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last fall / last fall by Alan Z. '23

it's senior year and i still haven't learned anything

Last fall, I went from my summer internship directly into running REX events for first-year students, followed by acapella auditions and the first week of classes. It was a fun time, in the sense that I enjoyed every event individually, but, in combination, it exhausted me. I felt like I was burnt-out before the semester had even started, and it left me off-kilter for the entirety of junior fall.

So, this year, I proceeded to make the exact same set of mistakes as last year. I landed in Boston at 11:59 PM on Saturday, and I was up the next morning at 10:30 AM to give a tour of Next House. I organized the two 4W wing events01 during which we put together a custom 2000-piece puzzle and watched <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/here-i-go-again/"><em>Mamma Mia!</em></a> with first-years. and I attended an inordinate number of other ones, including a few where I was tasked with representing the undergraduate perspective at Next. Four days later, when all of the hullabaloo was finally over at Next House, and all the first-year students had completed their internal move,02 see <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/the-last-twenty-days/">this post</a> for a better explanation, but, essentially, first-year students at Next go through a process of exploring the various subcommunities of their dorm, after which they pick their own final room assignment. this process occurs in various forms in other dorms. I immediately shifted over to audition planning mode for the Asymptones. Auditions lasted from the following Saturday to Monday; registration for classes was on Tuesday, and then classes started Wednesday.

diagram of calendar showing the sequence of events

On the Tuesday before classes started, for one of the many introductory meetings that herald the start of a semester, the icebreaker question was “what in the last week were you pleasantly exhausted by?”

My honest answer was that I had ceased to be pleasantly exhausted by the previous Tuesday. Instead, I was merely exhausted, in that pure and complete way which saps away any hint of other emotion, positive or negative. Just like the previous year, I had completely drained myself before the semester had even started.


Last fall, I overcommitted myself by signing up for the equivalent of 6.5 standard classes, in addition to singing in the Asymptones, participating in student government on Next Exec and DormCon, sorting mail at Next Desk, and helping out with various classes as an LA03 technically this stands for Lab Assistant, but as a Course 6 student, 'lab' really means working on coding assignments, which I feel does not really match up with a person's image of a hypothetical 'lab assistant.' and grader. The overload kept me from being able to really enjoy the semester in a variety of ways: I spent much less time hanging out with people, much less time off-campus than I otherwise would’ve liked; I spent a lot more time feeling down and out of it, and a lot more time playing catch up in all of my classes.

This semester, I am in almost precisely the same number of units as last year; I am in three “hardcore” CS classes, which each spark delight in their own unique ways, a class on musicals, a writing class on (auto)biography, and a smattering of other smaller commitments. I am still in the Asymptones, still on Next Exec, still on DormCon, still sorting mail at Next Desk. Instead of LA or grading roles, I am doing policy research on social media regulation. I am just as busy as I was last fall, if not more.

Most dauntingly, new obligations keep slipping in through the cracks. It is almost as if it is impossible for me to last a week without creating some new obligation for myself. I am working with administrators on a particular issue at MIT which means a lot to me; I am sitting as a student representative on the Committee for Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid; I am heavily considering attending more MIT Lindy Hop04 this is a form of swing dancing! I hate dancing and am generally bad at it, but have found swing dancing oddly liberating every time I have done it. Society events. I have escape hatches; I can drop a class or two and still graduate, and I have a little wiggle room in how active or inactive I want to be in various positions, but I am still not confident I will be able to exercise them—after all, I’ve only dropped two classes during my entire time at MIT thus far.

This is my last fall at MIT—or, at the very least, it is the last fall of my undergraduate career here—and it is frustrating to feel like I haven’t learned any lessons at all. After all, it’s my senior fall. I should be taking fewer classes, slowing down, sticking with the things I already have, starting to reap the rewards of three long years of hard work. In some ways, this has happened—I’ve been getting eight hours of sleep every night, my classes don’t start until 11 AM, and I have no required classes on Friday. Yet, I go to bed exhausted every night, and though I’ve learned to say “no” to many opportunities, new ones keep popping up.

My overwhelming sense is that I should have adjusted my value function to prioritize my own well-being; that I should be putting my foot down and saying no to everything. I should know better by now. These are the basics of being at MIT; these are the first things we tell first-years when they step on campus:

…MIT becomes one of the hardest optimization/prioritization problems you will ever encounter in your near-adult life. Because there is just so much to do all the time, you really want to protect your time at MIT and learn the important lesson of how to drop things and how to say no.

I think my core frustration is that I have still not really figured out where the balance lies, three years in. When is it okay to try new things, and when will it destroy you? Part of me suspects that I am searching for a black-and-white answer in vain; that this is a question where you will only find answers by continually trying and searching, and occasionally succeeding and occasionally failing. Perhaps this is a question that can only be answered by having a good sense of one’s core values and constantly tacking towards the mean.

And, I suppose, I have been enjoying life—regardless of exhaustion—and maybe that is what matters, rather than the particular idea of optimizing for enjoyment, regardless of if enjoyment happens to be “doing more things” or “doing less things”. I’ve loved sitting in classes, learning about computer system architecture and Oklahoma! and everything in between. I’ve loved the feeling that I am accomplishing some small approximation of progress in my student government roles, and the joy of the give and take of moving around a dance floor with a partner. I’ve been getting good sleep, and eating well, and all the other important bits of life. On the night before classes started, I sat in the 4W main lounge with a bunch of Shirefolk,05 the proper demonym for 4W residents. and we talked and made the same jokes as we always have, and I felt no guilt for staying up late.

So, tentatively, I will keep pushing forward, and maybe it will be alright if I merely keep all of these ill-learned lessons in mind, if not in heart. Maybe the only way to learn how to live is to do so, and to stop overthinking what, exactly, it means to thrive. We will find out soon enough, one way or another. It is, after all, my last undergraduate fall.

  1. during which we put together a custom 2000-piece puzzle and watched Mamma Mia! with first-years. back to text
  2. see this post for a better explanation, but, essentially, first-year students at Next go through a process of exploring the various subcommunities of their dorm, after which they pick their own final room assignment. this process occurs in various forms in other dorms. back to text
  3. technically this stands for Lab Assistant, but as a Course 6 student, 'lab' really means working on coding assignments, which I feel does not really match up with a person's image of a hypothetical 'lab assistant. back to text
  4. this is a form of swing dancing! I hate dancing and am generally bad at it, but have found swing dancing oddly liberating every time I have done it. back to text
  5. the proper demonym for 4W residents. back to text