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MIT student blogger Ben O. '19

Making the hard decision by Ben O. '19

a couple of brutally honest stories from friends here that had originally wanted to study literature or art

I have always loved writing. I have always enjoyed the freedom of coming up with stories, making worlds that I wish I could live in, or bringing together thoughts about my own life to come up with a coherent narrative. On the visual arts side, I spent a lot of time doing Blender (a 3D animation program) when I had free time back in high school. For me it was a way for me to take the world that I know, and modify it in a way that made the world truly mine. However, despite my love for writing and 3D animation I believe my primary passion has always been cancer research. This made MIT almost a natural place for me to want to go, but the longer that I am here the more I have become aware that for many visual arts and writing was more than a hobby, it is a passion equivalent to my love for cancer research. As I have heard stories of friends, I have found a problem for incoming freshman that love literature or visual arts is “How do I decide between MIT, and an art school?” or “MIT and a school with a great writing program?” So, I decided to grab some friends that I knew had made this decision between MIT and another program, and ask them how they feel now that they are at MIT. (both of these friends are anonymous so if you would like to get in contact with them to ask further questions, please email me and I can try to get you in contact ^_^)




When I was young, reading was practically a health hazard. I’d read anytime and anywhere, despite the immediate perils in my surrounding environment. I distinctly remember my mom rolling her eyes at me every time I walked into a door with my nose in a book. How I didn’t break my neck going down stairs in the middle of Emily Windsnap or Maniac Magee or Ramona Quimby is beyond me. Stories were mine to have and hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part. You may now read the book (or this blog post, rather. I don’t know. This was a weird reference to make).

Fast forward to middle and high school. My favorite authors inspired me to try my hand at writing, and I loved stringing words together. Sentences are compact puzzles with endless solutions and no single right answer. When all the pieces fit, they have rhythm, a flow, an ability to make you think and see and question. I found I loved crafting stories, too — they were a way to grab handfuls of life and mold the directionless chaos into something meaningful.

In high school, I wrote constantly in a red journal. I submitted pieces to my school’s literary magazine, later became co-editor-in-chief, and even won a school award for a piece I wrote. Then came time for college. Adults stopped saying, “You can do everything you put your mind to!” and instead requested that I condense my interests and life goals into a choice of major. I loved writing, but I was also a science nerd (huge surprise, I know). I sent in my applications, heard back from schools, and screamed internally and out loud when I got into MIT. How could I say no?

One of the first things I learned as a student here is that you can’t be good at/do everything. When you’re young, there are a billion open doors you can walk through and explore, but at a certain point, you have to start closing them — especially when you have an intense academic workload, run on too little sleep, and must learn to manage your time. Everyone has certain doors, though, that they’re incapable of shutting. I decided to come to MIT and pursue bioengineering, but I did not want to give up on writing. This mission has been going okay so far. I joined The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper. I am now editor of its Campus Life section. I am planning on minoring in writing (either creative or science). I have enjoyed the writing courses I’ve taken so far, and I’ve met many a talented writer here.

Just so you know I’m not sugar coating my experience, here are the truths you’d expect from a school whose STEM reputation is as monolithic as MIT’s: there are few undergraduate students who choose to major in writing (MIT offers creative writing, science writing, and digital media majors and minors). There exist students here who belittle the humanities. The atmosphere is very much charged with an enthusiasm for STEM, which may hide the arts communities from public view. And there will be many times when you’ll be too busy or tired or stressed to work on anything but your psets.

Here are some truths that may surprise you about MIT: for every student who hates the humanities, there are a ton more who appreciate its value and understand its importance. MIT students are not just hardcore STEM nerds — I am friends with serious athletes, half the people on my floor are super into Dance Troupe, a friend on my floor is learning firespinning, my roommate plays six instruments (and is amazing at all of them, excluding the trumpet which she picked up this year), and so on. And though few undergraduate students choose to major in writing, a community of writers thrives. This community may be smaller than those in other schools, but it is alive and well. MIT has a literary magazine, Rune, a newspaper, a spoken word poetry club, a plethora of writing courses, and superstar professors. Our writing professors, including Junot Diaz and B.D. Colen, are Pulitzer Prize winners, bestselling authors, respected journalists, and more.

