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This past weekend was our version of fall break — one day off on Oct. 8. After not having seen my family for weeks and feeling like I needed a break from campus, I decided to go home for the so-called vacation. Yet, due to last-minute assignments given to make up for Monday’s missed class and meetings scheduled for Monday, I was forced to cut my trip short and come back to campus Sunday morning.
While hundreds of universities across the country give their students time off in the middle of the fall semester, outside of weekends, Harvard students have four days off from classes during the semester. (The remaining three are the week of Thanksgiving.) This is a serious problem that contributes to fatigue and stress, and the school ought to rectify it by establishing a weeklong fall break. This easy, bold step would send a clear signal to students that Harvard cares about our well-being, satisfaction, and mental health.
In general, the College does a good job making sure that the school year is not too long. We had 170 days off in the 2017-2018 academic year, second only to Princeton in the Ivy League, and our 115 days of summer vacation was second only to Columbia’s 116.
However, very little of that time off comes in the middle of the semester. Studies have shown that mid-semester breaks are important for physical and mental health. People who work for months without a break are more likely to develop fatigue, illnesses, and depression. That is why mental health groups on campuses across the country have been pushing for more intermittent school breaks, rather than two long breaks between semesters. Without any extended break between the start of school and Thanksgiving, a serious illness, family emergency, or mental health crisis can force students to fall far behind on classwork and sometimes even to withdraw from school for a semester.
Additionally, having breaks within the semester is better for retaining knowledge. Forcing students to cram class material for 13 weeks straight is not conducive to absorbing information. Studies suggest that having more frequent breaks improves academic achievement among students and particularly benefits students from low-income households. If, for example, Harvard were to make our four month-long summer vacation two weeks shorter and add a couple of mid-semester weeklong breaks, students would be less stressed, healthier, and more successful in the classroom.
The only existing break in the fall semester is during the week of Thanksgiving, yet even then Harvard gives less time off than many other schools. Weeklong breaks allow students to utilize both weekends. Especially when the Harvard-Yale game is played in New Haven and most of the school is leaving campus already, it is stressful to return to Cambridge just for two more days of class. Giving students off the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week would allow us to enjoy the Game more fully and not have to worry about studying for a midterm the next day.
This would also give students who live farther away a better opportunity to go home during the semester. For many international students or students who don’t live in the Northeast, the five-day vacation over Thanksgiving is not enough time to go home and spend time with family. I am privileged enough to live four hours from home, but the time and money that is required to leave campus often makes it hard to justify short visits home or to friends’ schools. For friends of mine who live in Miami, Arizona, or India, it is very hard to return home at any point between the start of school and winter break.
Four additional days off during the week of Columbus Day or two additional days during the week of Thanksgiving would go a long way in making students happier and less stressed, and the missed time could be made up in many ways. Starting school half a week earlier in the fall or ending the semester slightly later is but a small price to pay for a much needed break.
Jacob A. Fortinsky ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Winthrop House.
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