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MIT student blogger Vincent A. '17

21 Firsts by Vincent A. '17

highlight reels from the last few years, as I prepare to say goodbye

It’s been 3.5 years since I came to the United States from Nigeria, to study at MIT. In 2017, this ongoing chapter of my life promises to close. I graduate in June, if all goes well. A short while afterward, I celebrate my 21st birthday.

Just a week ago, I imagined one version of what the future may look like. I suppose this is a sequel of sorts, one that threads through the pages of an established past. The years since my coming to USA, to MIT, have been some of the most monumental years of my life. I came to experience several things for the first time. These are some of them.

1. First time using a washing machine.

My first time in the States was prefixed by living with my aunt and her family in Virginia, prior to starting orientation at MIT. Even then, I was still experiencing the first signs of culture shock: jetlag manifesting as odd sleep cycles and slight unease, buildings and roads whose structures were recognizable yet somewhat alien, intensely fast internet. And washing machines.

In Nigeria, washing machines exist, but they aren’t common, and they certainly weren’t present at home. As such, like alien spaceships and McDonalds, they were relegated to Hollywood cinema for me. We washed our clothes by filling two buckets with water, one in which we soaked the clothes in detergent, and the other in which we rinsed them. Each fabric was picked up, scrubbed diligently, transferred to the rinse bucket, then pegged to a clothesline in the backyard to dry in the sun over the course of days. Rainy days were especially annoying, as they would prolong the drying time, or in cases of strong wind, would unpeg clothes, sending two hours of work flying into the sand. This was a fun, if monotonous, weekly ritual. I always used this opportunity to plug my tangled earphones into my MP3 player and rock out to P-Square and Styl-Plus, two of my favorite Nigerian musical groups.

That first week performing laundry in the US was a little like magic, staring at this alien device, this thing of the movies. With the strange buttons and knobs and labels. My aunt helped me figure out how to use a washer and a dryer, and some tiny part of me was doubtful of the entire process. Then, two hours later, I was pulling clean, sweet-smelling clothes out of the dryer. It was mindblowing.

Fast forward to the present, and my lazy head now considers doing the laundry mildly stressful. But once upon a time, it was magic, and if I think about it long enough, it still is.


2. First time pulling an all-nighter.

I’d never stayed up for more than twenty four hours, not to my recollection anyway, until my very first night on the MIT campus.

But I’d been up all day soaking in the endless activities freshmen could partake in. I ate free food from every dorm and living group I could traverse, a nontrivial chunk of which was liquid nitrogen ice-cream. I jumped on a large bouncy house and listened in on upperclassmen, who at the time had the aura of mystical gods, talk about why they chose their majors. Then, around six p.m., I retired to the basement of Walker Memorial, where a bunch of freshmen and other MIT students were hanging. I would end up spending the next fifteen hours there, in effect pulling my first all-nighter.

We devoured several bars of chocolate and talked about where we came from, how we were finding MIT so far. Then we played multiple games, from Never Have I Ever, in which I discovered I was missing out on a lot of life experiences, to an improvised version of Hide and Seek. Around 9 A.M., we decided to grab breakfast, and I zoned out while munching on waffles at the Simmons dorm–also a first-time treat–seeing white nothingness for a moment. I realized I needed to sleep, so I ate a little more, and made it back to my room, where I collapsed on the bed, overwhelmed and very, very happy. I passed out pretty quickly and woke up early evening.

Ever since then, I’ve pulled several all-nighters. Many of them have been less fun, usually trying to complete a challenging problem set, or studying for an upcoming midterm. But many of them have been in the same spirit of that first all-nighter. On some good nights, my floormates and I at Random would just stay up, watching silly YouTube videos and arguing about silly nonsense, and I would glance at the window; lo and behold, the sun was rising.


3. First time building a robot.

During Orientation Week at MIT, I took part in a program called DEECS–Discover Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, meant to introduce freshmen to the world of EECS. We were split into groups of three, and for an entire week, we were in charge of writing software and assembling hardware for a lego robot capable of navigating a color-coded maze, using photo-sensors.

