To the class of 2016 –
My name is Jess, and I graduated in 2010. That makes me twenty-three whole years old. I am impossibly old. I am improbably old. According to science (and by science I am obviously referring to Science Magazine, who published a study on my expected lifespan in their spring 2010 edition) I should have died by now, considering the way I continue to regularly eat peanut butter straight from the jar, or food that has fallen on the floor. I am probably the age of some of your older brothers or sisters, with whom I am competing for a space in an attentive yet flexible elderly care facility. When I was 18, I don’t think I even knew anyone who was in their 20s, but now you do, and I am here to represent my decade of twenty-somethings (my least favorite phrase after “meat lover,” “panty-dropping,” and “we’re all out of tacos”) by giving you some elderly-person advice.
(Although I am not as old as a postdoc in my lab who shall remain unnamed to protect the aging, who told me, ‘I was asking our undergrad [Janet] if she had seen Silence of the Lambs, which came out in 1991. And Janet goes, ‘I was born in 1991!’ And I was just like, ‘please keep that information to yourself, JANET.'”)
(I know. I know when you were all born, and it’s after 1991. Please follow unnamed-elderly-postdoc’s advice above and keep this information to yourself.)
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’m writing this entry for a few reasons. One, because the last entry I wrote as a blogger my senior year ended on something like a “stay tuned for my next blog entry, after graduation!” which I never wrote, and I imagine my tens of tens of readers were waiting with bated breath for an entry that never came. And by tens of tens of readers, I obviously mean just my mom, and today is my mom’s birthday, so happy birthday, Mom. I’ve given you the gift of breathing! (Kind of like you did, twenty three years ago!) Two, because I hung out with a freshman recently who was all like, What’s 50 Things? And I think my pacemaker almost stopped just right there on the spot. (You should go read 50 Things right now, if you haven’t already. It is required reading for entering MIT. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.)
And three, because I’m about to be class of 2016 myself. After working for two years in Boston, I’m moving back to California to start medical school, where I will be wearing flip flops every single day, even in the OR. (See, this story does have a happy ending!)(It ends with me losing all my toes.)
I wanted to pass on some advice I would give to myself as an 18-year-old, other than stop eating food that has fallen on the floor; you’re not as sneaky as you think you’re being, and people can see you. I don’t have 50 pieces of advice; Ben pretty much covered most of those bases already. But there are a few big things that I’ve tried to live by or maybe wish I had realized when I was your age, and I hope you find them helpful. So here goes nothing –
Try to actively put yourself out of your comfort zone as often as possible. When you put yourself in a situation that’s uncomfortable, you learn things about yourself that you wouldn’t normally discover sitting at home in your sweatpants eating Twizzlers and watching seven episodes of Game of Thrones in one sitting. (I would never do that! I hate Twizzlers!) Like for example, you’re surprisingly resourceful! And you can meet people you wouldn’t normally come in contact with! People who might be casting agents for the next season of Game of Thrones and just happen to be looking for a Korean-American character who wasn’t written into the books! You know, things like that.
Change is a good thing.
As a freshman, I had a group of friends who I did everything with. We took the same classes, ate lunch together, went on road trips to Cape Cod together. We celebrated Passover and Christmas and pranked each other and held sleepovers and in short, they were my first family at college. We had an incredible first year together, and I thought it could only get better from there.
And then three of my very best friends in the world decided to leave MIT. (The retention rate at MIT is something like 97%, in case you were wondering.)
I was really, completely devastated. After relying on my friends for pretty much everything, I had no idea how to rebuild, but eventually I figured out I had to move. It took me a while, but I got up the courage to move to a floor where I knew almost no one. And it turned out that moving was the best thing I could have done.
