These past few weeks have been, well, down and up.
I’m sitting in a little room in Hayden library right now with three very close friends of mine. I have an uncomfortable amount of tabs and windows open on my laptop, most of which are assignments or totally legal PDFs of textbooks or Wikipedia articles about the things I was supposed to have studied two weeks ago. But two weeks ago, I was considerably less optimistic than I am right now. A lot has happened since then.
My recent weirdness/struggle began with some personal issues that had little to do with work. I mean yeah – MIT is the kind of place that makes everyone go a little bit nuts, given its tendencies to overwhelm its students academically. I hear friends casually remark that they’re “hosed” or “going to die” or “haven’t slept in 36 hours,” referencing a barrage of psets and essays among all their other commitments. But then on top of that, if a given “hosed” student is dealing with other problems that make working far more difficult, then the issues quickly compound so that the student becomes even more overwhelmed than they already probably are. Work habits most definitely do not improve with this elevated stress, and in fact, it’s kind of an ugly downward trend. Eventually, some administrative people may or may not (forcibly) advise that this given student takes a timeout from the Institvte for a while to recuperate. And… that may or may not be a TL;DR version of what happened to me. But I’m back now. I’m okay now, I think.
I hope you’ll understand if I don’t go into excruciating detail about events I’m not even entirely open with friends about, but I would like to give you an informative account of what happens after your personal life doesn’t go quite right as a student at MIT. I’ve been back on campus now for some time, and the dust really seems to be settling in all the right places. Or better, the dust is in the process of being strategically positioned in all the right places, because it would be wrong of me to imply that my current optimism isn’t sustained by a lot of people who genuinely care and are working with me towards my well-being.
In short, the “catching up” process involves a lot of meetings. It involves talking honestly and openly to people who are specifically paid to make sure you’re in good health (i.e. MIT Medical) and then working out pset extensions with Student Support Services and with individual professors. I initially received extensions or exemptions from all the work that was due while I was away, but even then, I found myself moderately-beyond-whelmed in the week after I returned. Like, behind enough with the material that lectures whooshed above my brain… the same brain that was later unable to understand the corresponding psets, began to lose motivation to try, and forgot about meetings with people who were trying to help. Meanwhile, the pile of unread emails in my inbox became this untameable scary thing that just kept getting scarier and bigger until I didn’t even want to look at it anymore. I guess at that point, even after taking a leave, I wasn’t very okay.
Yet, I attribute almost all of that week’s terribleness to my timidity in asking for more help. Maybe you’re like me and you’re kind of shy and generally prefer to work out your problems on your own instead of bothering someone else about them, but fortunately, various good people of the MIT community kept mildly harassing contacting me until I responded to their outreach. “Sorry for missing our meeting,” I eventually typed, “but I’m free to meet this Tuesday at 6…” “..this Monday at 3…” “…this Friday at 12…” and so went that week.
I sat in a comfy cushy chair while I explained to my Student Support Services dean that although I was doing better in some ways, I was sort of…academically…dying.
My awesome GRT and Housemaster talked to me about reaching out to those in Senior House (my dorm/home) if I ever had problems in the future. Also about responding to emails. Oops.
I spoke with a range of people at MIT Medical who aimed to make sure that I was otherwise all right, or at least more all right than before.
Then came the discussions via email with professors, who despite teaching several-hundred student lectures, responded to me within just several minutes with detailed advice about how I could get caught up. Dr. Imperiali, my 7.016 (Biology) professor, said the most beautiful thing after I neglected to hand in a pset several days earlier – “Hi Michelle, first of all please stay calm, we promise we will work with you to develop a good plan.” Then a bit later, my 24.900 (Intro to Linguistics) professor offered similar help in getting up to speed with class material before the next quiz, which happens to be tomorrow. So wish me luck with that. :’)
I guess you could say that last week I rose from academic death to become some kind of academic zombie. The transformation was a bit less intense and magical than it sounds, but at least I now feel confident that I can learn about Biology and Linguistics and Physics and Calculus and finish the semester on a positive note. So, you know, still pretty exciting. I should mention that I really like this post by Yuliya K, because even though her reason for struggling was entirely different from mine, we recount similar experiences with people who are devoted to our successful swallowing of those oh-so-beloved metaphorical firehose fluids. And man, I can’t even begin to write about all the support my friends have offered me, because I’m not prepared to spend like 59543 hours typing about how much I love my friends and getting all sappy and gross. Seriously though, there’s a reason it’s a common sentiment that the best part of MIT is the people you meet here.
If you’re reading this and happen to be involved in supporting someone through something difficult, you have no idea how important you are. Thank you, sincerely, for doing what you do. Or, if you’re a student who might be feeling helpless or hopeless or all of the above, please don’t make the same mistakes I did; realize sooner than later that there are so many systems in place here specifically to pull you back up. I learned the hard way that MIT’s abundant resources aren’t nearly limited to test tubes and libraries and crazy science laboratories. Because yes, we have all of that, but we also have humans – ones who care about you, and want you to be okay.