I would later get to play more with robots in full-fledged EECS classes during my time at MIT, at a higher level of sophistication, but you know what they say. You never forget your first robot.


4. First time eating a burrito.

A mexican restaurant called Beantown Taqueria sits diagonally across Random Hall, my dorm, and I ventured in there during Orientation Week. I didn’t have to; every location at MIT was blessed with steak and ice-cream and nachos and pancakes (one moment while I heavily sob in memory of all that free food), but it was near enough and I was curious. I ordered a small, spicy chicken burrito and cut down the whole thing in seconds. I discovered I loved burritos. And tacos. And chimichangas.

Since coming to the States, I’ve tried a variety of cuisines–Thai, Indian, Chinese, Mediterranean, Ethiopian–and as a self-proclaimed foodist, it’s been one of my greater pleasures and I’m constantly in discovery mode. Please e-mail me pictures of tasty-looking non-traditional meals. I’ll either seek them out in Boston, or have no choice but to eat my screen.


5. First time seeing a movie in 3D.

A few months after my first semester at MIT, I ventured into AMC, the movie theater in Downtown Boston, and saw Captain America: Winter Soldier in IMAX 3D. Perched somewhere in the back of the theater, wolfing down sadly under-buttered popcorn and drinking overpriced Sprite from an oversized plastic cup, I watched Captain America defend his country’s honor in backdrops of explosions. It was awesome.


6. First time performing below average on an exam.

Back in my Nigerian high school, I had nicknames like “Doctor Math” and “2390”. I worked my ass off on every assignment and prepared for every examination, and it paid off: I attained high grades and usually ranked at the top of the class. This crystallized an informal rule in my mind: I could always expect to see my hard work pay off in similar fashion, even at MIT.

This myth was busted my very first semester, after my first Biology midterm. I spent a fair amount of time studying for this midterm–from rewatching lecture videos online, to poring through my handwritten notes, to taking practice midterms–but ended up scoring well below average, a somewhat crushing experience in a gloomy week. I remember sort of staring blankly at the grade, just before starting a problem set, and feeling my stomach fall. It was the first time I was situated in the bottom half of a class, and I guess my brain had trouble parsing that. This situation would occur a few more times throughout my semesters at MIT, and I would learn to take it much better, especially if I knew I’d prepared the best I could.


7. First time in prison.

My first semester in MIT, I found myself in prison.

In particular, the Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI), Framingham, an all-female prison. I was there as part of a philosophy class in the Concourse program, taught by Professor Lee Perlman, who also taught a class at MCI. We met with six inmates in a small classroom, where we talked about everything from Ancient Greek Philosophy to life beyond the walls of that room.


8. First time skydiving.

Well, indoor skydiving, but stop being nitpicky. IT FELT LIKE I WAS FLYING.

This actually happened less than a month into my freshman year at MIT. It was Rush Week, in which fraternities and sororities put out a ton of events–and free food, long live free food in those glorious eternal ecstasy-filled early weeks of the academic year–for freshmen to participate in. I spent virtually all of that week at Alpha Delta Phi, a place where I would make some amazing first-time memories (from playing Rock Band to eating lobster…or at least attempting to, and having its innards spray all over me in a grotesque assertion of dominance).

One of the highlights of that week was getting to go indoor skydiving with the frat brothers. A dozen freshmen and a dozen brothers piled into a bus. Two hours later, we were at SkyVenture, a facility in New Hampshire where the best kind of dreams are realized. Turn by turn, we spent a few minutes each in a vertical wind tunnel, suspended, floating. Each turn was divided into two rounds. My first round, I had all the grace and stamina of an amputee giraffe on rollerblades, and was knocked around the glass walls of the tunnel. The second time around, I was able to maintain my balance, arms spread out, legs tucked above me. It felt like I was flying, flying, flying. I would spend the rest of the night replaying those moments.

Funnily enough, the best part of the week probably came from singing It’s the Best Day Ever by Spongebob Squarepants alongside ADPhi brother Ryan Shepard. I can’t sing for squat (and I don’t mean this in the cutesy can-sorta-sing-but-is-just-saying-this way, no, I actually cannot sing one tiny bit), but I let that voice rip, and he didn’t stop me. He sang along. 


