Skip to content ↓
MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Pay it forward by Anna H. '14

I used to have a guilt complex.

It’s the night before your organic chemistry problem set is due – although, at this point, “night” is probably the wrong word, since the sky is turning a funny mix of pink and orange. You (and everyone else in your little freshman psetting group) are stuck on a problem. Options?

(1) Keep trying.
(2) Ask your TA.
(3) Ask your professor.
(4) Panic. [Note: this option is not mutually exclusive with (1), (2), or (3)]

(2) and (3) are clearly not socially acceptable options at this hour. (1) is less than desirable, since you’ve been trying for hours already and can tell that you’ve reached the limits of your productivity.

Conclusion: (4) is your only option. You figure that the world is over and that you’re going to fail out of MIT soon, so you might as well pack up your bags and go home now. As you pull out your suitcase from under your bed, you suddenly remember that there are two chem majors who live in your hall. One of them stays up until 3 or 4am on a regular basis; you check, and sure enough, the light in his room is on.

You’re scared of knocking, though. He’s an MIT student. An upperclassman. By definition, he is currently super busy. Even worse, you feel that if he helps you, you’ll owe him pset help in return, but you really don’t know enough about graduate-level chemistry and complex analysis and goodness-knows-what-else to do that.

So, you don’t knock. You and your friends make your best guess, and call it a night.

Experience has suggested to me that this, much like using NaBH4 to reduce an ester, is not a productive approach.

Here’s what we French House sophomores do when we get stuck on chemistry pset problems, and help in the form of a TA or professor is not available: we wander through the living group until we find one of our resident chemistry majors, and ask whatever questions we have. Same goes for physics. The kind upperclassman will almost inevitably reach for a whiteboard marker, which is why I’ve never seen a blank whiteboard in French House; they’re always covered with a combination of organic synthesis reactions and kinematics equations.

We never beg for help. If anything, we are begged to ask for help more often. To quote one Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist: “YOU GUYS DON’T ASK ME ENOUGH QUESTIONS ABOUT ORGO! YOU SHOULD ASK ME MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT ORGO!!!! I LOVE HELPING PEOPLE WITH ORGO!!!!”

I guess Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist didn’t realize that he had gotten his point across, because he continued with “I LOVE HELPING PEOPLE WITH THEIR ORGO QUESTIONS SO ASK ME WHEN YOU HAVE QUESTIONS!”

Seriously. I’m not making this up. People here love to teach. A huge contingent of MIT students tutor, both here on campus (for our fellow undergrads) and at local community centers and neighboring schools. We teach classes on topics of our choice to middle and high school students. We’re excited about projectile motion or lockpicking or carbonyl compound reactions or how to build rockets – and we want everyone else to be, too.

This isn’t to say that you should ask upperclassmen for help all the time. They are busy, and you shouldn’t use them as a resource instead of your TAs and professors (whose job it is to help you, and whose advice will probably be more directly related to what you need to know for an exam.) However, you should know that your peers are usually happy to lend you a hand, so you shouldn’t feel shy or embarrassed.

This eagerness to help used to make me feel horribly guilty, because I felt that I had nothing to give back.

Take Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist, for example. He helps me with introductory organic chemistry. But could I help him while he studies for graduate-level chem classes? Could I help my physics major friend while he psets for Quantum II?

SURE! – if by “help” you mean “smile at”. Otherwise, I’m totally useless. These upperclassmen give, and give, and give – and I have nothing to give back.

I expressed this concern to Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist, and he laughed at me. “You have no idea,” he told me, “how often I asked [insert Math Major’s name here] for help with [some math class with a fancy name that I don’t know anything about]. Like…it was every second. I wouldn’t have been able to do a single problem on my psets without him. I didn’t even know what the problems were asking without him. I felt really bad because I could never help him with anything, so I’m paying him back by doing the same thing for others.”

“Oh, I see!” I said, not seeing at all, and thinking about how guilty I felt.

Fast forward to last night. I was kneeling on the floor of my room, helping a freshman with a couple of 8.01 problems. The whiteboard in my room was covered with equations describing projectile motion. As we arrived at the answer, she thanked me and said that she felt bad; “you must be busy too! I feel bad for using up your time!”


If she only knew. I laughed, and began explaining that I got help all the time from our resident chemists and physicists – and realized that I was echoing what Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist had been telling me all along. I understood what he meant. Yes, I <3 physics with all my heart. I also happen to have a particular soft spot for projectile motion, and masses and strings and pulleys and ramps. It was more than that, though. After this year, Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist and a big contingent of other upperclassmen who have been tremendously patient and generous and helpful over my first two years will be gone. I’ll never have helped them with a single pset problem. I will never pay them back. Instead, I’ll turn and face the other way: at the freshmen and to-be 2016s and to-be 2017s (AHHHH 2017? I’M SO OLD), and when one of them is stuck on a pset problem at some obscene hour of the morning – watch out, fellow upperclassmen. I will fight you for first dibs on helping.

