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Students

Freshmen on the Hunt

9.9.14

A screen shot of the class of 2018's Instagram Scavenger Hunt posts.

A screen shot of the class of 2018's Instagram Scavenger Hunt posts.

That afternoon they’d have to line up for their Convocation procession; a day later they’d have to wake up for their first class. The freshmen seized their last hours of freedom. Most had arrived at the College one short week earlier. Now, they crisscrossed the campus—their campus—with the kind of confidence that can only be inspired by competitive fervor, hoping to win Harvard’s first Instagram Scavenger Hunt.

At around 10:00 a.m. on Labor Day, the bulk of the clues began to appear on Dean Rakesh Khurana’s Instagram feed. At 10:30 a.m., the students met with their entryway mates and headed to Tercentenary Theatre. Smartphones in hand, they sized up the competition and began discussing strategy. From the steps of Widener Library, Dean Khurana gave them a countdown from 10. When he gave the go signal, said Brooks Lambert-Sluder ’05, Ed ’07, director of the Peer Advising Fellows program and a proctor at Apley Court, “Freshmen were sprinting in every direction.”

Designed to introduce the first-years to corners of Harvard they’d yet to reach, the novel contest brought the new students together with their new College dean via his new Instagram profile. Each clue provided an image of a building and a caption offering a short description of its history; the competitors had to figure out the answer and take a photo of themselves at the location. The clues led them to such places as the American Repertory Theater, the Harvard College Observatory, and even the front yard of dean of freshmen Thomas Dingman. More than a few contest entries included shots of freshmen posing with the dean, mostly in front of his white picket fence (though the Hollis South team somehow persuaded him to let them hold him up lengthwise, forming an “H”).

The teams varied in their strategies: some responded clue by clue, running to each building as soon they could name it; others hung back and, after determining all the answers, tried to plot the most efficient path to victory. One team, registering under the name “Lionel B-winnin,” interpreted the “virtual” side of the hunt more liberally. Using their wits, a search engine, and what appeared to be a seminar-room projector, they stayed in one place the whole time. A stock photo of a woman on a treadmill stood in for the Malkin Athletic Center; they pretended to flee from a photo of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, representing the Museum of Natural History. They topped it off with a photo of themselves at J.P. Licks, captioned, “It's been hard sitting in the air conditioning with ice cream while our distinguished fellow students run around campus looking for random buildings...But hey, somebody's gotta do it.”

The winners were a trio from B entryway of Canaday Hall: Michael Sanky, Casey Moore, and Andrew Badinelli, joined by their proctor, Kendell Clement. They believe that what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in unity and mobility. This proved to be a particular advantage toward the end of the contest, when all the teams waited for Khurana to release the tenth and final clue.

"We started getting nervous because it had been 45 minutes since he'd posted the last one," Moore said. ”We were about halfway back to the Yard when his final picture came out.” The team instantly recognized the last “mystery location”—Memorial Hall—and, “We just started running.” The lag in the release of the last clue made it a mad dash to the finish: “We probably jaywalked like, three times, and ran through oncoming traffic,” Moore admitted. “But we made it!”—by seconds. Their prize will be a private meal with the dean and his family.

In some sense, all the participants got a slice of the glory. Khurana and Dingman joined everyone for lunch in Annenberg Hall, visiting and chatting with each group of students. They “literally hopped from table to table, having these wonderful conversations and getting to know [the first-years] on a personal level,” said Lori LoTurco, director of communications strategy for Harvard College and the creative force behind the event. “For me, the greatest reward of all was to see that.” Both decanal offices collaborated on the contest design; LoTurco says that their goal was to use the digital space to prompt in-person conversations between and among these newest members of the Harvard community.  By encouraging others to follow the hashtag (#HCSH2014) and post answers in the comments section, the organizers also aimed to engage a broader audience of upperclassmen, alumni, and parents to join in, “bringing all of those people together to follow the beginning stages of the freshmen’s journeys.” She estimates that between 200 and 250 first-years participated in the scavenger hunt—about one-seventh of the class.

Clement, now in his third year as a proctor, says that it is crucial to build community in the first week on campus. “It's amazing to see, as a proctor. When they come on the first day, they're with their parents still, and looking to their parents for social cues.” The change happens very quickly: “In the next couple days, they find their friends and become more confident. It's an interesting transformative period to observe.”

Now, a search for the #HCSH2014 hashtag collects a mosaic of Instagram photos, offering a wall of windows into that period. The scavenger hunt brought groups of freshmen into shared spaces, real and virtual, anchoring them in their chaotic opening days. If they ever scroll back, they will see their experiences collated, hundreds of viewpoints interwoven. Collectively, the images capture a moment of transition: between arriving at Harvard and calling it home.

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