9. First time experiencing overt, in-your-face racism.

When I look back on my time in the States, it’s often with a sense of belonging and gratitude. Places like MIT and Boston have become a comfortable home away from home. I’ve created meaningful friendships and built a fulfilling life here. But the fairytale, Wonderland-esque lens with which I’d often regarded the States got busted one very bad evening in Central Square, when I was falsely accused of theft in an extremely racist encounter. Upon realizing I wasn’t the thief, the man let go of me and walked away without an apology for his slur or his accusations, leaving me screaming at his back like an idiot. It was one of the worst experiences of my time in the States, and complicated my sense of belonging and identity.

10. First time identifying as black.

USA has a race problem, one I began to perceive in greater detail when I left a home country of predominantly dark-skinned people–so that the term “black” was never part of one’s identity–and moved to a place where this skin color was situated within a minority. For the most part, it made no difference, but when it did, it really did.

I fought for a while with this label, largely because I wasn’t quite sure how to reconcile my “African-ness” with the “African-American-ness” blackness often embodied. Black culture is a prevalent term that encompasses a wide swath of general experiences constructed around African American upbringing–from music to hair to unique sentence structures to navigation around authority–and growing up in Nigeria positioned me away from much of this commonality. But then I realized that whatever perceptions non-black people had of blackness, whether malicious or indifferent, depended not on their ability to pore through my mind and see what kind of culture influenced my upbringing, but on the color of my skin. It really was that simple most of the time, and it bore ripple effects, in many ways structuring the nature of my interaction with people here, and with their expectations, and with my experiences. I came to accept and own blackness, as constructed in the States, as part of my multifaceted identity, and one to be proud of rather than ashamed of.


11. First time spending greater than forty hours on a single (biweekly) homework.

That’s pretty self-explanatory.I hit the Submit button, tired and feeling vaguely drunk, probably a combination of a mushy brain and exhaustion and annoyance and relief. Shortly afterward, I discovered the time-saving wonders of office hours.


12. First time building a snowman.

Before 2013, snow and snowmen were abstractions sometimes shown on TV or mentioned in novels. They might as well have been made-up elements of a science-fiction universe. Then I saw snow for the first time while running late for Ancient Greek Philosophy towards the end of 2013. Ran outside prepared to sprint my way to class, when I stopped in my tracks. Powders of snow were falling from the sky, dripping off frosty leaves and covering the roads in white sheets. It was beautiful. Two days later, the sheets became puddles and snow became annoying.

But then Frozen happened, and made snow great again. In January 2015, one early morning, Kevin and I ventured into Killian Court where we lobbed snowballs at each other, made snow angels and worked together to build Olaf, my first and only snowman.

He most likely melted to death later that afternoon. Oh well.

13. First time getting a technical A+.

Grades are an important part of MIT, and I always work hard to achieve good grades, but after my first semester here, I learned that they were hardly the whole picture. Nevertheless, a memorable highlight of 2014 was taking 6.042, Mathematics for Computer Science, a class of weekly mental workouts, one that reminded me why I’d come into MIT intending to major in Mathematics, and why Computer Science was a natural extension of that desire.

At the end of the semester, I got the following e-mail:

It was my first technical A+ at MIT, and did much to quell some lingering doubts about whether I belonged here, and whether Computer Science was the right track for me.


14. First time creating a Youtube video.

It was this video, created for one of my early blogs:

I was a freshman then, and you can totally tell that the pset-deadened eyes and stoic cynicism induced by several months of weird sleep, cold weather and grueling midterms had not set in yet.

Oh sweet summer child of 2013, you have a lot on the way.


15. First time experiencing a technical internship.

This probably deserves its own blogpost, and I’ll talk about it in more detail in the future, but I landed my first technical internship the summer after my sophomore year. My biggest fear jumping into MIT intending to major in Computer Science was that I was entirely unprepared. I had zero programming experience, but I was talking to freshmen in orientation week who had been writing code since they were babies, who had their own apps, who were steeped in a world of formalized logic and technical jargon that sounded alien to my ears. They seemed like the ideal candidates for a CS major, not me.

