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The Last First Day by Selam G. '18

Some musings from my last first day of classes

I wrote this on my first day of classes this past Tuesday, and decided to throw it up here mostly unedited (meaning, excuse all the typos lol) as a real-time reflection of four years at MIT. 

Today is hectic. My sleep schedule, I feel, is about 2 hours later than normal working professionals, as I feel like I can never wake up before 9AM. But today I have lecture at 11, so I rush to get ready at 9:45, going through the motions of brushing my teeth and washing my face, throwing on clothes, fussing with my frizzy hair (quite overdue for a wash day by now), giving up on it, rushing out the door. I jump on the 1 bus and get off at MIT, get coffee, and try to figure out where my lecture hall is. It’s in a room I’ve never been before (1-390) which is surprising, as for the last two years all my engineering courses were typically in one of five lecture halls that I became familiar with.

Today is hectic in part because my mind is still racing–I’m still conflicted between two classes, 6.302: Feedback Systems and 6.832: Underactuated Robotics. The latter I was convinced to take by the graduate students in the lab I research in, who are also in the class. The former I wanted to take to see controls from the electrical systems point of view, but part of me feels like it’s a cop-out, as I’ve already taken a controls course in mechanical engineering and this class feels relatively ‘safe’. But on the other hand, maybe I should really work on building a robust foundation before foraying into the wilds of complicated nonlinear dynamic systems (in other words, stuff that math doesn’t describe well and so we don’t really know how to do it).

In other years at MIT, I would ask the seniors I knew what they were taking, and would often be surprised to hear they had a pretty heavy course load, despite having most of their requirements done. I thought that most people would want to take a lighter load their senior year; enjoy other aspects of MIT, finish strong. And then this morning I became just like the seniors I hadn’t understood at the time–fretting over which class to take because I was suddenly struck with the feeling that I might never get the chance to, again.

When I was a freshman, I came here thinking that I was a bachelors-and-done type of person. I thought that, after about 16 years of school, there was no way I would ever want to do more school, and I was ready to get out into the real world and work on real problems. I thought that maybe I would go to graduate school (5 years down the line) but that it definitely wasn’t something I’d be planning for in the short term.

And yet, my last two years in mechanical engineering, and especially this year, I felt like I got a taste of the power of academia. Nowhere else can you be truly unlimited in your pursuit of knowledge, and nowhere else can you work on problems that are as stimulating and interesting as in research. In many ways, this year especially, I became a sort of halfway graduate student. Even my beginning years at MIT I had a strong interest in research, and by the time I finished I will have been an undergraduate researcher for 3 years (almost the whole time I’ve been here). But toward the end, as I was trusted with more responsibility, and had the skills to take on more, I thrived. I felt I was doing the things I was supposed to, in the place I was supposed to be. By the end of this year, I’ll have completed three, possibly four, graduate courses, almost the load of an entire masters degree. I’ve learned how to keep learning–how to adopt new skills by sifting through (loads of) academic journals, how to find and study things that researchers studied before me.

From another angle, I also learned that being smart, or knowledgeable, or intelligent, is hardly about knowing everything. In movies and television, intelligence or capability is often portrayed as some kind of superpower–Iron Man builds his suit in a single montage, knows the answers to all the questions, learns thermodynamics in a single night. Of course, no one is actually like that. In reality, the smartest people I have ever met, MIT roboticists and researchers, say “I don’t know” pretty much every day. Executing projects is hardly done by knowing all the answers and building pristine, shiny objects. In reality, it’s done by puzzling over equations for days on end, testing, redesigning, and testing again. Often, something comes together right before a deadline, and the team is just as surprised as you are by how well their product works.

In fact, one of my classes is, in fact, built on the idea that you shouldn’t try to know, or at least shouldn’t control, everything. In 6.832: Underactuated Robotics, the whole purpose of the course is to get away from fully actuated systems, where every dimension of motion is controlled but are horribly inefficient, to underactuated systems, where some components are passive, and not controlled in any active manner. Uncertainty is increased, everything is nonlinear, and you, a student/researcher/engineer, must embrace this property.


















Honda’s Asimo, a walking robot. It’s very rigid and uses 20x the energy a human does to walk, because trying to control every joint perfectly means that motors must exert extra energy to cancel out the legs’ natural dynamics of motion.


A “passive dyanmic walker”–this robot has no power, no electricity, no motors. It’s engineered to simply “fall” down a ramp in a walking motion, and looks way more like a natural human gait than Asimo does! 

Many freshmen come to MIT thinking one of two things. Either, MIT will turn them into a genius, or, geniuses are admitted to MIT. A subset of the latter (and probably most people) are those who don’t feel like they are in any way spectacular or a “genius” of some sort, and aren’t sure why they are at MIT (this leads to imposter syndrome). In reality, though, it’s a lot simpler than that–there just is not really such a thing as a genius. Many people have been prepared, in high school or in earlier education, academically better than others, been exposed to more things, or had more helicopter-y parents. Some may have had a strong affinity for some subject early on that they also had access to, and could develop it, while others had never been exposed to what would become their passion or their field, never had an AP Computer Science Course or robotics team at their high school. Then, finally, there might be some people more talented than others in certain subjects, but only initially.

Most of this is simply a difference in preparation. You learn this by being at MIT, by taking classes from world renowned professors and researchers, who will also tell you, with a wink, that they got a D in freshman physics when they were in your shoes.

While I have not become some kind of genius, I have become comfortable exploring the unknown. I have taken classes where I didn’t know all the math, or where I knew on some level I probably wouldn’t do well but tried my best anyway. I started a water project without knowing the first thing about hydrology–at first. I began to appreciate how powerful this was, that nothing could scare me away from trying or learning, and that, when I looked around or thought about it, many great, world renowned researchers simply tried what many others were afraid to.

I still think that failure was the most valuable thing MIT gave to me. It is the most bitter pill to swallow, and also the most enlightening. It’s difficult to fully understand until you go through it yourself, until you pour your heart out and your best efforts and your sleep and your whole brain into something, only to be told that it’s shit. You become uncertain, about everything you’ve ever believed. But if you’re able to piece yourself back together, on the other side, you realize you survived after all, and that you learned and grew, and maybe it really was shit, but what you can do now is exponentially better…

This is my last first day of class at MIT–at least for now. Far from knowing everything, I am very uncertain, about what I’ll be doing after graduation, about how the semester will go, about which classes to take. I’m still trying to answer a lot of questions.

But I know that I’m not afraid of whatever will be thrown at me.




Videos taken from: 

Russ Tedrake. Underactuated Robotics: Algorithms for Walking, Running, Swimming, Flying, and Manipulation (Course Notes for MIT 6.832). Downloaded on 02/8/2018 from