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MIT student blogger Shuli J. '22

Leadership @ MIT by Shuli J. '22, MEng '23

(from a froshy perspective)

I did some ~leadership~ in high school, as I’m sure many of you did. Maybe your experiences were similar to mine; probably a lot of them were, tbh, since I followed a very typical path. In middle school and freshman year, I joined some clubs, learned a lot, and had fun; sophomore and junior year, I stuck with the clubs I cared about the most and learned more about them and how they worked. Senior year, I was In Charge: the clubs took over my life, and I spent lots and lots of my time and energy planning events and teaching kiddos. By the end of senior year, I was super burned out and ready to move on, and although I still talk to the younger students I met through those clubs, I’m barely involved at all with their actual day-to-day workings.

Sound familiar? There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this path; through my extracurricular involvement in high school, I learned a lot, both about my clubs’ topics themselves (#Classics4lyfe) and about how to mentor younger people and run large groups. I had a ton of fun, met my girlfriend and some of my best friends, and was given an outlet for my energy and creativity that my classes didn’t always offer.

But at the same time, there were downsides. By the end of senior year, I was exhausted and desperately needed a break.01 Which I didn't really get, because I worked a job all summer. Don't do this if you can avoid it, kids! Summer before freshman year = time to relax. Then, I moved to Boston, making me pretty unavailable to help the younger students who now run my clubs. I experienced this dynamic, too, when I was the younger student, and it was sometimes really difficult — for example, when my predecessor hadn’t left good enough records and I didn’t know how to do a traditional task, or when my predecessor was officially the one in charge for one more month, but in effect, they had already checked out.

In high school, I thought this was just the way things were. Life is hard; get used to it.

And then I came to MIT, and I realized that there was so much more to the world than I thought there was.02 this is true with respect to many things. maybe i will make a post compiling them all some day

At MIT, or at least in the little corners of it I’ve seen, the leadership trajectory is nothing like this; it takes a shape I honestly never imaged in high school. At MIT, freshmen get to do things! Freshmen get to be the president of their a cappella group, or run an ESP program, or be in charge of running their dorm’s CPW events, or work with administrators to help review and update our housing policies… and these things are common, encouraged, and in some cases even tradition.

How do we make this work? What’s preventing all of us freshmen from biting off more than we can chew and drowning? Well, to be honest, it sometimes happens (it sometimes happens to everyone; that’s the MIT Experience TM), and I do think there are some positions that might really require a year’s worth of familiarity with the Institute. But the real secret here is: upperclassman and alumni involvement.

When freshmen take on more leadership roles, older students don’t get as burned out; they stick around for mentorship, and to field a barrage of questions like “When was this due last year?”, “Should I mention X or just Y in my email?”, and “Do we always spend $1,000 on this?” MIT has a culture of alumni involvement, aka people not just blowing the popsicle stand after four years and then only interacting to donate money to the corporation, and I think that’s not necessarily present at all undergrad institutions. Plus, we have a robust grad school and we live in a big city; people often stick around for a few years after graduating, whether to get more education or simply because their job is here. Lots of those people just keep on showing up, supporting their old groups at events and pitching in when help is needed. So although freshmen may be in charge, in reality, our support system is much, much stronger than it was when I was In Charge (with capitals!) in high school.

I think that this is one facet, perhaps a less-often recognized one, of MIT’s unique mentality, which I have just now coined “sink or swim with support.” (And, like, I’m not claiming that it’s always like this — sometimes the support isn’t there, and that’s obviously Bad. What I’m describing is MIT at its best.) Here, you have room to try and fail: to tackle hard psets, to sign up for difficult classes, to try out roles for which you might have little experience. Many of us learn from this that our abilities are greater than we thought them to be, and succeed where we had worried we would fail. But if we do fail, there are office hours; there is a very late drop date; there are older students who can advise and teach you. And with this safety net, I personally, at least, feel more able to take a chance when I do not know if I will reach my goal — I’m able to stretch my failure muscles instead of only ever trying things I know I can do, and never finding out what else I might be capable of.

So, uh, catch me at my a cappella group’s concert on Friday?!?!? I will be the one holding the thirty-six servings of mac and cheese I just ordered on Amazon, handing out the skit scripts, humming my music so I don’t forget it, and trying not to lose my mind.


  1. Which I didn't really get, because I worked a job all summer. Don't do this if you can avoid it, kids! Summer before freshman year = time to relax. back to text
  2. this is true with respect to many things. maybe i will make a post compiling them all some day back to text