[guest post] hindsight in 2020 by Chris Peterson SM '13
— about life after mit rejections, situated knowledges, and ultimately getting closer to the asymptote of self —
Over the years, we have occasionally published posts from students who didn’t get into MIT but went on to thrive elsewhere (like this, and this). This is another one of those. It was written by Janelle Salanga, who, as an applicant, was a frequent commenter on the blogs; was deferred, then waitlisted, then let go; then ultimately enrolled elsewhere back in 2017.
In early March, Janelle messaged me asking if she could write a post “about being someone rejected from mit & learning to build a life after.” I said sure, and she wrote this post. I had planned to publish it just before Pi Day, but then COVID happened, and it stayed in drafts. However, I thought it was still relevant, both for those who are seeking to make a decision about your MIT future by May 1, and for those of you still patiently on the wait list, as she once was. Everything below the line she wrote, unedited by me.
i. i want to go where culture is
mom, did you feel emotional the first time you drove in sacramento?
tracy, where i grew up, is known as a cow town. a truck stop town. a city in the central valley that used to have a bean festival. a too-small shirt to shrug off and abandon.
when lady bird says “i want to go to the east coast, where culture is!” and throws a fit when the only uc she gets into is davis — “i don’t want to go to a fucking university known for its fucking agricultural school!” — i FELT that. with my CHEST. i wanted to leave everything, including myself, behind.
in junior year, i stumbled upon the mit blogs. mit sent me an information packet, rainbow and white pamphlets in a foil envelope, quotes about inevitability and Doing Things on colored post-card papers, and a curated set of excerpts from the mit best of the blogs.
you know how the feeling of having someone (metaphorically) flay your chest open & make your heart bared to the world? that’s how the bloggers’ voices made me feel.01 i was moved by aching accounts of <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/meltdown/">falling and failing</a> in pursuit of passion and discussions of friendship. bloggers mentioned this sense of <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/finding-a-second-home/">community</a> that they found at mit, the exhilaration of <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/i-dont-want-to-work-on-psets/">solving psets late at night</a> accompanied by best friends and long, languishing conversations, the homes they found in urops & dorms & <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/rex-at-random-hall1/">spaces on campus</a>. it felt real, attainable.
and their passion was so loud i could sense it through the screen. their purpose felt so deafening, so magnetic. of course, there was the name, the pedestal of mit. part of me was drawn to that, too, the part of me that wanted to be great and known more than loved and seen.
but…i didn’t want to be a stem major. mit students took humanities with science, i reasoned. and it wasn’t like ALL mit had was science — in fact, their writing program was really good. and i could like science, i thought. genetic engineering sounded cool and kinda creative. CAREER!!
genetic engineering was what i molded myself into on paper.here was high school janelle, essay version:02 shit i totally have no chance @ this according to r/applyingtocollege and/or college confidential……….SO i’ll apply early admission bc why the hell not!!
- high school valedictorian
- > 750 on 2 sat subject tests (chem, world history)
- cross country freshman year, student government, theatre, science olympiad, key club
- i like stories and writing and because of that i now like genetic engineering (?!)
- internship at local newspaper
- mit puns (e.g. “i’m excited to subMIT my app!!”) in the additional comments #quirky
what didn’t make the college app cut:
someone unsure and insecure. i had no idea what i wanted. i loved writing and stories. cramming them into my head and living in those worlds more comfortable than my own for years. but sharing that part of me felt forbidden, unsacred. not to mention, it wasn’t stem.
but i did know that i wanted to be great, i wanted to be known, i wanted to be seen, i wanted to be loved. i thought mit could envelop all these wants. after four years, i wouldn’t want anymore. i would be content.
at the end of high school — and honestly, for the majority of my life — i felt loud and awkward and too big for everywhere i went. (ironic, given that i’m under five feet tall.) i didn’t have words for the mpact i wanted to make on the world, i just knew i wanted to make one. i wanted people to look, but also to see: underneath my alexander hamilton-like veneer, there was a me at peace in my home alone at 7 a.m., dancing on tiles to taylor swift music blasting in the kitchen while the sun slotted through the half-open blinds.
there was a me who cried herself to sleep, cried in bathrooms and english teachers’ classrooms, asking in the vein of jonny sun:03 <span style="font-weight: 400;">quote from </span><span style="font-weight: 400;"><a href="https://open.spotify.com/episode/0bifJn8QKeBy87iEG9VjVd?si=it0RPR_uS4WBjZ97gu-jQA">this podcast</a></span><span style="font-weight: 400;"> “how do i eliminate all the things that are different about me and how do i be the most normal so no one can make fun of me?”
