Apr 17, 2013
What I wish I’d known, and what I’m glad I knew
At the CPW Women's Leadership Lunch, one of the prefrosh at my table asked me what I wish I'd known before I came to MIT.
I wish I'd known from Day 1 that most of my professors didn't waltz unobstructed from success to success to success from the day they were born (I'm pretty sure that a couple did, but that's beside the point.) Many have had their own struggles, academically and professionally, and many know what it's like to feel low on self-confidence. I'm glad that I learned by the end of Year 1 that a professor can be a mentor and a listening ear and not just an instructor.
I hope - and think - that I never participated in a conversation that involved comparing SAT scores, high school grades, or AP scores. I hear freshmen doing that sometimes, and it makes me sad. I wish I had never worried about how I compared to my fellow incoming MIT students.
I wish I'd thought of every class block as a precious commodity. I have two semesters left, and there are at least fifteen or twenty classes that I would LOVE to take but won't have room for. Entire departments I won't ever taste. If I had fully appreciated this as an incoming freshman, I would have ASE'd out of 18.02 (I definitely could have) and used my 8.01 credit. I held back because I was nervous, and thought it would be better to "make sure I had a solid foundation" before moving on. It's obvious to me now, though, that I did have a solid foundation: in particular, I had a great vector calculus teacher. I would have been challenged more, certainly, but that would have been a good thing. I will forever rue what turned out to be a decision to not take two additional classes.
I wish I'd spent more time with my living group (French House) freshman fall. I think I knew that my dorm was supposed to be my home-away-from-home for four years. I think I also knew that this is a pretty big deal; I expected that having a home on campus would be important. But it took me over a semester to understand that it takes physical presence to build a home away from home. You need to be physically present to build meaningful relationships with your college family. This should have been as high a priority for me as trying out eight billion extracurricular activities. I wish I had realized that while these four years don't last very long, they are packed from the beginning with new things and life-changing moments, and that it's important from the beginning to become a familiar friendly face among the people with whom you will be sharing many of those moments.
I wish I'd known that the deadline for certain summer internships, and programs like MISTI, is BEFORE THE END OF FALL SEMESTER. Before the end of fall semester. Also, you need letters of recommendation for these things. Did I mention that the deadline for MISTI-France, to give an example, is BEFORE THE END OF FALL SEMESTER?
I wish I'd taken the freaking swim test the moment I got off crutches.
I am so, so unspeakably glad that I made it a habit from Day 1 to attend talks and ask questions. Freshman year, I was a regular at the Brain and Cognitive Science colloquium; running up to the speaker to ask questions is ultimately how I got my first UROP. Since then, my interests have meandered, and I began regularly attending the Physics and Astrophysics department colloquia. This has been such an important habit, professionally. I have a much broader appreciation for the range of research conducted out there, and have gotten to know speakers as well as other regular attendees by cornering people to ask follow-up questions. It's also been satisfying to track my progress over the years. Freshman year, I could hang onto a talk for an average of probably 5 minutes, if at all. I was lucky if I knew half the words in the title. Sophomore year, it was probably 10-15 minutes, out of an hour. That summer, I worked at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory all summer, and when I came back I could cling onto most astrophysics colloquia for at least 70, 80% of the time.
I'm glad that I made friends at other universities, and that I left campus to visit them every now and then. I went on a few observing trips with Harvard's astronomy club, for example. This year, I found out that BU has an active astronomy club, and I wish that I'd thought to look into that my freshman year. Yeah, MIT students are awesome, and yeah, there's a startling amount of diversity in character and interests among MIT students - but we all go to MIT. Being in touch with friends with dramatically different college experiences has helped me maintain perspective; I think it's important to know that your college's way of doing things isn't the only way of doing things, and that your peers aren't the only awesome college students in the country.
I'm glad that I didn't spend any time riding an OMG I GOT INTO MIT THAT MUST MEAN I'M THE BEST EVER high. I had close friends who didn't get in - people I knew were just as deserving as I was. I had (and have) friends at lesser-known schools around the country who I have nothing but the most sincere admiration and respect for. Last summer, I interned with eight other undergraduates, most of whom were from colleges I'd never heard of, and all of whom were obviously very smart, talented, hardworking and bound-for-success people, well on track to great things in the astronomy world. I think that coming to MIT with a sense of superiority would have been, well, wrong, in a limiting and destructive way.
I wish I acknowledged at an earlier stage of my academic career that lifestyle choices that work for other people doesn't necessarily work for me. For myself, sleep deprivation isn't cool, and staying up late night after night is really dumb and unproductive. Try as I might to pretend otherwise, I get really unhappy and overemotional when I'm sleep-deprived, the same way that I would be really unhappy if I never showered or got zeros on all my homework assignments. How do I prevent getting zeros on all my homework assignments? I do my homework assignments. How do I prevent never showering? I shower. How should I prevent sleep deprivation? I should sleep, obviously. Somehow this didn't click until I took J-Lab, dug my health into a hole, and emerged from the experience so shaken that I now go to bed between midnight and 1 and get up between 8 and 9, very consistently. It has made SUCH. a difference. AND I still get my work done.
Exercise and fruit. Exercise and fruit. Exercise and fruit.
I wish I'd never psetted during lecture, never skipped one class to study for another, never stayed up for hours and hours to squeeze out those extra last points on a problem set. I wish I'd never convinced myself that an imminent deadline was so important that I had to drop everything else on my schedule. I can point to maybe one, two instances where that was actually beneficial in the long run, out of a whole bunch my freshman and sophomore years. It was almost always a mistake. Keeping pace with the rest of my life should almost always have been the priority.
I wish I'd bought my DNA, Mobius strip, and golden ratio earrings sooner. They've earned me much respect over the past few months.
I'm glad I went on that date with that guy freshman fall; we wandered through Boston at night, climbed some sculptures, sat by a pond. We ended up going our separate ways, and I haven't spoken to him in two years, but that adventure will always be a happy college memory.
I'm glad that I acted on whim. I thank whim for one of my most life-changing, defining experiences.
I'm glad that I didn't listen to all the advice I was given. I realize now that there were some mistakes that needed to be made, by myself, in order for those lessons to sink in.
...except putting off the swim test. Seriously. Take the swim test.