Ode to Pod Semester
The abnormal in between the normal and the new normal
Increasingly often, I’ve caught myself referencing the pod semester to the younger classes and then meeting blank stares. Only half the seniors today have first-hand experience, and I realize that the pod semester is no longer a thing that people have collectively internalized. As time passes, I am nervous that I, too, will slowly erase the pod semester from my brain as well. The lives of those during the pod semester were never described in detail in The Tech, as we were busy living it, so I’d like to take this time to throw myself down memory lane and recollect bits and pieces of my experience with the pod semester just around three years ago today.
It was March of my frosh year at MIT. My parents had been talking about this new coronavirus since IAP, which was spreading mostly in China with some 70,000 cases, but had some 7,000 cases each in South Korea, Italy, and Iran. People weren’t even calling it COVID-19 yet—that term came about in February. I remembered checking the case tracking dashboard on a JHU website. Yes, all the case graphs were, to date, exponential, which was alarming; however, it still felt so far away from me or my family. It’s probably yet another one of those fear-mongering news articles my parents shared with me. As with most others, I shrugged it off and lived life as usual.
Nobody around me was talking about this at all. Even in my home country, Thailand, close to China, there were a very countable forty-two cases, most of which were people who came directly from Wuhan or had contact with people in the first group through hospitals, planes, or cars. There were two cases of coronavirus in Massachusetts so far, one of which returned from Wuhan, and the other returned from Italy. My parents and I agreed that Thailand seemed to be closer to the epicenter of this new virus than the United States.
This photo was taken on March 9, 2020, which looks very ominous in hindsight. It was just a regular day of people coming and going to class, and as it was the first warm day in a while, campus sprung back to life, completely unaware of what was to come. I had just finished my dynaMIT interview and was walking back from Building 14, so I just snapped a quick pic of people enjoying the weather.
Over the next few days, we started hearing about the Biogen conference a few blocks down from where we were. Soon, the total number of cases steadily climbed up to a few dozen, and corona made its way into conversations at MIT. Professors, with magical foresight, started unofficially canceling lectures and recitations, using recordings, or moving things online. Zoom was not a commonly known solution yet—that came about in late March. Purell stands started popping up on campus.
Throughout the evening of Monday, March 9, 2020, rumors circulated that campus would be shut down and we would all have to leave, though it was supported only by a screenshotted Slack message from an attendee of a meeting with MIT administration. The one screenshot spread like wildfire, and we all held our breath from that evening throughout the next day, Tuesday, March 10, 2020, for any official email to come out. It was going to come out at 1 p.m., my morning 21M.606 class said. We didn’t have the mental capacity to do anything that morning, and 21M.606 turned into an open-hearted conversation session as the professor sat us around in the stage area of W97.
And so we waited. And then we waited. Everyone seemed to be on autopilot that day, and even if people went to classes and recitations and labs, all that was going on in their minds was “What will the email say?” 1 p.m. came and went. 2 p.m.? 3 p.m. 4 p.m.? 5 p.m.
And then it dropped.
“A significant new step in response to COVID-19,” sent from L. Rafael Reif. Tuesday, March 10, 2020, 5:36 p.m..
“All classes are cancelled for the week of Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 20.”
“Online instruction [...] will begin for all classes on Monday, March 30, and continue for the remainder of the semester.”
“Undergraduates should not return to campus after spring break. Undergraduates who live in an MIT residence or fraternity, sorority or independent living group (FSILG) must begin packing and departing this Saturday, March 14. We are requiring undergraduates to depart from campus residences no later than noon on Tuesday, March 17.”
“Classes will continue this week,”
Even though everyone had been bracing for this email, once the email hit we were all at a loss. Does that mean I’m going home home? Thailand? Must be? Because I don’t have a place to stay here? MIT is not providing any exceptions? Are they? To ensure "campus safety," must I travel through crowded areas, such as airports and airplanes, only to arrive in a country with even more cases? Do I need to book flights now? Do I need to pack up? Details were slowly unraveling, and a lot of questions remained unanswered. We international students were told to wait because more details were coming? What rumors and hearsay are real right now?
Some activities continued or heightened, such as The Tech and the Holy Purell event. Killian now looked different—at some point, someone took a Purell stand and sparked a rally. Was it a celebration? Paying tribute? Manifestation of nervousness and discomfort? 6 p.m. came, so I went to The Tech office, where we were working overtime to keep up with the bombardment of news. We were our own support group, hearing each other out as we tried to make sense of the situation and work out an escape route.
