I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a student here at MIT, and whether or not I made the right decision in coming to this school. Being surrounded by such STEM-oriented people, the very same people who get excited at the prospect of a challenging math problem or physics conundrum, has thrown me into some sort of spiral of “not being MIT enough.”
I’ve found solace in my writing classes and creative outlets: writing, drawing, playing music. It’s no secret to my friends that I consider myself primarily a HASS major. When I look at the classes and the work being done by the CMS research groups and the Media Lab, my heart feels full and I’m reminded of why I’m at this school in the first place. Being an MIT student doesn’t necessarily mean that every STEM thing sent my way excites me, but rather, there is some spark of passion within me that makes me excited to learn and do.
It’s been hard reminding myself of this. I look at the physics and math my friends are doing and my head plays radio noise — a temporary tune out of the nerd talk going on around me.
But there are moments when I catch myself acting especially stereotypically MIT-ish, where my heart sings at the sight of acid-base reactions and descriptions of SN1 and SN2 mechanisms.
Chemistry and biology were my main hearths back in high school. Where I struggled with math and physics, I thrived with their counterparts. I loved learning biology and chemistry and I loved lab. In fact, lab was the reason I realized my love for STEM. It was something that was mine, something that my hands had done that made it so satisfying.
I’ve always wanted to be the kind of MIT person that 3D-printed and assembled their own car that ran purely on happiness and rainbows, but unfortunately, I never was that kid. The extent of my 3D printing skills is maybe printing a haphazardly CADded moon on TinkerCAD in my junior year. My only experience with coding is AP Computer Science A, a class I spent maybe 12 hours outside of class per week doing just to meet the average scores. That class convinced me I wasn’t meant to be a CS major.
Yet here I am, choosing to pursue a CMS/6-3 double major. Part of me is sad to let go of the prospect of being a bioengineering major, or even a chemistry-biology major, as it was my first home. But coming to MIT has shown me that I had flocked to biology and chemistry because it was the only thing I was good at.
We have a running joke in our friend group where we relate everything to a skill tree, where we were born with a set of skill points that can go into whatever skill we want. For me, I put all of my skill points into social media and pop culture, with maybe a sparse few dropped into chemistry, biology, and writing.
When I came to MIT, all of my perceived technical skill points were put to zero because I realized how far behind I was from everyone else. Now, I get a restart. I don’t have to pursue chemistry and biology because it’s the only thing I’m good at. Instead, I can put my skill points into anything and build up everything all over again. The only challenge is trying to incorporate all of my interests into one cohesive college experience.
I’ve been flailing around, hopping from interest to interest, out of fear of missing out. That I’ll choose the wrong major and I’ll be in my junior year, wishing that I was that instead of this or this instead of that.
As a result, I’m trying to narrow things down. My (dropped) UROP convinced me I don’t like being in lab, but in retrospect, I think it was the fact that I don’t like chemical engineering that turned me away from lab. Had my UROP been a biology-based lab session, maybe things would’ve turned out differently.
I’ve been scouring the internet from media-based and writing-based internships, looking at companies like NPR and LA Times and Buzzfeed, trying to find something for me. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I’d never pursued anything journalism-like in the past. My writing always consisted of this free-flow, casual blogging style and it’s somehow carried me this far. Now, I’m forcing myself to try and do more formal writing, hopping on to The Tech and trying to get some articles done to gain more experience and feedback in the world of “writing proper.” Drop a couple of skill points into journalism.
Even with these feelings of mediocrity and playing catch up, I know MIT is the right place for me. Inside everyone here, there’s a passion and want to create and do and make. It can be seen and felt everywhere on campus. It was one of the reasons I applied. I still remember walking onto campus at the end of my sophomore year, breathless and amazed. The campus was teeming with life, not in the way that schools do with sports and rallies, but with activity. Everyone walked with determination and purpose. A want to do.
Recently, I had a discussion with my friends, asking ourselves if we’ve learned anything at MIT so far. I, for one, am grateful to be retaking Calculus I and Physics I. While I felt inadequate at first, taking these classes has provided me with the much needed foundation high school did not give me. In high school, I felt like I was taking those classes to get into college. Now, I’m taking these classes to learn and thrive in my future classes. So, yes, I personally have learned a lot. But two of my friends stated that they felt like they hadn’t learned much from their classes. The GIRs bored them, and lectures just seemed to be the same question repeated over again with different values. Some of my friends were amazed, others were offended. I just laughed.
“I think once I get into classes that are relevant to my actual major,” one said, “then I’ll actually learn and it’ll start to be fun.” As soon as he said this, I felt that MIT-ish feeling. Even frosh, jaded and tired of GIRs, still had a want to learn and be stimulated because that’s just the kind of people we are.
And that’s the kind of person I am. Though I’m not exactly bored with the classes I’m taking now, I look at my planned schedule for the next four years and I can’t help but feel this excitement bubbling inside of me. An opportunity to learn, an opportunity to do.
I definitely don’t picture myself as the stereotypical MIT student. Math and physics are challenging for me. I would rather write an essay than take a test. I can name a One Direction song within 3 seconds of listening, but still struggle to understand right-hand rule.
I’ve spent months fabricating this MIT student in my head, not really knowing if I’m doing it for a role model or for a reminder of what not to be. Parts of me want to conform to this stereotype, sit down and force myself to like E&M and mechanics and multivariable. Other parts take pride in my stupid quirks, wearing them like badges because I want to feel special in a school that’s shown me in every way that I am not.
I’ve not only fabricated the typical MIT student, but also fabricated my own identity since coming here. Where I lost that STEM identification that originally made me stand out those four years in high school, I quickly clung on to what the MIT kid in my head lacked: a love and passion for arts.
So yes, a lot of this is self-imposed. I’ve been forcing myself to feel un-MIT for some semblance of an identity that I’ve lost in the months coming here. But I’m slowly rebuilding that identity after realizing the damage I’d done. I do love STEM. I like chemistry and biology. I like differential equations and linear algebra. But I also like humanities. I like CMS and writing. I like journalism and music.
This all really comes back to something Petey told me about a month ago, where I had awkwardly apologized for posting a blogpost that wasn’t really related to MIT life at all.
His reply really was the catalyst for this whole “rebuild and reclaim my identity” movement I’ve been undergoing for the past months: “It is MIT related because you are blogging it and it is related to you.”
And that simple sentence has anchored me a lot during my time here. I am an MIT student, not because of my STEM quirks or lack of STEM quirks, but because I go to MIT. And being an MIT student, frankly, is whatever you make of it.