This fear persisted when I began searching for internships. Outside of classes, I had no tangible programming experience. Turns out I didn’t really need any. I attended a Google event in which engineers talked about their experience at the company, including an engineer who, were I even slightly more superstitious, I would have sworn the gods created and inserted into the event just for me. He talked about his shaky background prior to applying, his uncertainty with even initiating the process, and his subsequent success with the application process. He was having a blast at the company, “doing cool things that matter”.

After the event, I prepared a resume, used MIT’s career office to get feedback on it, and applied to Google. Several e-mails and three technical interviews later, I got an offer letter. I spent that summer interning in Google’s Los Angeles office. My mind had conjured a very specific picture of what I wanted and expected from that experience. The picture paled in comparison to the real thing, and that remains one of the most memorable three months ever. In particular, I remember one night, laying down on my air mattress, and thinking, in a giddy sort of disbelief, that everything I wanted from life was slowly coming true.

I did exciting work that summer, and again the next, this time in their Cambridge, Massachusetts office.

16. First time attending a music concert.

Right after my internship in Los Angeles, I took a Greyhound bus to San Francisco where I attended my first, and so far, only concert. I would spend that night screaming, crying, dancing, singing and losing my voice, a dot in a wave of fifty thousand gyrating fans, waving glowsticks and lighting up Levi’s Stadium.


17. First time experiencing 1 year of uninterrupted electrical power.

In Nigeria, electricity is a matter of arbitrariness: at any point in time, there’s a 50% chance of electrical power, so much so that my siblings and I would scream, “UP NEPA!” each time a dead bulb suddenly flickered to life (NEPA standing for National Electrical Power Authority, although this is now a dated abbreviation). In the consistent absence of electricity, my siblings and I had to devise alternative ways to entertain ourselves. For some of us, reading novels were the way to go. We also invented weird, fun games we’d play with each other, and spent inordinate amounts of time napping.

As such, my time at MIT produced the first year where I experienced zero incidents of power outages. Constant electricity is something I hardly even notice anymore, except when I call home to speak to family, and they tell me about how NEPA has gotten worse lately.

It’s a fairly mundane-sounding first-time experience, but there was a time when if you told me I’d experience a year like this, I’d tell you to stop drinking and get help.


18. First time having a panic attack.

Spring 2016 was one of my roughest semesters at MIT. I felt overworked,I was often locked in my room, I was dealing with personal issues, and my sleep cycle was irregular. At some point, it became easier to ignore the signs of the decay than to face them head-on, and I spent every waking moment either buried in a problem set or on Netflix.

One Friday afternoon, I got back to my room feeling strangely good, happy even. I microwaved some chicken, drank some Red Bull and took a nap. I woke up two hours later feeling a little weird. I realized I couldn’t feel my heart beat, and for a moment, was sure it had ceased to pump blood. But when I put a finger to my neck, I felt a steady pulse.

You’re fine, I told myself.

Except I didn’t feel fine. In fact, I felt worse. It felt like I was losing air, like breathing had switched from being a background process to a task of concerted effort.

You’re not fine. What if you’re dying? Like right now?

As soon as I thought it, it felt true. I could suddenly feel my heartbeat, and it was out of control, racing so fast, Something was very wrong. I left my room quickly and made it to the kitchen on my floor. It was empty. I ran up the stairs, completely freaking out at this point. People were on the floor above me; I blubbered what was going on to one of them. She told me I was probably having a panic attack, and had me sit in front of a TV and watch episodes of Family Guy until I calmed down.

The panic attacks recurred a few times over the next several weeks, but between the first and the second, I stopped by MIT Medical, where I was referred to a psychologist Rebekah Kilman. We worked through several sessions, in which she assured me that the panic attack hadn’t been induced by the Red Bull (my initial and frankly dumb suspicion). It had everything to do with processing the different aspects of my life that I had subjugated to under the radar. I learned how to cope with my demons, even if it meant pushing back on schoolwork for a little bit, and an extended period of intense anxiety became milder by the summer and is (mostly) nonexistent now.