16 responses to “Pay it forward”

  1. I love helping people, more one think I can do if I get into MIT.

    p.s. by the way, I’m going to apply for 2013 is that ’16 or ’17?

  2. kris says:

    This is so great, Anna. I was just talking to four MIT hopefuls and trying to get them to understand the collaborative nature of homework here and the very helpful upperclass students they can find in their dorms. They weren’t so sure I was telling the truth. I will point others to your blog post. I can’t describe it any better.

  3. Anna H. '14 says:

    @Adam: yay! you’re awesome.
    @Raj: I hope you keep teaching and passing on knowledge regardless of whether you get into MIT smile
    @José: you would be in the class of 2017.
    @kris: thanks!

  4. José ('17)? says:

    Thanks Anna, maybe I’ll ask for your help one day

  5. D says:

    Pay it forward is just like karma. When you take a cookie out of the cookie jar, always put two back.

  6. Adam says:

    That is a very smart way of looking at it. I am the same way about helping others (Especially math). I LOVE TO HELP OTHERS in math! So when others ask me for help on their math, I am willing to help them or when I can see someone struggling in math, I volunteer to help them. Now let’s say I need help with let’s say a chemistry problem, I can ask for help to someone who really enjoys chemistry (The one who LOVES TO HELP OTHERS in Chemistry!) and I don’t have to feel guilty if I am not able to help him (I will though if I can) because he Enjoys helping others in chemistry just like I enjoy helping others in math. I will be the one to fight someone else for first dibs on helping someone else in math. Overall, it’s a trend.

  7. Teaching and passing on knowledge is my forte! And I shall bank on it to get into MIT. And don’t you worry Anna, I shall surely pay you a visit if I make it! :D

  8. Suyash says:

    :D. Awesome! Ahh, it’s always great to read posts such as this!

    I’m totally with your Particularly Enthusiastic Chemist (and You)-it’s inexplicably FUN to help someone along a path of understanding and then watching that lightbulb click. It’s also very fun to BE led down such paths (of understanding) by Particularly Enthusiastic People. (Types of people that MIT is, of course, filled with. :D).

    So, in sum, thank you for the smiles/excitement–yay for humanity :D. (It’s awesome to see OTHER people [or, you know, an entire community] thinking like this too).

    Also Anna, I love the way you write. That’s probably not really related to this post (well, functionally!), BUT STILL. Really awesome~

  9. Ash says:

    I LOVE this post! <3 It’s a great reflection of the MIT community as a whole.
    As a matter of fact, I <3 physics, too, especially relativity. It’s a pretty cool subject. smile

  10. Harshita says:

    This is what the world really is. You help others & others would be standing there for you. Do good to others & others would be good to you.

  11. D says:

    An extract from a poem written on the wall of Mother Teresa’s room :

    “If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

    The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway.

    Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

    In “Pay it forward”, it is always good to give more and expect less. You will never be disappointed.

  12. Anthony L. '15 says:

    ESP! <3

    Great post. One of the things I think is great about MIT in the time I’ve beenhere is how friendly and supportive the upperclassmen are. There aren’t any freshmen-only dorms, which here feels like almost a given, but think about it: putting clueless people with a bunch of other clueless people in the same building? As compared to having others around all the time who’ve been through it all a year or two ago and can give advice about life and everything.

  13. Adam H ('15) says:

    As I read this post I see someone reaching for a marker and writing gibberish-looking organic chem on a whiteboard to help someone…talk about positive karma smile

  14. RonF says:

    < threadjack >
    I’m a ’74 (VII, PKT) and an EC. I got asked a random question from a prospective student during an interview and am curious as to what you all think the answer might be:

    What is the ratio of iPhone/Droid on campus? I figured that it would be < 1 on the theory that Droid is more open to user modification. But I could be wrong. I also figured that it might vary by department (VI – Droid; IV – iPhone).

  15. Anna H. '14 says:

    Thanks everyone!

    @RonF: I haven’t really noticed, which suggests to me that there isn’t a huge gap between the number of iPhone and Droid users here. I know plenty of both.

  16. Brandon J. says:

    Huh. I could be one of those ’16’s. That seems.. odd.

    Is it odd that I understand exactly what he’s talking about? To be fair, I haven’t had to ask upperclassmen for help very often (how many possible MIT’ers did?), but every once in a while everyone gets stumped, even in high school, and I’ve done my fair share of helping others myself. This process seems entirely natural to me…