If you know you’re serious about writing as a life path, I might not advise going to MIT without quite a bit of thought and talking it over with a 21W major. MIT is likely not the best place to be if you know that writing is your dream, but this really depends on you. I have friends who are aspiring writers, and they do not regret their time here. I personally write and read less now, and it is difficult to do other things I enjoy during weeks when I don’t seem to have any free time. However, for those who are passionate about STEM and writing/the arts in equal measure, it is possible to do both at MIT. It will take energy, work, and introspection about what you want to prioritize in your life, but these are necessary ingredients for the pursuit of just about anything.

Here’s one final anecdote: the other day, I attended the Ilona Karmel writing prize awards dinner. In a cozy room tucked away in building 14E, students crammed around couches and tables with plates of Indian food and slices of cake (which was modeled after Margaret Atwood’s typewriter! I almost died when I saw it). The room was buzzing with conversation and energy and anticipation, and sitting in that room, I felt so grateful for this hidden gem of MIT’s population. Everyone there shared my love for words, and I didn’t feel out of place as someone who’d previously run into doors with a face full of book.

From the outside looking in — and even from the inside — MIT can be an intimidating place for aspiring writers. However, if you know there are some doors you just can’t close, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find when you read between the lines.


Visual Arts

To be honest, I was pretty scared to write this blog post.
So much so, that I managed to put 3 weeks between when Ben asked me to write one, and when I actually made a blank google doc. I guess I have been afraid that when I actually let loose and press brains against paper, the resulting imprint would be something unhappy and morbid.

Okay let’s start over:
-Hi! I’m about to talk a lot about myself, and hopefully conclude with something relevant to you.
-I am course 6-3 (computer science major for those of you yet to be indoctrinated into the Institute’s habit of numbering everything).My favorite living thing in the world is my dog Bean/Dou Dou (sorry everyone else).
-I would like to be a visual development artist someday. What is a visual development artist? S/he is the person who decides what the world of a movie, game, or tv show will look like before it is actually produced.
-(Here’s some awesome concept art: Lilo and Stitch, Tangled,Zootopia, emperor’s new groove, star wars, star wars, star wars, harry potter, guild wars 2,, moana)
-Really, it’s the coolest job in the world for people who like to draw, read, and daydream.
(a.k.a. me)


However-in-general-as-a-person-overall. I also enjoy solving problems and building things; in high school I was really into science olympiad, and at one point decided I loved ecology/biology after following a grad student around an evolution lab at U Chicago for a summer. I’ve always counted myself amongst the nerd crowd growing up, and never imagined I would be anything else than someone that builds things.

This changed when, as a junior in high school, I had the fortune to be able to take a summer art course on visual development; I spent 4 weeks developing a concept project built around a story I wrote, for which I designed characters, environments, props, vehicles, storyboards. It is hard for me to state how much that experience meant to me. It was as if I had been walking on my hands and writing with my feet my entire life, and someone came over and said “Hey, why don’t you try walking upside down?” And everything felt like it was meant to work that way. I tried to get back into academics the semester after that summer, but everything felt flat and uninteresting; I ended up spending a lot of time out of school that year, drawing things instead, trying to make a portfolio that would get me into a concept art/industrial design program that my parents would accept. I dropped all of my clubs; I quit science olympiad, science fair, etc etc and almost dropped out of honors classes to save time until my counselor refused to sign the form.

Somewhere in between this, I got into MIT. My dad cried.

To art school, I got rejected once (I applied secretly and was going to ask my parents if I could graduate high school early), and accepted once (during the normal application cycle). I cried.

The next fall, I came to MIT; I chose the dorm Senior House, where there are a lot musicians and artists, and was temped there during REX (dorm exploration week). I FYRE’d into Burton-Conner after REX ended. I told everyone it was because I wanted to live somewhere quieter, but it was really because I felt like I had to give up art if I was to take on MIT, and there were too many people there that I vibed with too hard. (Burton-Conner’s great and I love it and the massive family I’ve accumulated there, don’t get me wrong)

I spent most of freshman year trying to be an MIT student – or a least what I thought an MIT student should be. I tried to get internships, I took many course 6 classes, I tried to do too many things and burned out a bit, and I almost transferred to art school again; I ended up not because of a mix up in phone calls (that’s what I told myself and everyone else. It was really because I was still scared to do something I thought no one else was doing).

