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Transactions and Transformations

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana at Convocation.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana at Convocation. By Megan M. Ross
By Michelle I. Gao
Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House.

In beginning my second year at Harvard, I have spent time thinking about Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s advice — to choose a “transformational” education over a “transactional” one. I remember nodding along at Convocation because making that choice seemed sensible and straightforward.

A spot at Harvard provides a certain freedom from having to be transactional. For better or worse, a Harvard degree helps to alleviate the pressure to concentrate in what one thinks will be most economical. I am also lucky enough for money not to be on my mind every day. This financial privilege has been greater than I initially realized, because the college experience consists of many transactions — not just affording tuition, but also paying to eat in Harvard Square and even to print out course readings.

One can also be transactional by being close-minded. As Khurana defined it in a past Convocation speech, being “transactional” means “focusing on material goals,” like graduate school, and thinking of college as a “stop on the way to the rest of your life.” Being “transactional” doesn’t only apply to those pursuing certain fields — a subject like economics might get a bad name, but in no area is one-track mindedness useful.

In the first few semesters of college, at least, I have found it easy to avoid this transactional mindset. I didn’t come in with one burning passion. I didn’t know enough people to close myself off from the possibility of meeting more. I hadn’t planned my post-college future with any degree of specificity. So I needed to be open-minded.

If “transactional” versus “transformational” were just a binary, I would place myself in the latter category. And yet — a year in, having completed eight of the 32 (in all likelihood) classes I will ever take as a Harvard College student — I don’t think of the difference between “transactional” and “transformational” as a binary. It is more of a scale, like the five-point scales of the Q Guide. And I don’t think that I would give myself a five.

The courses that I’ve taken have undoubtedly transformed me in some way. By simply attending class, one picks up interesting lessons and comes out at semester’s end a different person than one was at the start. Certainly, though, I did more than just attend class. I liked the courses I took. I participated in them. I challenged myself in them. Yet I cannot say I wholly pursued transformation.

I explored, but I never went too far. During shopping weeks, I accompanied friends to classes that I knew I’d never take. But I didn’t change my mind while I was in them. And sure, I had not picked out all my classes before beginning shopping week. But the ones that I walked into and put on my schedule were not random classes. They were in departments that I knew I wanted to study, and they were in subjects that I knew I’d have some knowledge and interest in. For example, when a course on Chinese foreign policy did not fit in my schedule, I simply moved to a course on international relations, which was certainly not true academic exploration.

I did not have the courage to enroll in a course for which I thought I had no talent or aptitude. I did not have the courage to risk failing. So I have judged the things that I thought I would like, and I’ve found that I haven’t liked all of them equally. But I still don’t know what I don’t know.

I haven’t tried very hard to find out, either. Because while I don’t think that I’ve succumbed to fears of financial pressure to choose a certain field of study or career, I have allowed unnecessary fears about time to restrict the extent of my exploration. These are fears of running out of time — the fear of wasting one of the precious four slots I have every semester, of not finishing the General Education requirement if I take too many electives, and maybe worst of all, the fear of eventually finding a concentration or passion that I love — but finding it too late to fully pursue it. These fears may feel more valid and less transactional, but they are nevertheless restrictive mental obstacles that must be overcome.

As I realize now, I have been “transformed,” but only as much as I let myself. Although that is certainly a start, it is not quite enough. Choosing a “transformational” experience requires more than just not being “transactional.” The journey is more important than the end, but I hope this realization is a step in the right direction.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House.

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