if i went to mit, i planned to become a blogger: the right amount of lonely, friendly, thoughtful, busy, creative. i would find a community while learning how to become great. i would already be known by virtue of my association with mit. i would learn to love science for science’s sake, not because i needed to make my parents proud.
i could run away from the balled-up loneliness i stored beneath my chest, the impression that all i was was the “smart girl”, the drive to never let people down. first-gen american guilt combined with older sister complex meant guilt that settled in my bones, something i’m still ironing out.
when i got deferred after early admission, it was a relief. a stay of execution!! yes!! i remember grabbing popeyes and quickly’s with my mom, who told me to be cautious about celebration. it was raining (maybe that was an omen) but i felt so happy that i pretended i didn’t hear.
then it was almost deja vu on pi day. more food again!! except with friends instead of my mom, and instead of chicken and boba it was $3.14 blaze pizza.
everything blurred. i could hear my heart pounding in my ears. my hands might’ve been shaking while checked my email and typed in my MIT admissions portal. fuck fuck fuck fuc—
“i got WAITLISTED!!!” i shouted. (in my head, it was an endless AAaaAAAaaaAAaa)
thank god for that $3.14 pizza, because the restaurant was so packed with chatter and people that no one paid attention to me. my friends congratulated me, i ate my pizza, and life went on.
the wait was AGONY. i am someone who is terrible at extinguishing hope. no matter how much i try, i will always be disappointed when something doesn’t go my way. and then it didn’t.
“We’ve gotten to know every student on our waitlist at a very deep level…I can say with certainty that you are a spectacular young scholar with a bright and profound future ahead of you.”
it felt hollow, first. a series of “i’m fine”’s and “i didn’t expect anything anyway”’s. then, days later, the other shoe dropped & i found myself sobbing on the floor. the dream of being someone loved & known didn’t feel like a possibility anymore. she was extinguished. whatever version of me remained to be created was doomed to be lonely and resigned to obscurity.
when i knew i was going to that “fucking agricultural school”, i emailed petey asking him if i could write a guest post for the blogs. petey told me to write him back later, a few years down the line. (yay! this guest blog :’)) in his response, he told me that he remembered and read my application.
“it was a hard decision. i think it was the right one, but it was hard,” he wrote.
ii. the bright and profound / revamping dreams
the first time i stepped on uc davis’s campus, it was raining and everything was so green i felt like i’d stepped into kermit’s mind. THERE WERE SO MANY TREES!! i felt that symbiosis you ostensibly feel when you step onto your dream college. institution soulmates or whatever xx
and i had a group of friends ready-made before i started school through the “dank daddies,” a 30-person groupme of davis freshmen of all different majors. the first day we were all on campus, 20 or so of us packed into someone’s dorm room, and i felt a flood of relief. this was how i was supposed to feel. i had FRIENDS!! this was college!! i AM lovable!!
i started making Decisions that felt Cool and Advanced. like, after my first coding class, i decided i would switch my major from biochemical engineering to computer science.04 <span style="font-weight: 400;">i mean, how much thought had i actually given that? i hadn’t tested it...BUT i had coded!! and gotten an A!!
not just because of my whole “STEM is good!! make parents proud!!” internal spiel, but because it reminded me of writing. and surprisingly, i found that i wasn’t bad at it. (i wasn’t good, but that’s another story.) you write stories out of syntax, consider what language and libraries will help you send the most clear message. you fit pieces together until you build something that looks whole. it was another form of magic. (& frankly, i still miss it.)
i joined clubs & fell away from them. i went to hackathons by myself. i wrote poems, got published, got rejected from the aggie twice. rushed an academic frat. got better at cs.
it didn’t feel right. the loneliness, i found, didn’t dissipate no matter what i did. i started to feel a twinge of something in my bones. something i couldn’t name that i couldn’t dislodge.
it was like pressing a fine-lined marker to paper. the ink’s always been there, but the longer you hold the marker to the paper, the more it spills out, the more it spreads.
i wasn’t learning about politics and culture like i’d hoped in the filipinx-american orgs i’d joined. there were so many nights i went to sleep at four, unsatisfied and frustrated with computer science assignments. the “dank daddies” and i had nothing in common beyond a shared appreciation for memes.
