Making Harvard Home for the Holidays

Samara Sone, Contributor

As HBS hunkers down for winter vacation during a global pandemic, members of the community share why and how they plan to spend their holidays on campus.

Most years, the winter holidays are a time for HBS students to unwind from a hectic first semester with many choosing to spend time with family or travel to new places. This year, however, the holidays are going to look a little different. Many students are not able to visit their loved ones or do not feel comfortable travelling. 

 International students who would have used the opportunity to reunite with their families after months apart will instead spend the holidays on campus. Yarden Halperin (MBA ’22), from Israel, mentioned that initially her parents were intending on visiting her and her husband for December break but due to the pandemic they will not be able to fly in. “We never intended to fly home but we thought my parents would visit and that we would do some travelling together.” 

Travel plans coming to a halt seem to be a common issue for many HBS students. Anshul Agrawal (MBA ’22) is originally from India and has never lived in the United States before. He had always planned on using winter vacation as a time to explore the United States with his new classmates, but elaborated that “as time has gone on, my concerns about Covid-19 have grown and I think traveling around may not be the best idea.” Agrawal included that he feels this consideration is common amongst international students, a number of whom have decided to stay on campus.  

On a more optimistic note, many students are using the time on campus as a way to experience other cultures and festivities. Halperin exclaimed that “it is great to be here and celebrate other cultures. I can’t imagine I’ll ever get another opportunity to experience so many new holidays.” Halperin elaborated and said that she has already had the chance to experience Diwali with classmates and that she plans on teaching her friends about the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah which she normally celebrates with her family back home. “I am planning on making traditional foods like homemade donuts and lighting the candles with friends who have never celebrated the holiday before.” 

Zehra Soysal (MBA ’22) emphatically agreed when asked whether she would use this holiday season as a chance to learn about other cultures: “I think this is such an exciting opportunity to be able to have unique experiences with different cultures and new people.” Soysal is originally from Turkey, where Thanksgiving and Christmas are not widely celebrated. She plans on having a small Thanksgiving meal with friends and will be spending her first Christmas with a classmate’s family. 

During the conversation, Soysal explained that wintertime is not Holiday season in Turkey like it is in the United States. While she celebrates New Years, most holidays in Turkey are spread throughout the year. Soysal expressed that she is looking forward to bringing some Turkish traditions to HBS. She plans on cooking a traditional Ramadan meal for her friends later in the year and has already hosted many Turkish dinners. 

Soysal also remarked that New Year’s Eve is still an important holiday for her family. They usually celebrate the evening with a big dinner, gift exchanges, and end the evening by going out with friends. She will not be able to spend the evening with her family in person this year but she does plan on zooming in for the celebrations.

For Guy Gershon (MBA ’21), this holiday season was supposed to be marked by the special moment when he would bring his newborn son Ilan back to his home country for the first time to meet his extended family. Unfortunately, Gershon shares that because of Covid-19, he will not be able to visit his family in Israel as he had originally planned.

Nevertheless, experiencing the holidays with a newborn baby is joyous under most any circumstance and Gershon and his wife Karen are looking forward to celebrating Ilan’s first Hanukkah. “We will sing songs with our son, light the candles, and tell the holiday story.”

Holiday season and family time normally go hand in hand. The holidays are a chance for most people to take a break from their busy schedules and reunite with loved ones. Agrawal noted that while he got to spend Diwali on campus with friends, he considers the holiday to be a family celebration: “I am used to spending Diwali with my family. It is a huge celebration for us, so it is not the same when I am unable to celebrate with them.” 

Halperin’s feelings about Hanukkah were similar to Agrawal’s thoughts about Diwali. Although she is excited to introduce the holiday to her new friends, she reminisced about how she would normally spend each of the eight nights of the holiday with different family members. 

Although most people associate holidays with family, when spending the holidays together is no longer an option, many students had to find alternative ways to celebrate amongst their new HBS family. 

 Ramya Sundar (MBA ’22) remarked that she very much enjoyed celebrating Diwali with the South Asian Students Association: “It was a very nice get-together. Many people dressed up in saris and we ate traditional sweets to celebrate.” Sundar also zoomed with her family as they were preparing to celebrate so that she could be included from afar. 

Brooke Baker, a partner at HBS, mentioned that she is using the time here to form closer relationships with other members of the HBS community and that she hopes to do a small Thanksgiving meal with her pod. “My family’s holiday traditions have evolved over time, but the one thing that remained constant was spending quality time with people you care about, so I am looking forward to creating new memories with new friends.”

Most of Baker’s holiday seasons have been spent in her home-state of Minnesota but she emphasized that she is staying put in Cambridge in order to ensure the safety of her loved ones and the community. 

Safety concerns were a common consideration amongst most people. Like Baker, Sundar has never spent the holidays away from her family. She mentioned that this year was the first time she has ever celebrated Diwali without her family. “Every single year I travel back home and I have never spent Diwali without my family but this year it just feels too risky.” 

Still, many students feel blessed just to be here during this uneasy time. Sundar explained that with all the effort it took for her to get a visa and move across the world from India to the United States during a pandemic, her family is just happy that she is safe and sound at HBS. She feels that “HBS is one of the best places in the world to be in right now. I am grateful that I am here and not somewhere else. If that means having to spend the holidays away from my family and not travel, I think the tradeoff is worth it.”

Although many students agreed that staying at HBS was the safest choice, moving to a new country or state during a pandemic is a huge adjustment. In order to cope with these changes many members of the HBS community are using the holiday season as a time to make HBS feel like home. 

Baker mentioned that since she and her partner William Fields (MBA ’22) will not be able to spend the holidays with their families, they have decided to spend the time making their apartment feel more like home. “We are dedicated to making Cambridge feel like our home. We are going to put up a tree and get some holiday decorations in order to make it feel homey.”

As this vacation season begins during this challenging year, it is clear from these conversations with students that it is important to view this extra time on campus as an opportunity to make the most out of this unusual experience. Not only are they starting new traditions but they are also discovering the new city they are living in. Sundar has decided to spend most of her vacation time exploring Boston. “I have never seen snow before and since arriving on campus I haven’t had time to tour around Boston, so I think it will be exciting to be here during winter vacation and experience a real American winter.” 

Since HBS is all about creating new, meaningful experiences, this seems like a simple, yet perfect, way to celebrate this peculiar holiday season. In both spirit and action, it seems that students on campus are committed to making Harvard home for the holidays.

Samara Sone-Blank has called Israel home for the past seven years but will always be a proud Torontonian at heart. As a former pop-culture journalist for the largest Israeli newspaper Yedioth Achronot, she has come to HBS as the proud partner of Kyle Blank (MBA ’20) and is excited to be getting back to her journalist roots at the Harbus.