The round tables are blue, yellow, and green this year. I don’t think they’ve ever been so colorful – I remember white tablecloths, or no tablecloths at all – but I can’t be sure. After you come back to a place enough times, all your visits start to blur together.
This is my eighth Reg Day, although I only count seven of them. It’s also the fourth time I’ve sat on the Returning Student Luncheon panel of… the only way to describe us is “formerly returned students.” This year, there are four of us. We’re a good group, a healthy mix of ages, genders, and life experiences, and we’re here to talk tips and tricks, to tell the current batch of returning students (who I’ll call “the returners” from here on out) that it’s going to be okay.
Everyone likes to hear that. Some will need to hear it more than others.
My name is Chel. I left MIT halfway through a botched sophomore fall to receive treatment for clinical depression. The semester I was readmitted, I attended a Returning Student Luncheon on Reg Day. I’ve paneled at every one since.
The Returning Student Luncheon happens every Reg Day. It’s organized by Laura Maxim of Student Support Services (S3), who coordinates the readmission process for students returning from any type of leave, be it voluntary, medical, or required. Laura exudes so much warmth that you know she’s on your side right when you meet her, and she spends a lot of her time making sure the returners are stable and supported even if they’re not yet 100% readjusted to MIT. Hence the Luncheon, and the Returning Student Group, and Returning Student Game Night, and Add Date Check-In, and…
It’s a list of things that you won’t hear about if you don’t leave MIT and return, one language among all of the others you pick up here (course numbers, building numbers, acronyms). Later, at my dorm, a couple of my friends will squint at the nametag I’ve forgotten to remove. “Returning Student… Panelist?” one will ask. “Oh, that’s confusing. I thought that just meant—well, we’re all returning today. From summer.”
Back when I first returned, it was from a summer, yes, but also from spring, winter, and the coldest part of fall. My summer lasted three-quarters of a year. Some summers are much longer, and not all that warm.
W11 is usually the Religious Activities Center, but today it’s been co-opted by S3 and MIT Medical and other organizations dedicated to student wellbeing. The doors to the small conference room adjacent the main dining room have been opened because there are so many returners this time that the staff members need to be shunted off to the side. Maybe fifty students show up to the Luncheon. That’s more than usual – a definite first.
But that number isn’t surprising. At MIT, 84% of undergrads graduate within four years, 93% within six. That's one high four-year graduation rate, especially compared to the national averages for all four-year postsecondary insitutions (of 39% and 59.2%, respectively), but it still means 16% of students won’t graduate in the “typical” four-year timespan. 16% works out to a little less than 1/6 of the class, so chances are someone you know – multiple someones, even – will take longer than four years to graduate.
Maybe the someone will be you.
Last week, I spoke to a girl who enjoys being here so much that she might meander toward the completion of undergrad and deliberately take an extra semester or two to finish her degree. Others take that extra time not by choice, but because a rough patch here or there means they have to retake required courses, or that they can only handle three classes at a time for a bit. That’s completely fine; after all, there’s that old saying about “slow and steady,” although I’m reluctant to apply it here because MIT isn’t really a race.
Then there are the returners. Some leave to travel, some pursue internships; one of my fellow panelists took a semester to work for Porsche. One Luncheon I spoke with a couple of guys who returned to South Korea for two years of compulsory military service. I’ve also met some people who embarked on yearlong missions to South America or Africa. The rest, with only a couple of exceptions, tend to fall into two categories: students returning from medical leave, who were too physically or mentally ill to continue at MIT, or students returning from required leave, who struggled with classes to the point that the Committee on Academic Performance thought it’d be best for them to go elsewhere for a bit.
Neither of these things are the end of the world. They happen to people, and those people come back. I meet more and more of them every semester.
