October 12, 2020 – Today I had lunch outside in Cambridge with three of my friends, all of my senior Race 16 colleagues. I have already had countless lunches with them: burritos in the Unified Lounge, bowls cereal at every picnic table in Kendall Square, sushi at the Stud, Chinese cuisine in the lobby of the Koch building. This time it was a little different. We were able to eat together this fall afternoon as we had all tested negative for covid-19 twice this week. We wore masks, ordered take out using an app, and sat six feet apart sipping our ciders and eating our sandwiches.
The 2021 promotion was only given 12 weeks in dormitories, running from late August to mid-November. Twelve weeks is all I need. I spent all spring and summer 3,000 miles from MIT, taking virtual classes from my parents’ basement in Seattle. After long, mind-blowing days of video conferencing and online p-sets, I finally shut Zoom down and immediately open FaceTime to talk to a pixelated version of my girlfriend, our conversation flickering with my overloaded internet connection. Some days I didn’t close Zoom at all; I left one meeting and joined another, a carefully timed group video call to friends living in four different time zones. Despite frequent walking and cycling outdoors with my family, I felt like a brain in a jar, a mind without a body, living a life mediated by my 13 inch laptop screen.
When quarantine weeks at home with my parents and younger brothers turned into months, all I wanted was one last chance to see my friends in person, to say goodbye to six feet one on the other before we graduate and disperse across the country and the world for good. My time on campus this year may be short, but I am extremely happy that I had the chance. Plus, the limits of this time have given me a strong sense of clarity – I can’t turn down an invitation to lunch when there are so few lunches left.
This fall, after spending a week in quarantine at the start of the semester, MIT allowed me to see a small group of five friends, called my “pod,” without physical distancing. As long as our dorm is not on “public health break,” we can spend time in each other’s room without a mask, and we can get into each other’s cars. Eager to connect with people my age, I do almost everything with my pod, a bunch of friends I used to live with in MacGregor. We moved to Simmons together this fall, with the intention of getting larger dorms with additional desks for our take-out lab kits. We eat, we play endless Guitar Hero tricks, we argue over the merits of various project ideas 2.009, we watch The boys and dissect its juxtaposition of political allegory with epic, bloody, unsubtle battle scenes, and we all do it together. Beyond my pod, I can p-set with my friends outside on a patio, and it’s a major upgrade from our usual zooms. I can see my girlfriend, who recently graduated from MIT and lives in Somerville, for picnics at a local park; we have to sit on separate picnic blankets, but six feet is nothing compared to 3,000 miles.
On Monday morning, before my 9:30 am virtual class, I head to Center Z with two friends to do a covid test before breakfast. We’re all on a mandatory meal plan now, and we’re all on a mandatory bi-weekly covid test plan. We wipe our nostrils, then we have oatmeal and eggs to take to the student center, where our breakfasts and lunches are served on weekdays, and we eat outside in the morning sun. It seems normal and my months at home in quarantine seem wrong to me.
Sometimes, while browsing video conferences, in-person recitations, covid tests, weekly Zoom calls with my rowing team, and pod hangouts, I forget that I can’t stay in this new MIT forever. different. An N95 mask sits on my shelf as a souvenir of my flight home in November. My mom cycled 10 km to pick it up from a friend of hers and showed me YouTube videos showing how to find the right seal. She helped me put another N95 on my face in August outside the airport, but I’ll have to seal my mask myself for the flight home.
In November, when I carefully don my N95, I will board my third flight back to Seattle in 2020. I returned in January after my rowing team’s training trip to Florida, I had my wisdom teeth and spent most of the IAP on my parents. ‘couch, drink smoothies and watch the HBO miniseries Chernobyl with my father. I thought this would be my last long stay at home in college, or maybe never. Just six weeks later, I was holding a precious container of Clorox wipes as I boarded a plane from a deserted airport in Logan. I was home again by Pi Day.
When we learned this summer that seniors could return to MIT for the fall, I jumped at the chance first, but my resolve to return faded as the summer wore on. , eroded by waves of pandemic anxiety. I was worried about dormitory outbreaks, inedible quarantine foods, deep social isolation, the cost of campus housing as I mostly took virtual classes, the prospect of being kicked out for forgetting to complete my daily health certificate. And if I contracted a covid, I risked infecting my family and everyone on my flight home.
But in a pandemic, there is no community without trust. As terrified as I was, I trusted MIT enough to come back. And in return, MIT trusts me to take my covid tests every two weeks, maintain a physical distance from everyone outside of my pod, and follow the ever-changing rules of life on campus. It’s a tenuous trust, easily shattered by a bad apple, an off-campus party that turns into a widespread event. But I chose to trust my fellow MIT students; I am responsible for protecting the lives of my classmates and I trust them to protect mine.
The 2021 class will not earn Senior Nights or Senior Balls or, without a vaccine, an in-person graduation. Instead, we get MIT branded masks and a deep sense of mutual trust and camaraderie. It’s strange to have a fall semester without morning rowing practices, face-to-face conferences, or a gathering of more than 10 people. But I’m happy to be here on campus with my classmates as I navigate this new reality. I’m grateful for 12 weeks of hiking with my pod, outdoor movies with my Simmons floats, and lunches with my friends – 12 weeks to make memories and say goodbye before we slip into an uncertain future.