increasingly, i just wanted to sleep forever. i was an outside observer watching my life unfold. i got my work done and got to pretend everything was fine when i was with friends before i snapped back into a reality that felt empty.
there were voices in my head constantly nagging that i wasn’t doing enough, that i was a disappointment, that i wasn’t enough and nothing i did would ever matter, that i was a burden to everyone else around me. it was either those or the emptiness or the exhilaration that, no matter what i did, would slip through my fingers. i’d gone to somewhere no one else could reach me.
but there were sparks of hope. the promise that there was something better. i met a platonic soulmate, one of the “dank daddies.” eric and i are the same side of the same coin, with the same drive, same unrelenting pursuit of greatness, and an unabating love or taylor swift. one of my favorite college memories is splitting the cost of reputation in the pre-taylor-on-spotify times and lying on the floor of my dorm room, listening to it together.
“i don’t like this,” he said after “ready for it”.
“me neither…i miss the old taylor,” i said. but after “new year’s day”, i felt like our friendship was summed up by one line: please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh i could recognize anywhere.
more importantly, eric and i share a fierce and unquenchable passion for words and stories. he’s a novelist first and a computer scientist second.05 don’t tell him but his work ethic is so intense that it hurts me, sometimes, to be around it that, along with enl 5f, an 8am fiction writing workshop i loved but was always late to, re-inspired my writer self. rising from the ashes like a phoenix, or a pimple that emerges out of nowhere.
i’d spent so long convincing myself that i couldn’t care about the humanities and arts in anything more than a tangential way. slowly, another voice got louder. what if i gave myself that chance?
i started tentatively taking steps toward that chance. i submitted my final story from that workshop to a literary journal. i started writing short stories and poetry again, about mother-daughter relationships, sisters and best friends, love in different forms than i knew.06 sooooo many poems about exes before this point #noregrets
i wrote and got to direct a vignette for my school’s pilipinx culture night. i got to start learning and teaching fil-am history and was a mentor for pilipinx youth conference. i slowly slipped back into journalism and the pursuit of stories via an internship for my school’s alumni publication.07 a non-comprehensive list of things that happened: wandering around the quad for an hour before gathering the courage to interview random students, food in the office, being able to <a href="https://magazine.ucdavis.edu/all-access/">pitch stories</a>) i started to find friends beyond eric!!
and i realized my attachment to computer science was less coding and more ethics: how do companies like google and amazon stay ethical and is that even possible under capitalism? what’s defined as “ethics”, anyway? what are systemic barriers that impact hardware/software that’s created and how does that reshape our reality? so i found science & tech studies. when i took my first intro class, it was like bells ringing. this was the major i was supposed to be in.
things started to seem less cloudy, more clear. i almost forgot about that twinge in my bones.
iii. the dim and below-groundi read the “although of course you end up becoming yourself” blog post over and over again before i went to college.08 <span style="font-weight: 400;">it is, along with </span><a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/meltdown/"><span style="font-weight: 400;">this post</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, the blog that has made the most impact on me in terms of thought hit-counts.
“if present-me and alternate-me got dinner, i’m not sure what we would talk about, or if we would be able to hold a conversation,” petey writes in the blog post.
sometimes, i wonder if i went somewhere else, if the same thing would happen. we wouldn’t have a conversation because maybe i would be dead. no matter where you go, it only takes so long before everything catches up. you can’t run from yourself.
i went to the philippines to see my extended family this summer. in some ways, it felt like the trip was more for my parents than me.
“it’s so hard,” i texted eric, who was in china and in my time zone. “the language barrier is so painful bc i can understand visaya, but i can’t speak it.”
“i miss you,” i texted ant, my partner.
mostly, i wrote and babysitted my sister and felt alone. but i thought everything would be fine when i got back. (it wasn’t.) fall quarter was a conglomerate of messes. some small professional celebrations, like FINALLY getting to write at the aggie and working on the second episode of my podcast and getting into this digital media pop-up program in sacramento.
but my personal life was Not Great. i lashed out at my partner & my friends & apologized again & again. on halloween, we went to a thai place. i couldn’t decide what to eat and got soup. i stared down into its coconut milky depth & started crying.
“do you want to go to the car?” he asked. we went to the car. i sobbed into around 20 tissues.
