We often hear that shopping week gives students a sense of “flexibility” or “exploration,” but what does that actually mean? I would like to tell the story of how shopping week changed my Harvard experience from terrible to transformative, to show the meaning of shopping week and why we must vote to restore it.
I arrived at Harvard in August 2018 with no connections and no idea of what college meant. I struggled to find a place at Harvard during my freshman fall. The culture at Harvard was utterly foreign to me, the professors were totally unapproachable, and I struggled to stay afloat.
In January 2019, Shopping Week changed everything. I wandered into a seminar room in Adolphus Busch Hall and discovered an upper-level history seminar titled HIST 1950: “Beyond ‘The End of History’: Rethinking Europe’s Twentieth Century, 1900-2018.” During the first class, Professor Charles S. Maier upended my assumptions about history. I thought history was about memorizing facts and figures. Instead, history taught me about how societies have changed and can still change. Professor Maier made history come alive.
I was instantly hooked, but I was entirely unqualified to take the course. Nevertheless, thanks to Shopping Week, I could linger after class and converse with Professor Maier. He not only agreed to let me into the course, but outside of class, he spent many hours teaching me one-on-one about history and life.
As someone who grew up struggling to learn English, I had no confidence in my writing ability. Still, Professor Maier’s mentorship helped me produce a 41-page paper exploring 20th century Britain’s relationship with the European Economic Community. Moreover, I gained confidence and started to find my footing. For the first time at Harvard, someone believed in me.
If shopping week didn’t exist during my freshman spring, I never would have wandered into that seminar room and met Professor Maier. I might never have found my footing. Instead, I would’ve picked random courses based on confusing Canvas sites under an early registration system. I would not have considered taking a course for which I wasn’t technically qualified. The online registration system might not have let me add that course to my Crimson Cart, let alone wander in and allow it to transform my Harvard experience.
Today, I’m a senior concentrating in History and Mathematics and pursuing a concurrent master’s degree in Computer Science. But what does that all mean? That means that thanks to several semesters of shopping week, I discovered courses ranging from energy history to atmospheric physics. Shopping week taught me to embrace the uncomfortable and explore widely, far beyond coursework. The spirit of exploration fostered by shopping week even gave me the courage to walk on to the varsity lightweight rowing team despite having no high school varsity athletic experience.
Shopping week taught me that college is not a series of trials to survive or resume lines to rack up, but rather a unique opportunity to reimagine who you are and who you want to be.
I share this story not to toot my own horn, but rather to demonstrate the central role of shopping week in changing lives and giving Harvard undergraduates the “transformative experience” that Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana celebrates. Shopping week is especially beneficial for students from less advantaged backgrounds, who often discover academic fields that they had never heard of before.
Unfortunately, shopping week might never come back if we don’t speak up. Harvard administrators have formed a Committee on Course Registration to consider alternatives to shopping week, and they will vote on proposals shortly. One of the committee’s major proposals is an early registration system where “students register for classes prior to the semester for which they are registering and are assigned to classes.”
That’s an even worse version of this semester’s confusing, dysfunctional course preview period. An early registration system would not only permanently eliminate shopping week, but could also force you to sign up for fall courses as early as May, with limited information to choose courses from.
My story would never have happened under the Committee on Course Registration’s early registration system.
If we speak up, we will restore shopping week. Administrators might call our concerns “unnecessary” but our professors will make the final decision on shopping week and their opinions may still be undecided. That means that we can change minds, and the outcome of any faculty votes, if we show our professors how much students care about shopping week.
That’s why the Undergraduate Council is holding a campus-wide referendum on shopping week, and as many undergraduate students as possible should vote. Voting opens Tuesday at 12 p.m. and closes at 11:59 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16 — you can vote on the UC website. It is crucial for us to vote “Yes” in the Shopping Week referendum and to ask our friends to vote, too. Voting takes just 20 seconds, and who knows, shopping week might just change your life.
Michael Y. Cheng ’22, the Undergraduate Council’s Academic Life Committee Chair, is a History and Mathematics concentrator and concurrent Computer Science master’s degree candidate living in Quincy House. He is one of the organizers for the campaign to Save Shopping Week.