A final fall on campusKatie McLeanon December 18, 2020 at 10:11 pm

October 12, 2020—Today I ate lunch outside in Cambridge with three of my friends, all fellow Course 16 seniors. I’ve eaten countless lunches with them before: burritos in the Unified lounge, grain bowls at every picnic table in Kendall Square, sushi in the Stud, Chinese food in the lobby of the Koch building. This time was a little different. We were able to eat together on this particular fall afternoon because we’d all tested negative for covid-19 twice this week. We wore masks, ordered takeout using an app, and sat six feet apart outside as we sipped our ciders and ate our sandwiches.

The Class of 2021 was given just 12 weeks in the dorms, stretching from the end of August to mid-November. Twelve weeks is all I need. I spent all spring and all summer 3,000 miles from MIT, attending virtual classes from my parents’ basement in Seattle. After long and eye-melting days of video lectures and online p-sets, I would finally close Zoom and immediately open FaceTime to talk to a pixelated version of my girlfriend, our conversation flickering in and out with my overburdened internet connection. Some days, I wouldn’t close Zoom at all; I would leave one meeting and join another, a painstakingly scheduled group video call for friends living in four different time zones. Despite frequent walks and bike rides outside with my family, I felt like a brain in a jar, a mind without a body, living a life mediated through my 13-inch laptop screen.

eating lunch with pod
Podmates Ben Koenig ’21, Ellery Rajagopal ’21, Rolando Rodarte ’21, and Alex Meredith ’21 on the 7th-floor terrace at Simmons Hall.

When weeks quarantining at home with my parents and younger brothers stretched into months, all I wanted was one last chance to see my friends in person, to say goodbye from six feet apart before we graduated and scattered across the country and the world for good. My time on campus this year may be short, but I’m incredibly glad that I got my chance. Moreover, the limits on 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 one 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 isn’t on a “pod pause for public health,” we can hang out in each other’s rooms without masks, and we can ride in each other’s cars. Hungry for contact with people my own age, I do almost everything with my pod, a group of friends I used to live with in MacGregor. We moved to Simmons together this fall, intent on getting bigger dorm rooms with extra desks for our take-home lab kits. We eat, we play endless rounds of Guitar Hero, we argue over the merits of various 2.009 project ideas, we watch The Boys and dissect its juxtaposition of political allegory with epic, gory, unsubtle battle scenes, and we do it all together. Beyond my pod, I can p-set with my friends outdoors on a terrace, and it’s a major upgrade over our usual p-set Zooms. I can see my girlfriend, who recently graduated from MIT and lives in Somerville, for picnics in a local park; we have to sit on separate picnic blankets, but six feet is nothing compared to 3,000 miles.

On Monday mornings, before my virtual 9:30 a.m. class, I walk to the Z Center with two friends to get tested for covid before breakfast. We’re all on a mandatory meal plan now, and we’re all on a mandatory biweekly covid testing plan. We get our nostrils swabbed, and then we get takeout oatmeal and eggs from the Student Center, where our weekday breakfasts and lunches are served, and we eat outside in the morning sun. This feels normal, and my months at home in quarantine feel fake.

Sometimes, cycling through video lectures, in-person recitations, covid tests, weekly Zoom calls with my rowing team, and pod hangouts, I forget that I can’t stay at this new and different MIT forever. An N95 mask sits on my shelf as a reminder of my plane ride home in November. My mom biked six miles to pick it up from one of her friends, and showed me YouTube videos demonstrating how to find the proper seal. She helped me fit another N95 to 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 home to Seattle in 2020. I flew back in January after my rowing team’s training trip to Florida, got my wisdom teeth out, and spent most of IAP on my parents’ couch, drinking smoothies and watching the HBO miniseries Chernobyl with my dad. I thought that would be my last long stay at home during college, or possibly ever. Barely six weeks later, I was clutching a precious container of Clorox wipes while boarding a plane out of a deserted Logan Airport. I was home again by Pi Day. 

When we got word this summer that seniors could return to MIT for the fall, I initially jumped at the chance, but my resolve to return faded as the summer went on, eroded by waves of pandemic anxiety. I worried about outbreaks in the dorms, inedible quarantine food, deep social isolation, the cost of on-campus housing when I would be taking mostly virtual classes, the prospect of being expelled for forgetting to fill out my daily health attestation. And if I contracted covid, I risked infecting my family and every single person on my flight home.

But in a pandemic, there’s no community without trust. Terrified as I was, I trusted MIT enough to come back. And in return, MIT trusts me to get my biweekly covid tests, maintain physical distancing with everyone outside my pod, and follow the ever-changing rules of life on campus. It’s a tenuous trust, easily broken by one bad apple, one off-campus party that turns into a superspreading event. But I’ve chosen to trust my fellow MIT students; I am responsible for protecting my classmates’ lives, and I trust them to protect mine. 

hiking with pod
Podmates Ellery Rajagopal ’21, Alex Meredith ’21, Rolando Rodarte ’21, and Ben Koenig ’21 on a hike in the White Mountains.

The Class of 2021 won’t get Senior Nights or Senior Ball 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 or in-person lectures or any gatherings at all of more than 10 people. But I’m glad I’m here on campus with my classmates as I navigate this new reality. I’m grateful for these 12 weeks of hikes with my pod, outdoor movies with my Simmons floormates, and lunches with my friends—12 weeks to make some memories and say our goodbyes before we slip into the uncertain future.

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