I heard that someone heard that someone in a nearby college caught it, and someone went to that nearby college and then came back to some dorm at MIT. Suddenly, it felt like COVID-19 was a stone’s throw away from me. Have we caught it? Unfamiliar with COVID-19, I became quite paranoid those few days, fearing it had already infected me unnoticed. Even though I didn’t feel anything, every instance of clearing my throat or a runny nose caused me to freak out over a possible infection.
We were all at different stages of grief in those days. It was going to be an extended spring break, some thought optimistically, and then we’d come back. Until it was announced that we’d have an online spring semester. The next day saw eerily empty recitations, protest statements in Lobby 10, and purge cookouts and parties. Seniors, class of 2020, were suddenly hit with the realization that this was the end of their undergraduate experience, that their “June” came early for them. For me, I had just gone to Costco to buy groceries for an ambitious meal prepping with friends, which… well… unfortunate timing.
“Undergraduate students who are unable to return to their home country, or to an off-campus location, may request permission to remain in MIT residences under limited circumstances.”
I petitioned to stay but I wasn’t really sure if my circumstances were actually limited. I was rejected. Until I wasn’t—I was granted an exception a day later. But I already booked my flight home. My flight back was carefully calculated to have a layover in a country, Turkey, that only had 5 reported cases then. The 24 hours of flight were surreal, and I held my breath all the way from Boston through Istanbul to Bangkok and into my parents' arms.
I arrived back home before the Thai government started quarantining people who returned from abroad, but my parents quarantined me for 14 days anyway. My area was limited to my bedroom and the bathroom immediately next to it, and my mom would bring in food for every meal. For 2 weeks, I never even touched grass. There were no tests then, so symptoms—or lack thereof—were the only signs of infection.
These first couple weeks of experimental life were honestly quite entertaining because it was wildly different and hence not mundane (yet). There was a brief period of time when social life worked weirdly. Everyone was longing for connection, and we were having calls with people left and right, including groups that I later had no idea of how they came about. Classes were getting creative and finding replacements both in terms of interactivity and time zones. My 11 a.m. morning classes were now right before sleep at 10 p.m. Discord servers popped up, Minecraft servers alike. I helped build a virtual MacGregor along with some buildings on campus like 34, 36, 38, and 54.
Two months had gone by and I still hadn't touched grass, and the fun wore out. My journaling stopped—there was no reason to journal because every day was the same: stuck in my room. Extremely occasionally I was able to go into Bangkok, the first time on May 30, especially once my parents were convinced that cases in Thailand leveled off. This was during a time when timelines of location and activity were published for every single case in Bangkok and where people would still mask indoors, outdoors, and keep their distance away from the other people and places listed. Soon, Thailand's first wave was over: the total number of cases in the whole country was around 3,000, while the number of cases in the US reached 1,770,000. I thought to myself that coming back was a good decision.
Summer came and went. I was doing a remote UROP in a group of 10 that met every day at 8 p.m. Pacific, 11 p.m. Eastern, and 10 a.m. Bangkok. I have little to no recollection of what happened each day because every day was the same: stuck in my room.
Fall came and went. MIT outlined a plan for the 2020–2021 academic year, which consisted of having seniors back on campus in the fall and the other three classes back in the spring. This meant that my life was going to stay the same for a while, so I better get used to these online classes. I took an egregious number of classes that fall semester, but all of them looked the same. I ate dinner, hopped into one Zoom, then hopped onto another, slept, then woke up to catch up on all the messages everyone sent and all the afternoon classes by watching recordings and spent the rest of the day psetting alone because nobody in the US was awake. Every day was the same: stuck in my room.
That semester was the peak of mundaneness — everything was stripped to its bare minimum. Even The Tech was a Zoom call (later Gather), indistinguishable from everything else. I got hooked into playing Minecraft speedrunning Twitch streams in the background just to hear anyone other than my parents and my inner monologue. There was one silver lining during the semester, and I had to thank Thailand’s continually low-case numbers for this: we were able to explore real life outside of Minecraft but inside the country during breaks. I spent my Thanksgiving break going on a masked trip to Lampang and Chiang Mai along with other American college students who were sent home to Thailand. We properly freaked out when we heard that one person in the entire province of Chiang Mai caught COVID-19 a few days before we were there. Other than that, every day was the same: stuck in my room.
IAP was no exception. I tried to take a couple of classes like Battlecode and Quantum Computing but didn’t have the energy to fully commit to either. The Zoom fatigue was real. Need I say it again? Every day was the same: stuck in my room.
