Jan 22, 2015
I’m spending this IAP doing, among other things, five shifts a week as a Tech Caller, which means I call alumni, talk to them, and ask them to donate to MIT. It’s a fascinating job, and it deserves an entire separate post about why it’s rewarding. This isn’t that post.
I’ve had a lot of good experiences as a Tech Caller, good calls with good people who are excited to tell me about how they relate to MIT. Believe it or not, some alumni actually look forward to getting calls from us because they like the opportunity to talk to current students. Some alumni don’t want to talk or donate but are polite about it, and others—a very, very small subset of the whole—have no qualms about telling us exactly what is wrong with MIT, and how they think we should fix it.
It was 3:15pm last Thursday afternoon, my final weekday shift, and my 3:30pm break slowly crawled closer and closer. I had been sitting in my little call station cubicle dialing older alumni, which until that slow patch had been going really well—sometimes people just stop picking up their phones.
When I finally got someone to answer, it was an older man with a bone to pick. “I’m not interested in giving to MIT,” he told me.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Do you mind if I ask why?”
(Sometimes we are able assure alumni that whatever they’re concerned about is not as bad as they think it is; firsthand information from students can change minds.)
“Well, I don’t like that they admit students based on factors other than merit,” he said.
I may have actually leaned back in my chair. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“That they take other factors into account.”
He paused. “When I was at MIT,” said this man, who graduated a very long time ago, “the engineering profession was less than one percent women.”
“Now it’s about fifteen percent.”
“Well," he said, "don’t you think you had a leg up getting into MIT because you’re female?”
I took a couple of seconds to respond, and when I did I said something about how I didn’t think so, no, and I personally wasn’t an engineering major, actually. I didn’t ask him how he defined “merit.” I didn’t come back with a monologue about how admissions actually work at MIT, and how they definitely don't work like that. In fact, I didn’t belabor the point at all.
Instead, I managed to deflect the conversation to things I thought he’d like about MIT, like how we still offer a world-class education to all of our students (regardless of how he might believe they’re admitted), and boast top-notch research programs. I kept my vocal tone calm and steady, because my job is to be pleasant and polite and help people feel good about their alma mater and not to lecture them about appropriate things to say to current students, but I was already tuning out his replies.
My MIT education has put me through my paces. After a miserable freshman year that unmoored me, the year I spent away in therapy and taking classes at a (very good) (but not as stimulating) university, and the two and a half years I’ve been back, I finally, finally believe I deserve a seat at the table. I see the things in myself that whoever read my application saw: a unique set of passions, creativity, and a smidge of raw, innate cleverness. I know that I did not get in by some fluke.
The truth about MIT is that this place does break you down. It doesn’t have to break you down in a big way—although that happens—but doing difficult (occasionally soul-crushing) work while surrounded by brilliant people who challenge you is an experience most people who come to MIT have never had before, not on this level. It’s not uncommon feel like you were admitted by mistake; The Tech’s pressure survey two years ago revealed that two-thirds of MIT students consider themselves academically below average (click "self image", and notice that only ~31% of students think they're in the top half of their class). If you don’t question yourself while you’re here, you’re an outlier, because so many of us actually feel like imposters. The plus side is that after you break through, you usually have a stronger sense of who you are and what you want to do.
This is the thing: even when I was hard on myself, and when I didn’t know why I’d been admitted, I never considered that I got a pass just because I checked F on a form. That’s ludicrous. I know that’s ludicrous.
But I wonder what 18-year-old me, who was already standing on very shaky emotional ground, would have thought had she been on my end of the line.
I’m not sure why the words of an old man I’ll never talk to again got so under my skin. Maybe it’s that I haven’t had as many personal encounters with this attitude out in the world. Because my most recent internships have been within the media industry, an atypical choice for an MIT student, my workplace experiences tend more toward other people overestimating my aptitude when it comes to technology. (Sadly, I do not have Tony Stark-level engineering abilities.) But whatever the reason, the call stayed with me. It didn’t erode my confidence, but it’s still there, nagging at the back of my mind.
Look, there’s no real upside to pretending that people don’t try to cut down women who are accepted to top-tier tech schools, whether out of jealousy or just out of sheer wrongheadedness. The encounter I had is unusual in that it’s an almost cartoonish example of sexism; usually you don’t get old men saying things like this to your face. Usually it’s subtler than that, more pervasive, and more sinister. If you start asking women in tech, I guarantee you that they’ll have stories. In fact, the first friend I told about my phone conversation said, “Oh, yeah, a kid at my high school told me that same thing, right after I was accepted to MIT and the guy from my class who applied was rejected.”
And I wish I could give you advice as to what to do when this happens to you, but it’s not always simple. Sure, sometimes you can come back with a witty retort and a raised middle finger. Sometimes you can’t. I had to hold my tongue because of the confines of my job. I’d probably also have to hold my tongue if a higher-up at a future workplace said something along these lines, although I certainly hope that never happens. Sometimes the fight is worth it. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes all you can do is be exceptional—because if you’re accepted to MIT, you are exceptional—and hope that’s enough to change minds. It won’t always be, but remember: the people who say these things to you? You don’t owe them anything.
What I did do afterward that I consider a mistake, though, is not owning my anger. I recounted the call to my bosses at Tech Calling, voice raised and wavering slightly, with the disclaimer, “Now, not that I’m personally offended by what this guy said…” And one of them interrupted me and asked, “Why not? That’s totally understandable. It was offensive.”
I think the impulse to quash that anger comes from the fact that anger isn’t pretty. Anger means that I was somehow affected by an old man’s irrelevant opinion. Anger feels useless when I can’t call him back up and say, “You’re wrong about me, and you’re wrong about this place.” But anger is not useless, because sometimes it’s the fire that inspires us to keep going, and anger is not invalid when the remark is personal and infuriating.
So get angry, and make noise when you can. When you can’t make noise, or you don’t want to, just keep moving forward with the assurance that the people who put you down are wrong.
Know that, above all, you are exceptional.
As always, you can find me on Twitter at @chelwrites.
Also, it is my birthday today! I'm officially 23 years old, aka SUPER old. Lydia K. baked me a beautiful cake and everything:
It's so delicious and moist.
I am very, very grateful to have the friends that I do, and to be in the place that I am.