This continued to the first half of sophomore year (last semester); I interviewed at a gajillion tech companies with my heart half into it, before landing what would be considered a very decent position, at a very decent software company, with very decent compensation for next summer. Yet, for the rest of the semester, I found myself constantly, aimlessly logging onto job boards and filling out design applications that I knew I wouldn’t get. I went to Blizzard’s on campus interviews with a portfolio of concept art, even knowing there would only be technical interviewers coming. I would spend a semester unconsciously looking for a way out of this very decent, very respectable and favorable situation, in as much denial as I could muster.

Then this spring, a.k.a. right now; I took on a bunch of projects that were art and computer science; I became AR lead of the mural project in the tunnels, and began a UROP in the Media Lab where I got to do my own AR art project. One day, the supervisor for the internship I was supposed to do this summer emailed me this: “Our internship program this summer has been unfortunately canceled due to reorganization of the company”. I couldn’t feel anything but relieved. That was when I finally turned my head around, and looked up to confront the colossus of discontent that had been trailing behind me, dragging at my feet, ever since I got on campus.

Throughout all of this I kept feeling that I should be happy despite everything; I am at the coolest place in the world with access to so many cool projects – why can’t I just be enjoying this and diving in, instead of dithering over something I can do later? But the truth is, that just caught me up more – beating myself up for not enjoying something I ‘should’ be enjoying.

I think I knew from the beginning that I wanted to go to art school; but I was scared that if I went and it wasn’t what I thought it would be, I would have no way to get back to the ‘right way” of doing things (getting an undergrad degree, doing something technical and high paying in a respectable job). I also just never heard the words “I think you should go to art school instead of MIT”. My art teacher, the mentor I found in the visual development course, my parents, friends, etc all said otherwise; only one friend told me; hey I think you should just go to art school seeing as you’re dithering so much over something as big at MIT – clearly you don’t particularly want to go. But everyone else said, “You’ll never run into something like MIT again; you can always go back to art”.

And having been here for two years, I think that I have finally accepted that I should have gone to art school; I have come to terms with the fact that I don’t like computer science that much, I don’t like engineering that much, but that that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with me for feeling that way. This doesn’t sound like such a big realization, but somehow it took me 2 years of feeling inadequate and wrong before I finally got to it. So to people out here who are in environments or situations where you have to choose between 2 things, where one is unequivocally objectively better than the other, but you can’t manage to feel that way: your feelings matter more than what’s better. Not equal, not less; it matters more, because for the rest of your life, YOU will be in control of where your life goes. All that matters is how you feel about what you do. Doing what you’re supposed to do, so that your life is something that everyone around you wants – that won’t bring you happiness. Doing things that make you happy brings you happiness.

(But also, if that choice isn’t something within your reach right now, I also do want to let you know it is possible to be happy here as an artist. For me, because I am interested in purely art in particular, and have neither interest in new media and conceptual art nor all the theory based design that is around here nor building software, it was a much longer path getting there. But I have found that a lot of the Virtual and Augmented/Mixed Reality projects going on are really interesting. Making games is also really fun, if anyone reading this who is interested in cs and art hasn’t already, try making something in Unity! Or Processing! Or Blender! Computer graphics is also a really good field to get into right now. This guy also has the most inspiring and beautifully immersive computer science/art projects I have seen. All of his work is amazing, but especially check out way to go, reflektor, sprawl II, neon bible. My personal fave is blabla. That said, art here is very much design. All of the computer graphics classes here will teach you technical skills – how to build things, not what or why. I feel like I have not used my idea-making muscles for coursework in a long time. If you want to be an animator/concept artist/graphic designer/industrial designer – go for it as much as you can. Take it from me, someone who didn’t.)