November 2nd, 2020 marked the inception of the concept of the pod semester. MIT experimented with having seniors, class of 2021, partially back on campus for the 2020 fall semester, with moderate success. There was regular testing, and there were cases, but it seemed like things were under control. Of course, I didn’t know much about that — I, along with juniors (class of 2022) and frosh (class of 2024), was in the doldrums.
“Current plans for the spring semester,” was sent to undergraduates by Cynthia Barnhart. “Specifically, as we hoped for the upcoming term, all current first-years, sophomores, and juniors who would like to live and learn on campus will be able to do so.” Hope.
“Because cold weather makes it harder to socialize outdoors and because the to-and-fro of spring break travel presents an obvious risk of viral spread, the spring semester will start two weeks later for all students; instruction will be entirely online for the first two weeks to accommodate a one-week quarantine period for all on-campus students; and we will replace spring break with several long weekends distributed throughout the semester.” Okay.
“The undergraduate pod program and the graduate residential visitors policy will be available to students in the spring. Undergraduate students residing on campus will be required to be on a meal plan, which MIT will continue to subsidize.” Sure.
Even so, with all the excitement going through me, I was nervous and unsure whether I actually should return to campus in the spring. Actually, I wasn’t even sure if I could, in relation to my government and government-sponsored scholarship restricting / strongly recommending leaving the country, being the helicopter parent more so than my parents. Hm. The logistics also seemed hard. Would I rather live in a dorm with a bunch of rules and restrictions or at home without any? But, friends.
As the weeks went by, the emails ramped up from all sides, including from HRS, and uncertainty remained. It was going to be a very interesting process because the dorms would be decided first, and then the pods would form within each dorm and be cemented into writing. This sounded reasonable until my friends and I realized that our top priority for us was podding together, while the specific dorm was secondary. My friends and I ranked dorms entirely the same with a note to HRS to guarantee placement in the same dorm and allow for us to pod.
Here’s a graph theory question: with all the nodes and edges that are MIT undergraduates, how do you divide nodes into groups of at most 6? This is socially impossible; social life isn’t quite discrete like that. Cue a mess of trying to pod up — I joined a group of people whose headcount grew to at least 11 — imagine the horror of needing to split that up into two pods. People were also at different confidence levels of returning when this happened, and mine was the lowest, adding to the chaos.
January rolled around, and I did all the paperwork needed to convince my scholarship to let me back to the United States, and all the forms with HRS. I ended up being the only class of 2023 student from Thailand out of three who returned. The opportunity for vaccinations and a normal-ish MIT experience, including in-person social interactions and living in the same time zone, trumped the risk of infection and all the restrictions in place. I was then officially added as the fifth member of a pod of five and did all the pod paperwork. The interleaving deadlines and documents were stressful (something that I’ll have to get used to for the rest of my life), but a wave of relief came afterward, leaving behind excitement. I WOULD BE RETURNING TO CAMPUS!!
Our five-person pod was a star-like graph, where everybody knew the “center” person but not all the rest. I personally knew one person and two more by name from a singular chance encounter during the purge. We had one initial relatively awkward bonding call playing an online board game the week before school started.
I took a PCR test in preparation for the flight, and gosh did that hurt my insides. Then, the day of the flight came: February 14, 2021. It was a day of love, and my love was MIT, so much so that I extended that day by 11 hours (time zones). The airport and airplane were eerily empty. It was about a one-to-one ratio of air hostesses to passengers, and economy looked like first class. I deliberately chose a seat in the back section of the plane 20 rows away from anybody else, but with strong persuasion from the crew, I moved up to the front section of the plane, still some 3 rows away from anybody else.
The ride back to MIT was surreal. 11 months away, yet MIT looked the same, save for the beautiful blanket of snow that now lined the entire campus. It felt slightly dangerous, but it felt nostalgic and welcoming. February 14 ended with me being in Simmons, wildly unprepared for the weather and confused about the elevators and the 9 windows in my room. Two boxes laid in my room that were packed up from a year before—one was missing. Just like entering MacGregor for the first time during my frosh year, I didn’t have bedsheets. Some podmates already came, and I shuffled across the hallway to ask one of them, a stranger I only knew the name of, if I could borrow her bedding.
Q Week descended, and it was reminiscent of my quarantine period at home. Everyone had to quarantine in their rooms, and physical interactions were limited to a minimum. Since nobody was permitted to cook, every dorm became a dining dorm—even EC, which used Walker as their makeshift dining hall. As such, we could and had to leave our rooms, mask up, go down, and get food. Three times a day, my pod altogether went down to the Simmons dining hall. Everything was takeout—we were given a box each, and as we went through the choices, we told the dining staff what items we would like. Afterwards, we had to take our food to eat in our rooms. We called each other on Zoom, which was ridiculous because we could also hear each other through the walls.
