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MIT student blogger Afeefah K. '21

I Lived, I Learned, I Got Burnt by Afeefah K. '21

not necessarily in that order

*CW:  Death, Rejection, Anxiety*

I have been wanting to write a reflection on the past year for a while now. A lot has happened in the past couple of months. The Afeefah that sprinted across campus in March 2020 is versions away from the Afeefah that is sitting in her childhood bedroom writing this post in the middle of the night – vitamin string quartet playing in the background and all. Every time I tried writing this post, my fingers would freeze up and suddenly the activation energy required to start putting things into words seemed insurmountable. Part of the fear comes from revisiting things I have very intentionally left on the back-burner. The other part of the fear comes from knowing that regardless of how hard I try, I will not be able to do any of this justice. 

But here it goes anyway. A naive attempt at a very raw and honest reflection on the past year +/- a few months. 

On Living 

Back in March of 2020, when all of campus was erupting into absolute chaos, I distinctly remember a moment I shared with a good friend. As people were running around trying to squeeze in all of their goodbyes, she said something along the lines of: “at least we get a week to prepare and say our goodbyes, think about all the times you don’t even get a chance.” Similar thoughts had been floating around my head, but it hits differently when someone actually vocalizes it.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people I didn’t get to properly say goodbye to. Friends that I couldn’t get a hold of before leaving campus. Acquaintances that I had gotten used to being around, but no longer see on the daily. People that have passed away. I’ve already been through one graduation. I know what it’s like to move to an entirely new city and state. I should know by now that people come and go, and that’s just the natural progression of life. People certainly do come and go, but it especially hurts when they come and go without a proper embrace and goodbye. 

In the beginning of my senior year, I lost an aunt to cancer. Less than a month ago, I lost a really close uncle to COVID-19. About a week ago, my cousin lost her grandfather to the same stinking virus. And as you may have guessed, I did not get to say goodbye to any of them. In fact, I didn’t even get to attend their funerals. People keep telling me that maybe it is better this way. Now, I will always remember them in their best form with their bright smiles on their faces. But honestly all I feel is an anxiety that comes from lack of closure. I keep forgetting about these tragedies. I keep forgetting that these people are not alive any more. I keep forgetting that they have died. For every 30 minutes that I forget, there are 30 minutes in which I remember. And so it just keeps hitting me over and over again.  And I keep wondering to myself, who will I lose next. I don’t know if it will necessarily ever stop. Or maybe you just learn to live with it. In the meantime, all I can do is hold on to the people that are around me a little harder, and show my appreciation and love while I can. In the moments where I am not hit by anxiety, I am trying my best to do exactly just that.

On Getting Burnt 

At the same time that my world and the world at large was quite literally falling apart, I was still a graduating senior that needed to work towards her next steps: medical school. I don’t let myself talk about my med school journey very often, because I don’t want to serve as a case-study or an example. Everyone’s path is different and trying to recreate and mimic someone else’s path is going to do more damage than good. 

My path to medicine was not linear in any way or form and I don’t expect for it to be linear as I continue to work towards being a physician leader. I didn’t come to MIT as a pre-med. Rather, I came as someone who was incredibly passionate about research, innovation and communities. At MIT, I let myself loose to explore different things and find something that felt right. During my junior year, I decided that that something was medicine. And so while many of my peers had been planning to apply to medical school from day one, I decided to take the MCAT three months before my test date and spent six weeks studying extensively all the while navigating the different pieces that had to come together in my final application. Mentors told me that this was unreasonable on my end. I should be setting at least six months aside for studying alone. But something in me was telling me that I was capable of not just knocking the MCAT out of the way, but doing well. So I listened to myself and went ahead with it. And guess what, it went well!

I sent in the first part of my application last May and the process did not end till about two weeks ago. So that makes for one incredibly stressful and draining year. In all honesty, the process was really really hard. Even with MIT’s pre health office and family and friends around, I felt so alone. There was no crash course for how to apply and make a strong application. I simply was learning and adjusting as time went. There is so much that I know now that I didn’t know when I first sent my application in. And I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had known all of these tips and tricks. 

Then came a few interview calls, but a much larger flood of rejection emails that lasted for months. “We will no longer be considering your application.” “The applicant pool was extremely competitive this year” blah blah blah blah. My inbox has been flooded by rejections before. This was a lot like every internship application season I have had. The difference? Before, I wasn’t paying application fees for just a generic rejection email response. And as my peers began to share lists of ivy league schools they were interviewing at and how busy they were jumping from one school to another, my Imposter Syndrome began to fester. I obviously was not prepared enough. How could I, when the others who were applying had been working towards med school from day one. I wanted to be a physician with my entire heart. But maybe that wasn’t enough. 

I worked hard during my time at MIT, I never did things to check off boxes but because I genuinely enjoyed doing them. I had found a home in so many different communities. I had a scrapbook full of memories that I had built. I have no regrets. And yet in the worst part of my med school application process, I somehow managed to question it all. What if I had done x thing, applied to y program, volunteered at z place. Had I not made the best use of my time at MIT? Was I a failure? I was bringing myself down. And that was a dangerous place to be. It took forever to fall asleep. I became really snappy. I could barely stand myself. 

Looking back at it all, it’s terrifying that I was able to keep myself in this bad place for so long, fueled by the comparisons I was drawing and this negative voice in my head that I was giving too much attention to. Despite how difficult it had begun to seem, I eventually did get into a medical school that I was really happy with. I am really excited about what awaits me, but I am also so exhausted.

On Learning 

The insecurities of the med school application process combined with personal loss were definitely meant to teach me something. I’m only beginning to chip away at what those lessons are supposed to be. At the end of the day the one singular person that we can always rely on is ourself. We have to be our champions. We have to see our worth. We have to keep our heads up high. We can’t let what other people say and do influence the way we view ourselves. We just can’t.

And secondly, every decision we make does not have to stem from this long thought out plan. Life changes us. And all you can simply do is keep making the best decision for the version of you that exists in that time and space. And even then, as my grandfather often tells me: you don’t make “right decisions”, but you can make decisions right. On the other end of the application process, it really feels like everything worked out exactly the way it was meant to. Similar to how my gut told me to just take the MCAT, something tells me that this is a part of a bigger plan that I will not be able to understand until a few years have passed.

And to the imposter syndrome that stills creeps inside me, I say, it doesn’t matter what I am in comparison to other people. It doesn’t matter if I was the number one desired applicant or the applicant that barely made the cut. An opportunity is an opportunity. And what matters is what I am able to do with it. And boy do I plan to do a lot with it.

As I have been reminded again and again, our time here is limited. We all deserve to love and be loved. Not just by others, but also by ourselves. We owe ourselves peace and happiness. Asking for advice is important, but at some point you also gotta trust that you know what is best for you.

Recovering from all of this is a process, but slowly I am beginning to heal. And suddenly I am realizing that in many ways, my time at MIT did not just prepare me academically and socially, but it also prepared me to get through this really really rough patch in my life. At MIT, I learned that I could fail my very first midterm as an undergrad and still bounce back and thrive. At MIT, I learned that no matter how difficult the pset, I could always find help if I went out to seek it. At MIT, I learned that even the longest of nights comes to an end – often with the welcoming of a beautiful sunrise on the Charles. That all goes to say, I’ve received many punches at MIT. And even though I often questioned my capabilities and strength, I always managed to stand up again. People say that MIT is the hardest thing you will ever do. I’m not sure how true that is. And I for sure now that MIT is by no means a golden ticket for the next step. But what I can say is that MIT has shown me that I am a lot stronger than I often let myself believe. My job now, is to remember these lessons and let my battle scars show.