“i don’t know what it is, but i don’t want to be here anymore,” i told him. “it’s not new.”
it got to the point where that urge was all i heard. the moments of quiet or excitement got dimmer and dimmer until all i heard was the damning call to die. i remember finishing my peer advisor shift on thursday afternoon and feeling shaky but ready.
long story short, i got 5150’d. i told my partner first in a slew of haphazard texts09 “i’m in the hospital #sacdaytrip” was one of them...pls past janelle that is NOT a great text , hands shaking.
i feel like i’ll never be able to talk about it entirely, but here are things that i want to preserve:
- when i called eric from the chunky hospital phones, he looked up the number on google and came right away even though i didn’t tell him where i was
- ant & eric saved me from sad hospital food
- ant & i played monopoly & life & laughed so much it hurt
- there were other college-aged people there and we talked and played a shit ton of cards and it helped me feel less stir-crazy
- 30 minute yoga!!
- getting diagnosed so i could get on meds ~~
- the delirious, dizzy excitement of stepping outside the psych ward into crisp, cool air and a sky of blinding blue. sun on my skin!! the glory, the joy!!
- my professors being incredibly understanding
iv. climbing back out / love and attention
it’s weird to make a demarcation between then & now, still. i’m putting in the work during therapy because i’m stable enough to focus on underlying problems instead of day-to-day ones. my cycles have evened out. i get to joke that i’m bi squared, which is fun.
me & ant are still together. i love him. we’re apart right now & i miss him. i miss my best friend. a month ago, the day i wrote this, we played uncharted 2, which helped quiet my spiraling afraid-of-COVID-19-and-election-and-being-a-human brain, and laughed at how many times i accidentally threw a grenade and ran toward it. we studied in silence next to each other. (that’s what i miss intensely, right now — doing nothing with the people i love most.)
i’m incredibly close with my chosen family. neoliberalism/capitalism will not defeat me!! i believe in community care + solidarity <3 the people who have cooked for and with me, who have swapped late-night/mid-day/early-morning thoughts with me, brawled over smash and beat me are a huge part of my foundation.
the apathy and passion are still there, coexisting. i’m trying to be kind to myself and remember i cannot overcome myself, but i can learn to live with her.
i am unabashedly committed to a journalism i envision as grounded in community engagement and an acknowledgment of partial objectivity/my view from somewhere. and i’ve gotten to do things that i’m really passionate about, like my cola beat reporting.
i’m still writing for myself, still writing vignettes and stories. i’m learning more about policy and politics. davis was a good place for me to end up, especially with the nascent bulosan center for filipinx studies, where i hang out a lot & am a policy intern.
i recently hung out with friends from high school who recently moved to the sacramento area.
“you still feel the same, but you definitely changed,” one of them said.
“i think you’re just more yourself,” the other said.
i think so, too.
growing up sucks and it’s painful and it doesn’t matter where you do it, it’s always gonna sting a little bit. mit was a footnote instead of a chapter, but i’m glad it was. having mit as my dream school, going through the process of writing and rewriting my essays and waiting months for a final decision — it all clarified the want i did have: to lean into myself, not away from it.
i feel emotional every time i drive through the central valley traveling back to tracy — rolling fields of golden brown and green and every shade of brown and green in between fading into a quilt i call home.
i pay more attention now, to the people who have made a home for me at davis and helped me make a home in myself. i look for stories and help tell them and keep writing my own.
- i was moved by aching accounts of falling and failing in pursuit of passion and discussions of friendship. bloggers mentioned this sense of community that they found at mit, the exhilaration of solving psets late at night accompanied by best friends and long, languishing conversations, the homes they found in urops & dorms & spaces on campus. it felt real, attainable. back to text ↑
- shit i totally have no chance @ this according to r/applyingtocollege and/or college confidential……….SO i’ll apply early admission bc why the hell not!! back to text ↑
- quote from this podcast back to text ↑
- i mean, how much thought had i actually given that? i hadn’t tested it...BUT i had coded!! and gotten an A!! back to text ↑
- don’t tell him but his work ethic is so intense that it hurts me, sometimes, to be around it back to text ↑
- sooooo many poems about exes before this point #noregrets back to text ↑
- a non-comprehensive list of things that happened: wandering around the quad for an hour before gathering the courage to interview random students, food in the office, being able to pitch stories) back to text ↑
- it is, along with this post, the blog that has made the most impact on me in terms of thought hit-counts. back to text ↑
- “i’m in the hospital #sacdaytrip” was one of them...pls past janelle that is NOT a great text back to text ↑