Getting tested was quite a ritual during the pod semester. Right when people arrived and at the end of Q Week, we had to test, and for the rest of the semester afterwards, we had to test twice a week. Remember, this was before rapid test take-home COVID test kits were a thing. The ice rink was transformed into a PCR test venue, with a few booths where one can (literally) screw their nose with an extremely stiff and sharp swab in privacy. We would get results the next day or two, and our tests were valid for 4 days, hence the need to test twice a week. Sometimes, the results would be invalid as well (if we didn’t swab well enough), and we’d have to get tested again the day after.
Daily attestations, a series of questions surveying symptoms and compliance and such, were also something that we had to do in addition to tests, and this too had impacts. Only when the daily attestations were done, plus some fifteen minutes, would one be able to tap into campus buildings outside of their dorm. Otherwise, you’d just be stuck outside, like multiple people were. In general, tap access also wasn’t as universal as it is now. Each person, depending on their course, would be granted zones of buildings to access. As an undergrad, I got Simmons and the main campus buildings.
Now, podmates lived right next to each other, and each pod had a designated pod lounge, which could either be an actual lounge or a person’s room (which, for this reason, would be larger than usual). We were only able to take off our masks when we were with our podmates in the pod lounge or in one of the members’ rooms. Otherwise, if you were to go see someone outside your pod, you have to mask up and/or be distant from them. There were some pod rules and perks as well, such as a budget, but I can’t quite recall the rest anymore. This whole pod mechanic obviously created quite the social dynamic.
Even though we were on campus, only half the undergraduate population was, and classes were mostly virtual. My day would mostly start with me crawling out of my bed, joining a Zoom meeting, joining the next Zoom meeting, and another, and then psetting for the rest of the day. Yes, it sounded the same as what I was doing back home, but at the same time, it couldn’t be more different. Being in a pod meant that I could count on being able to walk over to my neighbors and hang out with them at night every single night as I pleased, especially since I was in the ideal time zone. My podmates became very close friends, and oftentimes it felt like these six were the only people in the world.
Some lab classes were hybrid, including a class I was an LA one year later after being kicked out of campus as a student in 6.08. The contrast between how the class was run then and now was quite impressive, yet chilling. The physical classrooms were only a quarter filled, and the rest of the lab queue was waiting behind online meeting rooms.
Despite all the restrictions, there’s a lot that happened during pod semester for me. Pod semester, because of their distribution of holidays throughout the semester, as well as the circumstances of everything being online and people being grouped up in sixes, allowed for many day trips and weekend trips. We went to Cape Cod, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and since one of those weekends coincided with my birthday, I got a good birthday trip and surprise, complete with some soju as a rite of passage as I turned 21. I was also able to get vaccinated in April and May, quite a few months before I would have been able to had I stayed in Thailand.
By the end of May, it was time for us all to pack up. The experimental semester was over, and the fall semester of the next academic year was announced to be a return to somewhat normal, albeit still with masks and testing. It was a wrap, as were our things wrapped in boxes and our experiences wrapped as memories.
Off everyone went on their summer journeys. A subset of the pod were doing internships, which in 2021 were all virtual. This meant it didn’t matter where we were as long as we worked during work hours. We decided to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to band together and go on the world’s slowest road trip, or more faithfully a trip where we hopped cities every two weeks to a month. We started in San Francisco, went up to Tahoe, decided to be in Boise for a bit (why not?), and ended in Seattle.
Over the next couple of years since the pod semester, my social life still largely consisted of the pod. Sure, we could interact with other people now, and I did interact with people I met before and after the pod semester, but there was something special with the pod. This was the group of people I returned to MIT and quarantined with and spent a full four months seeing almost exclusively 24/7.
Graduation came with the realization that the gang was getting broken up, and people were moving away. This academic year, of the six of us, two are still on campus doing their M.Eng., one is still a senior, one works in Cambridge, and two work in San Francisco. Next year, it is looking like two (one of which is me) will join the Bay Area gang. Even though we are split across the country, we still reunite every so often, once back in October in Boston and once in January in San Jose. I flew and surprised people with my physical presence in the Bay, and we had a good reunification day of Topgolf, boba, udon, and goofing around. I crashed in the apartment of the two now living in San Francisco, and waking up to my former podmates down the hallway threw me into proper nostalgia. The bond is still there, and all the memories and interactions and personalities kept reminding me how crazy of a story this all was, and how grateful I am to have these people alongside me as we go through and figure out our lives, move into adulthood and out of campus.