I am going to put this together haphazardly, work on it in drips and drabs.
This is for people on the fence, for those who aren’t sure what MIT is offering, or if the experience here is worth all the work. This place is hard, in all senses of the word. It cuts you to the quick. But it can be lovely, too.
When I first thought of this blog, it was to have the title You Knew What MIT Would Be, and it was going to be about how you predicted many of the pitfalls of this place. It would be about how you knew you would go months without writing creatively, weeks without reading novels; how you chose this because MIT would force you to learn science, to achieve the kind of competence you’d always desired. How you needn’t have wondered what MIT would make of you. You knew.
But the more I think on it, the more I realize I had no idea. There are so many faces to this place, spaces and secrets I didn’t know I’d crave.
You do read, actually. Articles. You are assigned, on average, seven articles per week, and something like eight chapter books this semester: four dystopian sci-fi and four Roman classics. The articles are all wholly interesting, though many could be less verbose. They are mostly about race, gender, and the environment, and marginalized voices in sci-fi/fantasy, and the importance of story.
On good weeks you read seven abstracts, and three or maybe four full articles. On busier weeks you read titles on the way to class.
You are taking three humanities classes. Your friends say this sounds fun. Most people only get to take one.
I read the blogs my senior year of high school, saw that every blogger seemed to have at least one post where they were hosed and hating this place. But I, too, was tired; I thought they felt like I did.
I didn’t realize how exhausted you could be. There are weeks when you tally up your work, the hours in a day, and realize that it’s Monday and the next night you’ll get eight hours to sleep is probably Sunday. Saturday if you go to bed early. But if you skip reading an article you can nap in the Banana Lounge for an hour before class.
Everyone is busy, but everyone understands that everyone is busy, and people still choose to prioritize people, hang out until late even though they have class the next day. Even so sometimes this place feels fraught, all of us one or two days from a deadline, scrambling to finish on time.
Parts of MIT are wonderful in this distinctly MIT way. I wandered through the Media Lab proper some nights ago, peeked through the glass windows into makerspaces with devices of bright silicon and taffeta, projects I understood neither the mechanism nor the use for. Some were moving gently. It was bizarre, sort of otherworldly, though that could have been the hour. I wandered all of the second and third floors and could not find the kitchenette where I remembered getting free coffee every time someone took me there.
It was different from the makerspace I just got access to, IDC, where there’s an embroidery machine and a giant glass box full of sand, and a fume hood where they test low-tech stoves. The instructor kept offering trainings, and to supply new materials. We talked about a project on a whim, and planned to meet again.
Different, also, is MITERS, where there are shopping carts with electric motors hanging from the ceiling, a lathe that runs on a car battery, old tools piled high on the shelves. The place smells of metal shavings, and I rarely manage to leave without machine oil or grease on my hands.
All of these, though, are MIT. There are so many facets of this school. And there is an openness here, a freedom to learn, to try new things, get trained on machines you didn’t know the name of before. There’s a sense that you can do anything, if you put in the time.
Dig up the right grants, and you can even get funding for it.
I didn’t know I’d crave these spaces when I applied to MIT. It would take me a year to realize I liked building things more than I liked chemistry, and another year to feel at home in machine shops. And there is so much more to learn, so many projects to struggle through, and only two more years to do so.
I remember distinctly thinking I did not want a school to make me. I didn’t want my identity to be tied to any school, let alone a dorm within it. Three years ago I was eating cookies at a midnight gay cookie event on 41W at East Campus, admiring the fact that undergrads stayed up so terribly late! It was midnight. to bake for us. I was talking to two pre-frosh who I would come to know and admire. I remember saying that I liked the EC vibe, but didn’t want to live there. Little did I know how much I would later fall in love with EC, not because I got different information about it, but because my opinion of it changed. I realized that I needed the strange, and queer, and artsy.
The beginning of my sophomore year, I came onto EC thinking of how I wanted to become an EC resident, someone who built stuff on a whim, painted murals on the walls, who knew how to spin fire. Someone full of all the secrets of this place.
I haven’t become all of that. My walls are only halfway painted. But I’ve eaten only free food this week, a feat any EC resident would be proud of, and I know the tunnels well enough that underground routes are faster than the Infinite. There’s a lyra hanging in my room which I made and which MIT paid for.
At CPW, I felt that I’d become more of what I wanted to be — not my senior year of high school, maybe, I don’t think she knew exactly what she wanted. But she would become freshman me, who wanted to be something more, something I’m still striving for.
So replace writing with any type of art, building things with the particular science that speaks to you. The decision isn’t easy, and it isn’t necessarily inevitable.
MIT isn’t perfect for everyone. It’s only paradise some of the time.
I chose it because it would force me to grow in ways I didn’t know how to grow alone. I could scale back on classes, pull myself off campus, hole up in cafes and write — and sometimes I wish I did more of that. But I don’t regret the things I’ve learned here, the skills I’ve gained, which I wouldn’t have seen the joy of at any other place.