I’ve heard mixed stories about people’s experiences with MIT Mental, but my experience with them was one of complete empathy, understanding and comfort. They helped me work through my issues the best way they could, and it made a positive difference.

19. First time having dinner at a professor’s home.

I took my first creative writing class ever at MIT: Reading and Writing Short Stories with Professor Helen Lee (I also ended up taking Fiction Workshop and Advanced Fiction Workshop with her). Those classes significantly shaped the nature of the stories I wrote and how I structured them, and she is undoubtedly one of my favorite teachers ever.

Even during low points of the year, she remained a beacon of light, often checking on how I was doing even in semesters I wasn’t taking any of her classes. I had dinner a few times with her and her family, most recently November of last year during thanksgiving, and in those times, it was like stepping into a bubble, where worries ceased to exist, leaving only room for good food and meaningful conversation, often about race and about writing and about life.


20. First time getting a novel published.

I took a gap year between high school and college, in which time I worked on a novel. It got published my freshman year at MIT, and I returned to Nigeria the following summer to help promote it. Reading it again now, I see how differently I would structure the book were I to rewrite it, but it sold well, made several thousand dollars and people liked it. That was more than enough for me, and I’m proud of it.

I’m currently working on another novel, Nkem, a word in my language that translates to “Mine”. It’s been gathering dust in the cobwebs of my mind for a while now, but I’m excited to spend a good chunk of this month working on it, before the next semester rolls around and starts kicking.


21. First time trying to chart the rest of my life.

…and realizing that I don’t have to. When I think about my life thus far, I realize there’s been a great degree of structure to it, six years of grade school, followed by six years of secondary school, followed by a gap year filled with writing and eating, followed by four years of MIT. And then what…fifty years of work, followed by retirement? I’ve never really deeply thought about life after MIT beyond the high-level desires of wanting to write stories and write code and travel.

There have been some aspects that (until now) I took for granted, as certain to happen, and thus never fully inspeced. Like having a family. But as graduation draws closer, and as I start to think of the “real world” awaiting, I’ve been wondering about stuff like this. Isn’t it weird…having a little version of Vincent in my arms? Some dorky-looking baby reaching for my cheeks with tiny little fingers. Isn’t that surreal? And sure, I don’t have to think about having kids yet, but at some point, I will, and I don’t think I can get over that strange notion of what it would mean to bring a child into planet Earth.

Or to share a bed with a soulmate for decades. Someone to love and wake up next to each morning and fight over optimal blanket appropriation. Should we divide the blankets equally? Would going by approximate body weight be more reasonable? A duel perhaps? Can we just get several gigantic comfy blankets and lay snuggled under ALL OF THEM? Can adults just do that, just buy a ton of comfy blankets? And what happens if ten years into the relationship, things start to fail and I start to hate them, or they start to hate me? What if it’s two-sided? What if it’s not? One-sided is way worse, resentment buried under a forced air of love, truth held back by the paradoxical need to preserve their happiness. And how much truth should ever be sacrificed…how much of your truth, for the sake of their happiness?

I’m having all these weird ruminations about everything, from the kind of career I will have to the kind of place I will live. Ten years from now. Twenty years from now. It’s all very theoretical, and all very unnecessary, because at this point in the space-time continuum, I’m a 20-year-old kid in college trying to get a degree. 20. People have lived my life five times over that are still alive. I don’t know squat. I don’t need to figure out squat.

But yet, the thoughts, the questions, are in my head fairly often, and I’m increasingly resigned to just winging it. Just seeing where things go. All I know is, I’ve experienced a lot of good things for the first time over the last few years. Coming to MIT has inarguably, definitively, made my life better and more fulfilled, often in ways I could have never anticipated. To a point, anticipation is overrated. Hope is more important. Knowing you have things to look forward to, even if you’re not quite certain of the shape they’ll take. And I know this. I can’t wait to discover what new experiences will populate my life. Whatever they are, I do know that they’re on the horizon, and as far as questions about the future go, maybe that’s all I need to know. For right now at least.

Here’s to a life of many more firsts.