Content warning: brief mentions of anxiety, BPD, hospitalization
Hi ≧◡≦ , my name is River. Just like most people, I had dreamed of coming to this university since childhood. And now I am about to enter my sophomore spring here! Yet, despite all those years of dreaming and planning, none of it really came true. I never expected to be the person who I am now.
When I entered MIT, I had a different name and went by different pronouns. My two passions were basketball and programming. I was on the Varsity Girls basketball team, and completely dove into 6-3 major classes from my freshman fall.
And now? I am not on the team anymore, and I have no idea where I am going with my classes….or my life.
So this makes me think….why did I come here?
1. tO eXplOrE
It is often said that “college is the place to explore! So you can discover your interests!” But I have grown to realize that at least for me, I won’t know what I am interested in for at least a few years after college graduation. And that’s okay. In fact, I hear it all the time from MIT alumni (I work as a techcaller yipee!). They tell me that it sometimes takes industry exploration to figure that out, but luckily, you can always switch jobs and that it is worth it to try different environments (e.g. big companies, startups, software, hardware, management, etc.).
But I have been trying to figure out what I like though! At MIT, I have explored areas that I never have before in software, hardware, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. I even learned to sow at the Metropolis Makerspace and made a reversible pencil case. I became familiar with shop equipment in 2.00b and constructed a wooden pull toy. I am learning how to be a leader through dorm government, as I was recently elected president of my living community East Campus?!?! *In highschool, I never cared about government* And I am also exploring my sexuality and gender identity by changing how I present myself and letting myself be attracted to whoever I feel like.
But spending lots of time exploring also kind of sucks. Because what they don’t tell you is that by exploring, it means you do not develop a professional expertise straight away. I am no expert in anything. I am a decent programmer that has not been studying for swe interviews because of my explorations as a novice electrical and mechanical engineer. Most of my 6-3 friends have already taken the algorithms class (6.006), and I have yet to take the prereq (6.042). Instead this past semester, I took circuits (6.002), dynamics (2.003), computation structures (6.004), differential equations (18.03), and linguistics (idk the number). I am attacking my degree with a breadth-first search instead of a depth-first search….plus, I am not even certain what I want my degree to be (6-2? 6-1? 2A-6? 6-3?).
To be transparent, this approach has limited me because I have been rejected from research opportunities on campus and internships for not having enough background. And while that has been difficult, I know that it is okay because I would rather complete my degree slower, than graduate fast and always wonder….what would have happened if I had picked up the circuit board?
2. to struggle
And oh I have……
My freshman fall, I struggled the most with fear. The fear of the workload, exams, and not being good enough. I found myself studying in every free second I had because I was terrified that the MIT rigor would consume me. Quickly, I realized that the school was a lot more doable then I initially thought, so I decided to let myself enjoy some of that free time. I then slipped into the opposite problem of being too relaxed…sleeping through classes, starting assignments hours before the deadline, and just making bad decisions.
My freshman spring, I fell deeper into my work-life balance struggle. I missed most of my classes this semester. I barely passed physics (8.02) with a C-, and I found myself quitting the varsity basketball team after 10 years of playing the sport because I could not keep up. But while this semester was a lot of struggle, I was improving. I strengthened my relationships with the people around me. I reached out to a therapist, and I took the mistakes that I was making to heart so that I would not make them again.
My sophomore fall, I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel…..or so I thought. I maintained a healthy 8 hour sleep schedule. I started off strong with making it to all my classes, although that gradually decreased as the semester went on. I made sure to go to office hours regularly, and I was doing well with handling 5 courses on top of being an active member of East Campus Exec. And on paper I was thriving, but I was struggling to regulate my emotions. I was struggling with exploring my identity. I started testosterone and I loved it, but I was scared to face the world as a gender nonconforming individual. Eventually, all things came crashing down. I ended up hospitalized throughout the last week of classes. I did not take any of my finals and OX’d all classes but one which I late dropped, so I could focus on a 5 week intensive outpatient program. I started struggling with feelings of failure for falling apart before completing the semester. I also struggled with my new diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and anxiety.
And there is a lot of struggling that I do not feel comfortable talking about here…so now one might re-ask the question. If I have been struggling so much…..why did I come to MIT?
Because it’s worth it. The struggle takes me places that I am grateful for.
There have been great lows, but there have been amazing highs as well. I have made memories that I will never forget in these short few semesters, most notably, this year’s pumpkin drop. It was the hardest event that I have ever organized in my entire life, but I will never forget watching 150+ pumpkins drop from Tang Hall and explode right before my eyes. I will never forget watching my community, who I love so much, come together to help me ensure this event had enough manpower (turns out it is A LOT of work to pick, gut, and transport all the pumpkins as well as clean up afterwards). This event also ended up in this news article?!?! I don’t know how but here is the link that I found: https://www.wfla.com/dont-miss/watch-what-happens-when-pumpkins-are-tossed-off-a-24-story-building/.
So I did do a lot of cool stuff this past semester. Even with the catastrophic ending, there were still many good parts. The semester was not a failure. Outside of pumpkin drop, I helped run 3 foster care workshops as a part of my UROP with the Media Lab! These workshops were where the Media Lab’s Affective Computing Group put our creative software technologies that aimed to support foster youth mental health to the test. I also helped run a nation-wide study with the Personal Robotics Group, and I helped analyze the data afterwards to co-write a paper. I became a Campus Ambassador for Monster Energy! I came out as trans to my living group via a meme, and I had other amazing experiences such as cooking 100 dumplings and then breaking 2 instapots while doing so.
I have also really embraced the small moments. My favorite is my friends and I belting “We are Young” in the infinite corridor with McDonald’s takeout in hand at 3am. I love when people I recognize wave to me in the hall. I love watching movies with my roommates. I love failing an exam with a friend, so I don’t feel alone.
So, I do like the struggle. The one thing that I have in common with my high school self is yearning for the struggle at MIT. This struggle has helped me realize how wonderful my friends are. This struggle made my big highs even bigger and my small moments gigantic. The struggle pushes me but I find myself stronger each semester. It makes me grow, and I am happy with that growth and where it is heading.
I am growing into a person who can have a healthy schedule, mind, and work-life balance. I am growing into a well-rounded engineer, and I am growing into a leader with strong communication and organization skills. I am growing into a person who knows how to love themself. I am not there yet but that is where I am headed because of my struggles.
3. to have fun
And I always know how to have fun;)
4. because that’s life
Sometimes I think to myself, I am failing. I regret that I did not just focus on studying 6-3 to become the best software engineer ever. After all, academics is first priority….right?
But I have changed my mind. Instead of academics, my first priority for college is to learn how to embrace life.
Life is a series of exploration, struggle, and fun. You constantly have to explore how you want to live your life socially, professionally, and independently. And while cliche, life is a constant series of unavoidable struggles, so you have to learn how to face them. And you have to have fun in life. The fun is what makes living soooo gooooood.
College is just navigating life in a more controlled environment, so I want to make the most of that and I do not regret that decision one bit. I used to feel like I wasted the last 1.5 years of my life on meaningless exploration and maybe too much fun that set me behind amongst my MIT peers. But now I realize that none of those experiences were meaningless. If anything, all my struggles and experiences are evidence that I am tackling life here and making the most of the MIT college experience.