunity to recite the College’s mission of educating citizens and citizen-leaders for society in person.
I am excited for our full return to campus and there are many questions that have been going through my mind this summer: How do we think about what we’ve been through? How do we restore what we’ve lost as a community? How do we create space for understanding the different ways we have changed over the past 18 months? How do we emerge as a stronger and better institution? Our transition this fall is not simply physical and logistical. It also will be psychological, emotional, and cultural.
Throughout these long months, we kept hearing people say that they just wanted things to go back to normal. The idea of returning to “normal” suggests that we can put the pandemic behind us as if it never happened. But what we went through—the uncertainty, the loss, the feelings of being overwhelmed and scared—changed us. So, while I do believe we can move forward, I don’t think we should be striving to return to “normal.”
Instead, as we begin this new year together, I hope we can focus on working together to process what we have lost, what we have learned, and what we need to create. During these difficult months, many of you lost touch with friends you had just begun to know; others struggled to make connections with professors and peers in the virtual classroom. Some of you took time off and may have found a slower pace of activity than you had at Harvard; others may have struggled to focus from home with the anxiety of illness and uncertainty. When we reconvene, we will need to reestablish or create new connections with each other and ask questions about what aspects of pre-pandemic life we want to embrace—and what aspects of pre-pandemic life we may not want to recreate.
Some of you have already shared with me what you hope we can leave behind —the normalization of being overcommitted and perpetually sleep-deprived; corrosive hierarchies that make people feel less than; the emphasis on success at the expense of healthy habits; and the patterns of doing things for the sake of doing them rather than being invested in them. I hope we can work together to avoid settling back into those old patterns—and instead to focus on reestablishing meaningful connections—to your friends, to your academic work, to your teammates, and extracurricular activities.
Like me, you may be worried that it will be hard to reestablish those connections. When we are finally together again, I hope we can come together to think about how we can make these connections central to our community in the way they should be—as human connections—not resume connections. Let’s take the time to focus on listening, asking questions, helping each other, and supporting each other when things don’t feel right. We can learn from the inspiring example of Simone Biles that all of us—even those who defy gravity—need to treat mental health as we treat physical health. It is a long overdue recognition, not just in sports.
I hope we can also stay focused on the world beyond our campus. We saw injustice, inequality, and human suffering during the pandemic that we cannot and should not forget. So many of you jumped in to help by volunteering for PBHA’s SUP program, working in community health centers, and registering people to vote. As we ask ourselves how we can create a community on campus that is attentive to our needs, let’s also ask how we can create a world beyond Harvard that is attentive to human needs.
The coming years will be a transitional time for our world and for Harvard, but I want to encourage you to approach this year with hope. Your generation has had to deal with more firsts and challenges than any other generation in recent memory. You've demonstrated creativity, resilience, and a willingness to advance the public good that has inspired all of us. I hope you will use the next years ahead to figure out what role you will play in creating a more just and sustainable future.
I am very excited to learn from each of you and work together toward a better world.
Danoff Dean of Harvard College