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The Back Door to Harvard

By Periel Shapiro

I furtively slid the crimson baseball cap across the pay counter. Behind me, throats cleared as students adjusted their books and notepads. I saw the glowing parents, laden with sweatshirts, t-shirts, turtlenecks, hats, scarves, fleeces, sweaters, sweatbands and more—all designed to prominently display that one magic word: Harvard.

“Excuse me,” the lady at the register called, “are you a student here?” Am I? The real Harvard students waited behind me for their turn, many already branded with an imperious H. I looked down at the cap I had placed on the counter. It read “Harvard Extension School” on the front. Am I a Harvard student?

The Harvard Extension School is part of the Division of Continuing Education, one of the twelve Harvard University schools. It was founded in 1910 to bring Harvard courses to the Boston community, offering open enrollment and affordable tuition. For the past 100 years the Extension School has nurtured nearly half a million scholars.

It was a few years ago that I bought my Extension School cap at the Harvard Coop. I had just started at the Extension School’s Premedical Program, designed for post-college students aiming to apply to medical school. I was fond of my program and excited to represent the Extension School. Yet I soon found that my cap had a split personality.

In Boston, the Extension School is well known. Extension School posters paste the walls of the Green Line, and the Extension School Master’s programs are advertised on WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio station. All sorts of Bostonians have tackled an Extension School course at one point or another. In the city of Harvard, my cap represents the everyman’s desire for knowledge.

But beyond Boston, many aren’t familiar with the Extension School. If I wear my cap, eyes widen. I can’t help but feel somewhat misleading. “I’m just a simple Extension School student,” I want to say, “I didn’t really get into Harvard.” In the greater world, like it or not, my Harvard cap is an emblem of elitism.

And some feel protective ownership over this emblem. One friend—a student of the real Harvard—reacted to my purchase derisively: “Did you really buy an Extension School hat?” I get it. Why buy a Harvard hat if it doesn’t symbolize a Harvard acceptance?

It’s true that Harvard-wear lets you silently inform others that a committee of people thought you were smart and interesting, something which an Extension School hat can’t necessarily say. But Harvard can also symbolize something much more powerful: A meaningful exploration of core human questions.

And Extension School students are as much a part of that exploration as any other Harvard students. They weren’t selected for the Ivy League. No one assured them of their greatness, except maybe their mothers. But in taking on Harvard University courses—with the same professors and at the same facilities as other Harvard students—Extension School students strive for knowledge at the highest level. Their striving is answered with the intellectual tools to move the world forward—the same tools gifted to all Harvard students.

My Extension School cap, well broken in by now, is a fond reminder that we can all grow in knowledge and understanding. And we don’t need the affirmations of important committees to do so. We just need the will to exercise our most important organ and to challenge ourselves continuously.

Periel Shapiro, who will be attending medical school in the fall, completed the Harvard Extension School Health Careers Program this past May.

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