1,126 students joined the Institute as freshman in the fall of 2011. One of them was Spencer Wilson, a young man from the small town of Moultrie, Georgia, where he and his carpenter dad worked on a lot of projects, including Gus the Bus, a 1967 Volkswagen bus that Spencer spent five years rebuilding in his backyard. Spencer sent us the equivalent of a Maker Portfolio documenting his work completely rebuilding Gus, which (he told us) he planned to drive to Cambridge if admitted.
I still have the first email I ever exchanged with Spencer, the day after we admitted him in March of 2011.
And change his life did. After five years of hacking around with old car parts in his backyard, Spencer spent four years at MIT working at companies like WiTricity and OtherLab, and researching at the Center for Bits and Atoms. In June, Spencer graduated with a degree in Course 2 (Mechanical Engineering) and a minor in Comparative Media Studies, with a perfect 5.0 GPA. And, shortly after graduation, he flew across the Atlantic to begin his studies as a Marshall Scholar.
The Marshall Scholarship is the most selective graduate fellowship available to American undergraduates. Students must be supported by their alma mater — in this case, by MIT’S Global Education office — and then undergo a rigorous application and interview process. Last year 970 applicants were endorsed by their universities, and Spencer was among 31 selected; the scholarship will fund his MPhil in engineering (as well as an MASt in applied mathematics) at Cambridge.
It’s a long way from Moultrie, GA, to Cambridge, MA, and an even longer way to Cambridge, UK; even though I miss him, I’m so happy and proud that Spencer has been able to travel that road. So when Spencer emailed me some notes from his travels abroad, I asked if I could blog them to share with some of our prospective students what it feels like on the other side of an MIT education. I have posted them, unedited, below.
After receiving the Marshall Scholarship to attend postgrad in the UK for two years, I faced a number of questions. This was due in part to my withholding the application process from my friends. On the top floor of Senior House, the initial round of interrogation went something like “Huh? You? Are you serious?”. After the initial explanation, the questioning turned to: “Why?”.
At first I thought, “Tsk, the answer to that is both inexplicable and pointless. ‘Why?’, Well, why not? I say”. To avoid confronting the inexplicable, my go-to answer became: ‘Someone gave a lot of money for me to go.’ While the answer sufficed through its cynicism, a kind of ‘it’s-outside-of-my-control’ separation from the issue, in my mind it seemed absurd. Me? Sure, I had good grades and I work in a lab. Congratulations, but why am I going? ‘Why’ consumed me. I quickly became disillusioned with graduate funding, and of the Academy in general. Imagine: finishing up my last year of MIT, stuck in a windowless fluid mechanics laboratory in the middle of the night filming invisible particles bouncing around in an oversized fish tank: ‘I can’t wait to get out here.’ When the data I painstakingly recorded turned out nonsensical: ‘Please, get me out of here.’ Why? I tried not to think about it.
Commencement, a trip back home to Georgia, a short trip to Iceland (don’t ask), and a cross-country road trip later I found myself (lost) in Washington, D.C. asking directions for the Georgetown campus. Several days of meeting ambassadors, scholars, policymakers, and even the illustrious MIT professor and oenophile Linn Hobbs. Though tempted by many to begin work at the State Department, I decided it was best to board the plane heading to London.
After arriving in London: another round of ambassadorial gatherings. This time, however, the electrical outlets looked different. The suits are slimmer cut, and the shoes are “a bit” pointier. The weather proved “parky” (a diminutive of parka, as in ‘I-need-a-parka’ weather), though due to severe jet lag and continuous curry takeaway (the national dish of England), the weather was the least of my problems.
Flash-forward to a 45-minute train ride northeast of London to Cambridge. At the University, everyone belongs to one of thirty-one colleges. I belong to a small one, Magdalene College (pronounced “Mod-Lin”). Originally constructed in 1428 as a Benedictine hostel, the college was refounded in 1542. C.S. Lewis studied here, T.S. Eliot a Fellow. First stop: the Porter’s Lodge. Imagine a small room not unlike the desks in MIT dorms except staffed by men in three-piece suits and bowler hats.
“I’ll take my key, please.”
“Which room ya in, lad?”
“Brights building, G5.”
“Oh! Billy, he’s arrived!” the porter called to his partner. The man has massive gray sideburns like he walked out of a daguerreotype.
His partner, a man that reminds me of a clean-cut Hagrid, emerged.
“Aye, so he has. Which room’s he got?”
“Oof, you’re gonna have a fun time, laddie.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, staring into the intricacies of the sideburns.
“Well, between you me, that’s the worst room in the place. They wanted to turn it into a closet, but they heard you was comin’.”
“I asked for the smallest room available, so I really appreciate it. I only sleep standing up.”
Hagrid grinned; his eye held a twinkle.
“He’s alright Billy, he can stay. Give the lad ‘is key!”
My room looks out through its original, leaded-glass windows into Second Court: on the left stands a 17th century red brick building housing Formal Hall (full robes required to eat by candlelight), and on the right the Pepys Building, completed in 1703, houses the Samuel Pepys 3000-volume library. Designed with consultation from Robert Hooke, the Pepys Building is the crown jewel of the College. I am lucky to live “in college” opposed to in external college housing. The college gym, the college bar (yes, and it sells drinks at cost), and the college library are a few hundred feet away from my staircase.