Because here’s what happened all when I moved to Burton 1, and met my second family at MIT: I met the girl who answered her apartment door for me at one thirty on a Tuesday night, when I needed a friend the most. She introduced me to the boy who, on my last night in Boston, stayed up until 3 AM with me, who borrowed a car and drove me to the airport two hours later. I learned how to start a dance party anywhere, any time. I fell in love and drove to the Grand Canyon. I made connections on my new floor that took me to Haiti, Monaco, Japan, and Senegal, all completely paid for (and even sometimes with a stipend!) by MIT. (Please, please do this. If you need help finding out how to go places through MIT, email me. Here’s your first hint: you know all those weird pamphlets they sent you about things like MISTI that you probably either threw away or used as a napkin? Please read them. It’s like a cheat code for free travel, if your life was a video game. MIT honestly paid my friend to go spend a month in Mongolia learning how to kill goats without spilling any blood. You know, the important stuff. There is nothing that broadens your perspective like living in another country for an extended period of time. In my opinion it should be a requirement to graduate, but, you know, it is much easier to sit at home and eat Twizzlers, Game of Thrones, etc.)
But back to the point – when I look back on how much of my life has been shaped by the people I met, just because I moved that one time, it’s absurd that so much of my life hinged on that one moment. Because I moved, I met the people who I know will someday be in my wedding and at my medical school graduation and helping me raise my children. If I hadn’t been brave enough to make that change, I don’t even know if I would be headed off to med school today.
On a somewhat related note to that message – move. And I don’t just mean dorms – when I was applying to college, the single most important thing was for me to go to school as far away from California as I could. Now I’m a little older, and applying to med school the single most important thing was for me to go back to California. I absolutely love Boston, and I’m so heartbroken to leave it, but there are times in your life when you realize you’re stagnating. You still have a lot of growing to do. Move.
Let chapters end.
A study of a seventy-year-olds by the NY Times found that those who viewed themselves as happiest often viewed their lives as separated into chapters. The thing about every chapter, though, is that they all have to come to an end eventually. I have the worst time letting go of things, but you can’t force people to stay the same just because you want them to. It doesn’t mean you were any less important to each other when you were in each other’s lives.
Which reminds me – the boy (or girl) who breaks your heart really badly and seems impossibly cool was just like you, lost and confused and a total nerd, this time last year. Forgive him anyway. He will never know the strength you’ve gained from having met him, and you’ll be more careful with other people’s feelings because of it.
Ask for help. It’s okay to ask people for favors! Ask people for help all the time! Ask the lady next to you to help you zip up your sweater on the T and she’ll probably do it, even if she thinks you’re a weirdo with big thumbs!
I grew up with two of the most supportive parents a girl can ask for, and I happened to go into a field that my parents are very well acquainted with. Inevitably, this means that my parents have tried to get involved in every facet of my career – trying to get me interviews with different labs, finding me shadowing opportunities with their friends, etc. And for a long time, I was really embarrassed by this. I rejected a lot of their efforts because I was scared, and I thought that I could only rely on myself.
Here’s a big hint: the world doesn’t work that way. We rely on other people to get us where we need to go, and I quickly learned at MIT, a few thousand miles away from my parents and any help they could try to impose on me, I still needed the help of those who had previously done what I hoped to do in order to get me to where I needed to be. Embracing that took a long time, and in turn I try my best to give advice and support to those who are now where I was not so long ago. It takes one person to extend the hand, but it doesn’t make you weak to take it. Take the help; it’s what you do with the opportunity that really matters.
There are a very short list of things in this life that can’t be improved with a sense of humor. It’ll make for a great party story later on.
And if all else fails, be brave!
I’ve been trying to write this entry for over a month now, and I’m finally finishing it on the plane ride home from Boston. You’ll find that at this point in your life your friends become your family, and I’m leaving mine just as many of you are leaving yours. I’m terrified to start over, but I was just as terrified six years ago when I moved away from my real family in California to come to MIT. Sometimes the thing that you hold on to the most, the thing that’s the most comfortable for you, is also the thing that’s holding you back from the life you really want. Be brave. Grab the risk with both hands and don’t look back. At the end of the day, you’ll be better for it.
Be the kind of person who talks to cab drivers. Waste less time thinking about what other people think of you. Learn how to write a thank you note, and write them often. Sing karaoke. Stop worrying about what your hair looks like; nobody cares nearly as much about it as you do. Approach these next four years with an open heart and an open mind. Don’t feel entitled to anything you didn’t sweat and struggle for. But in my experience, and in Conan O’Brien’s experience, if you work hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.
I can’t wait to hear about all the amazing things you’re going to do with your lives.