The panelists arrive early to help Laura set up. We spread out, settle in at different corners, no more than one of us per table. One by one, the returners trickle in. They look around for empty seats and drop their things on a blue or yellow or green tablecloth. They all wear sticky nametags and carry folders full of returning student resources; some even snag free Frisbees with beavers emblazoned on the front. We point them in the direction of the buffet first. This time around, the food is Italian – it isn’t always, although it has been previously. Two pastas. Butternut squash lasagna. A mixed greens salad, with balsamic vinaigrette dressing on the side. Tiramisu. Butternut squash lasagna.
I’m telling you, even if I weren’t a panelist, I’d consider coming back around for the food – and also for the company, because once the returners sit down they tell us their stories, and no two are ever the same.
They don’t always feel comfortable sharing. Sure, it’s easy to share if you willingly took a semester to complete an art course or build huts in Peru, but if you left school because illness or academic issues forced your hand, well, that’s hard enough to admit among friends, much less at a table full of strangers. I always ask people their names, if they want to tell me why they left (with the reassurance that “no” is an acceptable answer), and if they did anything cool while they were away. They usually have. Even the people who left for unglamorous reasons take trips, or learn to bake, or teach themselves new languages via Duolingo. We’re healing, not dead.
This year, surprisingly, all of the returners at my table are forthcoming about why they left. Some are quiet, but none are reluctant. It’s the typical medley of required, medical, voluntary. Then, someone turns the question on me.
“Well, I’ve actually been back for two years,” I say between bites of gooey cheesy butternut squash lasagna. “But I left because I was too depressed to function.”
I’m my most incongruously chipper self at these things. I wear a flowery dress and a wide grin, which tends to confuse people because they can’t imagine me ever being unable to force myself out of bed in the morning. But that was my reality once, and I’m so cheerfully forthcoming about it because maybe people will realize it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s just a thing that happens.
Little by little, my table blossoms. The tablecloth is green, a bright spring green. People start to find things they have in common, to bond over the places they went and the experiences they had. Some semesters I nudge the conversation along and spend more time talking than eating, trying to keep everyone engaged. This time, there’s no need for that. I finish all of my food before I’m called up to the front of the room to speak.
Laura gives the opening statement. Apparently, this year’s resource folders contain stickers of beavers with boomerangs to represent returning students – “Because boomerangs leave, and they always come back!” one student supplies. The support staff in attendance introduces themselves, and then the panelists go up to take their seats at a table at the front of the room.
I’m not sure I remember quite what it feels like to be in the place of the returners, listening to the panelists. There’s actually a lot about my first two-odd years at MIT that I don’t remember, and the memory lapses are becoming more and more noticeable now that I’m brainstorming blog posts. (Want to talk about your freshman November, Chelsea? Sorry! It’s a huge grey blur! Love, your brain.) I do recall being physically present, though, sitting there, and I remember some of what was said to me. We still impart that old advice to the new returning students.
One of the panelists this year – the one that went to work for Porsche – is returning from his second voluntary withdrawal. I’m glad he’s here, because we usually don’t have a voluntary represented on the panel. The advice voluntaries need to hear is slightly different. They don’t have to worry about getting sick again, like someone who went on medical leave, and probably won’t stress about poor grades as much as someone whose leave was compulsory.
And sure enough, our voluntary panelist delivers. With a smile, he warns the returners, “You may get addicted to going on leave.” He explains: the world outside of MIT is large, full of adventure and opportunity, so campus and classes can feel small and restrictive once you’ve spent more than just a summer away. “Do something off-campus, at least one thing,” he advises, and the other panelists nod in agreement. Venturing off-campus is a good way to keep perspective.
The rest of us did not leave voluntarily, aren’t addicted to being gone. My withdrawal, as I already mentioned, was medical. My two non-volunary co-panelists (whose reasons for leaving I won’t share without permission, even though I’m not mentioning their names) have something funny in common that I only learn later: they attended previous Luncheons where I was a panelist. When they tell me this, after, I realize that I’ve been at this for a long time, long enough for it to come around full circle.