After unpacking my belongings, I grabbed a stack of books and went for a walk. Having arrived several weeks before matriculation, I had the town to myself. Walking North, Magdalene Street becomes St. Andrews Street becomes Trinity Street becomes King’s Parade. Stone, all different colors: buildings, road, chapels, even the bank is stonework. I sat on the patio outside a small coffee shop along St. Edward’s Passageway. A tiny place, squeeze between an antiquarian bookseller and the Arts Theatre of Cambridge. The barista is a young woman wearing an apron, her long, blonde hair in a loose, round bun. A younger woman emerges from the cellar holding a burlap sack; she stops, looks at me and squints.
“Could I have a coffee, please?”
“Would you like one shot or two?”
“No, no just a regular coffee.”
“Wot you mean, regular?”
“Like a coffeepot would make?”
The two women look at one another and back at me.
“You mean like American coffee?”
“I guess, just hot water that runs over ground beans and makes a big cup of coffee?”
“Mm, sorry sir, we’ve only got espresso I’m afraid. But, here’s what I’ll do for you, I’ll add hot water to the cup, then pour espresso into that.”
“Like an Americano?”
“Yes, an Americano, exactly.” She pronounces ‘Americano’ with an ‘r’: ‘Americarno’. I should know her geographic origin based on this linguistic tic, but I do not ask.
“No, no just a cappuccino, is that ok?”
“Sure, that’s great. We have great cappuccinos.”
“I’m so sorry about that, we don’t make that kind of coffee, just espresso.”
“Terribly sorry about that.”
I sat down and, without looking, removed a book from my bag. I knew which book was chosen by the cover’s crease (I dropped it in LAX some months before). An Elizabeth Bishop collection—required reading for 21L.487. A great blue book with large serif letters— a metaphor for her lines, I like to think. I opened the book to a poem I marked to reread when I had the chance to sit down. The first line:There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams hurry too rapidly down to the sea.
I watched tourists, a single body, amble down the street in front of King’s College: snapping pictures from camera slung around its neck, eroding the stone walkway. Her second stanza begins:Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Where should we be today?
It began to rain, but I decided to wait it out under the shop’s awning. I glanced at the stone passageway in front of me, my bicycle locked to a wrought-iron fence. One stone under my bike read “1767”. The walkway was remodeled nine years before America gained her independence.
That night, I met a pair of South African postgrads and went with them to the oldest pub in Cambridge (founded 1609, the building constructed in the 1500s). As undergrads at the University of Cape Town, they marveled over the research pouring out of MIT in their field. They explained the political situation in South Africa, the severe class disparity. At their university, students from schools deemed lower quality are given a number a points, a handicap, in order to compete with students with access to better schools.
“In the States, that would never work. There would be riots,” I said.
“There are riots in South Africa, many,” he said, staring at the bubbles in his beer. I removed my foot into my mouth.
“Besides, the people from lower quality schools would never take the points.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“They’re too proud. They wouldn’t want the help.”
He thought about this.
“What did you study at UCT?” I asked.
“Chemical Engineering, focusing on biodiesel.”
“At MIT, ChemE, Course 10, is known as the most difficult major.”
“Really? Ours was very small, not many people wanted to do it.”
“That’s because not many people can do it!”
“No, it’s not that hard. It’s fascinating, really. What major were you?”
“Oh, nice, MIT is the best at that, right?”
“Well, I learned a ton, that’s for sure.”
“I think MIT is the best at everything.”
“It’s a fantastic place, it’s magical.”
They laughed. “Magical?”
“The people, the conversations, the professors, it’s a perfect storm of intellect and ornery”
“Ornery? What do you mean by that?”
“Jokes, pranks, disregard for petty rules.”
“I see. Do you think you’ll ever go back?”
I stared at my beer.
I returned to my room to find a letter slipped under my door. It outlined the internet usage policy. I have a 2GB per day allowance, and if I go over this limit I pay 1GBP per GB. I quickly calculated how many episodes of Archer I could watch while staying within the allowance. It came out to roughly 3.08 episodes. I went to my small cube fridge for a glass of milk to find that it had stopped working, leaving a puddle on the floor and a collection of mushy, previously frozen spinach.
I can’t say if I’ll ever return to MIT. It’s less my decision than it is the Institute’s. I chose to leave, and now I have to prove myself worthy to return. Seems fair to me. I find myself constantly surrounded by questions, by indefiniteness. My vocabulary is heavily seasoned with “maybe”, “probably”, and “possibly”. Questions ranging in size and scope: what will I study? what will I eat for dinner? where will I live? That first question, the one my friends in Senior House posed after learning my transatlantic fate—why?— hit me hardest. Perhaps the answer remains inexplicable, but it is no longer pointless. Rather, it’s amorphous; the answer lies in the unforeseen experiences that make up each day. Unplanned, indefinite, opening books to read a random page.
The last lines of Bishop’s poem:Is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places, not just stay at home? Or could Pascal have been not entirely right about just sitting quietly in one’s room? Continent, city, country, society: the choice is never wide and never free. And here, or there…No. Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?
I miss MIT. I miss the community, the atmosphere, and the free WiFi. If you’re there now, enjoy it any way you can, devour it. Let it be the center of your universe, like it was for me. Longing means you’re feeling something, and sometimes your feelings are turbid, like the Charles. Ask why, but don’t always expect a clear answer. Some answers must be “inexplicable stonework, inexplicable and impenetrable”.