While Harvard Extension School master’s degree students complete the majority of their coursework online, each program includes an immersive on-campus experience at Harvard.

Engaging in Scholarly Conversation — an on-campus course for students in liberal arts graduate programs — helps students build foundational skills in an interactive classroom with faculty and peers.

“The goal of the on-campus experience is to make you feel connected to your peers, to the program, to the campus, to the University,” says Dr. Stephen Shoemaker, director of liberal arts programs.

“The course is designed to train you in the scholarly interaction with secondary literature in your field,” he says. “How do you read the material that scholars working in your field are writing? How do you read critically? How do you engage the ideas?”

The skills gained prepare students for success in their future degree courses and their final thesis or capstone projects. (To hear Dr. Shoemaker talk more about the course, watch a video clip from our liberal arts webinar).

Student Perspectives

We invited two students — Ian Ragsdale and Gwendolyn Campero — to share their experiences attending Engaging in Scholarly Conversation in the active learning weekend format.

Throughout the November weekend, they attended separate class meetings focused on their distinct fields. They also gathered with their broader cohort for group meetings, a tour of Harvard Yard, and an alumni panel discussion. Learn more about their on-campus course and what they gained from the experience.

Ian Ragsdale

Hometown: Austin, Texas

Degree program: Master of Liberal Arts, English

Professional field: Change manager, LinkedIn

Whether working on a paper at one of the libraries or shopping at the Harvard Coop, I always felt like I belonged.”

Ian Ragsdale.

I’m pursuing my degree …

As a passion project that primarily fills a personal need to advance my education and reignite research interests kindled as an undergrad but left unexplored. Having an advanced degree will also be an asset if I ever want to pivot back to my original career path, which was in higher education communications. (Video feature: in an informational webinar, Ian discusses the value of his degree.)

The class I attended …

Brought together students from multiple fields in the humanities, liberal arts, and social sciences for large-group lectures alongside intensive breakout sessions with smaller groups. We spent the majority of our time reading and discussing papers with minimal preparation, in front of our fellow students and a professor. This made for an incredible and unique learning opportunity completely outside the realm of anything I’d done before. (Video feature: Hear Ian talk about his experience and the inspiration he found in his peers.)


My weekend itinerary:

I got to Cambridge a day early to give myself more time to explore. I had Thursday to myself, met a family member in town on Friday, met with my academic advisor on Friday afternoon, and then went to class. 

My morning routine included taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood and doing some reading before formally starting the day. Saturday ended around 5 p.m., with plenty of time for dinner — or hitting up the library if that’s your thing. 

Our time together was pretty intense, and I needed the evenings to myself to recharge. But a lot of folks got together for coffee breaks or lunch during the day. In the evenings, I winded down with a beer and wrote down my reflections from the day.

The skills I gained … 

Were instantly applicable to my graduate studies. I immediately took the new skills I developed for reading scholarly papers and used those to better analyze and interpret secondary sources I was reading for other classes and my thesis prework. 

The readings explored how to build arguments using interdisciplinary approaches and helped me better understand the history of my field. These insights have been transformative in helping me understand where my research interests fit into the field and how I can lean into interdisciplinary skills to find exciting new lenses for my own research.

I valued …

Finally being in the same room with classmates and being able to ask the question: “What are you researching?” Since we were in a group of students from multiple disciplines I heard about everything from a coups d’état war game simulation to civic religion in the Appalachian Mountains. 

Hearing other people share their research interests wasn’t just inspiring, it also helped me understand what made a research project clear and compelling. This gave me more insight into the work I still need to do to clarify my thesis project.

While on campus, I …

Explored the Widener Library stacks, got a rec center membership and worked out in a couple of the gyms, visited the Peabody Museum and Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East (free with my student ID!), and toured the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. 

In between these stops, I soaked up the Yard, where I faced off with Harvard’s wild turkeys and took a very blurry photo of a rabbit. Off campus, I went bookstore-hopping, ate vegan food at Clover Food Lab, drank a lot of great coffee, and tried the local IPAs.


I was surprised by … 

How quickly I felt like any other Harvard student given that this was my first experience on campus. Whether working on a paper at one of the libraries or shopping at the Harvard Coop, I always felt like I belonged.

Quick Details: Engaging in Scholarly Conversation

Offered as:

  • Intensive weekend courses in fall or spring
  • 3-week courses in summer

Gwendolyn Campero

Hometown: Southbury, CT

Degree program: Master of Liberal Arts, International Relations

Professional field: Defense contracting

That’s the beauty of HES and particularly these on-campus courses — they allow us to connect with one another in person and meet with peers from all walks of life seeking to enrich their lives and minds.”

Gwendolyn Campero.

My weekend itinerary:

I am originally from Cambridge and Newton, Mass., and currently work remotely for a Massachusetts-based company since relocating to Connecticut about 15 months ago. I arrived in Cambridge on Wednesday, which gave me the opportunity to reconnect with coworkers, friends, and family before starting my on-campus weekend. It was an action-packed 5 days! Since I had previously been to campus earlier in the fall, I had my Harvard student ID ready to go, and it felt like coming back home. 

I was eager to get my lattes and poke bowls and sit outside the Harvard Coop, listen to the street music and people-watch. Harvard Square is such a beautiful amalgamation of people from all walks of life.

I gained …

The tools needed to think critically and analyze a publication or report.

I greatly valued …

The opportunity to connect with my peers and professors in person in a stimulating environment during this weekend.

While on campus, I …

Mentally prepared for the day ahead during breakfast. We were on our own during this period and I very much appreciated the 9 a.m. class start time. 

The lunches were a wonderful opportunity to connect with classmates and head to a local takeout spot. We got a great group together for dinners and enjoyed the Red House Restaurant where we got to know one another better and became immersed in discussing the day’s takeaways, relating them to current-day needs in our educational system and socio-political environment.

Students having coffee.
Students at dinner.

I was surprised by …

The diverse class and the life experiences of our classmates. I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I welcomed the opportunity to be immersed in engaging conversations and get to know my peers and professors. I very much enjoyed the Harvard campus tour by Dr. Shoemaker. 

campus tour.
campus tour.

Fun fact

On my first day of class on Friday, I sat down randomly next to a classmate I hadn’t met before. As part of introductions at the start of class, we realized we both lived in Utah at the same time, worked for the same company, and knew the same people from 10 years ago! It was like parallel lives crossing each other at one point in time, now converging again at HES! 

That’s the beauty of HES and particularly these on-campus courses — they allow us to connect with one another in person and meet with peers from all walks of life seeking to enrich their lives and minds.