# how not to be a mathematician by Fatima A. '25

on taking time & not running away

By the end of my freshman year, I was convinced that I had not learned anything in my classes at MIT. By the end of my sophomore year, the belief cemented. If anything, I felt like I had gotten less smarter than before. I felt lost and unhappy, wondering if I truly did not belong here, if I would have been better off someplace else. In classes, I thoroughly believed that I just could not learn the content deeply, no matter how hard I tried. Although for many people, MIT convinces them that nothing is impossible (and in some ways, it did that for me), for the most part in terms of math academics, I had fallen to believe something completely different. I was running away from any true interactions with math peers and professors, people I respected and admired, solely because I thought they would find out how little I know and how stupid I was and I didn’t want that to happen.

The question of whether I wanted to do math began to nudge me more often. I wondered if I was doing it purely out of ego and stubbornness and not because I actually wanted to. I didn’t do a math UROP for the first 2.5 years of MIT, I went to office hours less often than I should’ve for my math classes, I did not participate actively in any of the math clubs, and barely made any friends in my math classes. Yes, I knew people who did math, but I knew them despite it and not because of it, and for the most part, our conversations were sanitized of math.

I accepted the lack of belonging I felt towards the math department. I didn’t think it was a big deal; I had friends and other communities I cared about. In my head, I had divided my math vs. HASS classes, classes where I will never talk to anyone new and classes where I could have deep, meaningful conversations just as a consequence of the structure. But, taking a physics class my sophomore spring, I realized that even science classrooms don’t have to be quite as cold. There would be many people in office hours working together and although I didn’t do too well in the class, there was a sense in which I didn’t feel utterly hopeless.

Eventually, I decided to study abroad. I was going to be at Imperial, meaning that I could only take math classes. It felt like a bit of a graduate school preview in many ways and I wanted to find out whether I would like that at all. I also wanted to see what the math community looked like there, somewhere that wasn’t MIT. Overall, this experience impacted my graduate school decision positively. The more time I had to learn math, I just wanted to learn more. I knew I wasn’t done.

I reached out to two of my old mentors, Paige B. ’24 and Pam S. ’23, both of whom have helped me with classes and who I admired a lot but never had the courage to really reach out. It turned out, they did not hate me (inconceivable). In fact, they were unbelievably kind and we chatted about math and physics and general anxiety regarding life after MIT. Frankly, the only thing that helped me be less afraid to reach out in the first place is realizing that my time at MIT is so limited and I valued the people around me a lot more than I value any perception they have of me.

During this time, I began to strongly feel my lack of participation in the math department. Though I had complained about it far too much, I had never done anything to cause the change I had hoped to see. In hopes to remedy that and in hopes of feeling more like a part of the math department, I signed up to help with Discover Mathematics, the math pre-orientation program.

In the summer, I went back to Chicago, where I had been for the summer after my freshman year. Two years ago, I was one of the youngest people there and the most lost. I had no algebra background (first isomorphism theorem who) and generally felt confused talking to one of my mentors. My main goal for this summer was to become slightly more fluent in my mentor’s language, that is to say, learn a little bit about the terms he uses quite often. As I went through this exercise of jumping from topic to topic, I realized how far I had come. Although some of the concepts still made little sense, I could follow a lot of what I was learning. That weird phrase people throw about, mathematical maturity, I had some of that! As the summer proceeded, I got to meet some of my friends from the REU two years ago. We had fun, socialized and talked about math. They told me about opportunities that might be interesting to me and gave me advice about graduate school. In addition to that, I derived a lot of motivation from our conversations. I began to wonder how differently things would have turned out if I had talked to more people who did math, if I had been less afraid.

I don’t think I have a lot to show for this summer, mostly because I hopped around so many different topics I couldn’t do one in depth, but I came out feeling a lot more hopeful for the future. I learned a lot and got a lot better at reaching out to people. And, although I never felt this before, ever in my MIT career, I finally feel like I have learned stuff from my classes at MIT. I may not remember every proof and every statement, but it is easier to learn now than it used to be. Most importantly, the deep curiosity lives on.

It is still scary to think about the future, if I will survive graduate school, but I feel more excited about how the next years unfold. I am optimistic about learning math and finding people who will support me. How bad can it be.

It really took me three full years to even begin to feel like I could be a math undergraduate, even though that had always been my major. I had hoped to get here by the end of my freshman year but I am here now. If you are a current underclassman in the same boat as I was, feeling lost and confused and out of place, I am sending lots of hugs and care. It does get better, learning math takes time and wells of patience. Each person has their own place in math and you will find a weird niche topic you care about and a weird community that cares about that weird niche topic and suddenly, everything will not feel so scary anymore. My only advice to you would be to let yourself take that time, do not look at what others are doing, be unbearably patient with yourself, talk to many, many people, simply never be afraid, and most importantly, fuck around and find out.