We introduce ourselves by name, course, hometown, reason for leaving, and we get asked all the usual questions. Here are some of the things we tell the returners:
1. When you leave and return, you feel like a man (or woman) out of time for a while, because your friends, if they’re still around, have grown and changed without you, and you have grown and changed without them. That’s normal.
2. Students who have returned from leave are everywhere. I’ve had legitimate chance encounters with a handful of them. My first semester back, Lydia K. organized a 6.042 pset group, and, completely by chance, one of the other members had just returned too. A couple of months later, a girl I’d just met on the student center steps revealed that she’d also been on leave. We’re like tiny magnets; we draw each other in.
3. Keep a lie of omission in your back pocket for the times you’re uncomfortable saying why you left. I’m not uncomfortable often – I’m a huge proponent of being honest about these things, although I realize that isn’t for everyone – but sometimes it’s inappropriate to bring up, so I talk about the internship I worked for the last few months of my leave. “I just needed some time to step back and reevaluate my academic path” is also a good one. People understand that.
4. Get the Brass Rat of the class you most identify with, even if you’re not graduating that year anymore. What matters is what you feel you are, not when you walk.
5. Don’t bite off more than you can chew the first semester back. Focus on four classes and one or two extracurriculars. Ease back in. You’ll hit your stride eventually, and then you can take on as much as you want and more.
5a. You will also stumble. There will be times when you think you can’t do this. But you can do this, and a team of people think so; that’s why they let you back in. Use that team – S3 and Medical and the UAAP. They’ve seen this all before, they're on your side, and they understand.
5b. Don’t ever expect straight A’s at MIT, but especially don’t expect straight A’s your first semester back. Seriously. Try your hardest, but temper your expectations. Sometimes it’s winning just to stay in the game.
6. You’re set up for success because you know yourself now better than you did when you left. Time away will shift your perspective on your unique capabilities and your place at MIT and in the world. You have your grounding, now. You know what you need to do.
There’s a line I say at this Luncheon that I can’t take credit for. This line has been recited by various people at previous Luncheons, all of whom were not me, but none of them are here today and the rest of the panelists are new, so this time I say it, because it’s important. I look at the group of fifty or so returners, and tell them this:
7. “It’s hard enough to get into MIT once – you got in twice. Some of you got in three times. That’s incredible.”
The Luncheon disbands around 1:30pm. Historically, the returners are out the door in five minutes, a few lingering exceptions aside. This time, a few full tables stay to continue the conversations they were having earlier, or to read off of the little card of icebreaker activities that Laura left scattered around. I stand up, stretch my legs, go chat with some of the S3 deans I haven’t seen since the last Luncheon, smile a lot.
Laura seems pleased with how the whole thing went. She encourages me to eat more, because only the salad has been completely consumed. If you ever find yourself at one of these, bring Tupperware – there are always leftovers. With very little reluctance, I take another scoop of lasagna. She thinks we might have Mexican catering next time.
“So, same time next semester?” I ask. The answer is a yes, accompanied by the bittersweet awareness that the next Luncheon will be my last one.
I stick around for a few more minutes, but it’s Reg Day, and I have meetings upon meetings to attend and miles to go before I sleep. When I collect my things, the returners at my table are still deep in conversation with each other. I don’t want to interrupt. The briefest of goodbyes and good lucks, then. One last glance at the springtime tablecloths and the students whose long summers are coming to an end, and then I’m out the door, in the sun, walking across Kresge Oval.
Around me, the campus is alive. People mill about under a large white tent that takes up most of the lawn – some kind of local business fair. Students pass on foot, on bikes. The doors to the student center open and close, close and open. Even from here, I can hear the shrill chirping of the walk signs at the 77 Mass Ave crosswalk. The air hums with the promise of new beginnings.
1. According to U.S. News & World Report, which makes a habit of knowing these things.↩
2. According to MIT, based on data for the 2006 starting cohort.↩
3. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, also based on the 2006 starting cohort.↩