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MIT student blogger Shuli J. '22

the senior mindset by Shuli J. '22

gnothi seauton

As the summer turned to fall, my housemates and I prepared to move out of our cozy apartment where we’d spent the year, back to MIT’s campus. The passage of time was a frequent topic of discussion: how could we possibly be about to be seniors? How could it be our last year01 Sort of. I'm probably sticking around a little longer to get a master's. More on that later. at MIT? Packing up and leaving felt so strange. The pandemic had somehow compressed and expanded time, so that our apartment was the only place I’d ever been, but also so that as soon as I stepped on campus, it was like no time had ever passed. How could I be a senior when I had never even been a junior?

I was very surprised to find that most of that weird feeling lasted about 12 hours or less. It’s still here, in little bits and pieces: when I realize that the last time I did this activity with my a cappella group we could see each others’ mouths, the last time I was in this classroom it was for a class I barely remember anymore… Sophomore year I was an associate advisor, and the last time I saw the freshmen I was advising, they were just coming into themselves. Now they’re juniors, which means that they’re older than I was when I advised them. That one’s a real oof. But mostly, moooostly being a senior has felt right. Much righter than I could have ever imagined.

One big part of that rightness is all the ways that I can see the echoes of the time I spent on campus: I give the advice to freshmen that I was given my freshman year, I help sophomores the way I was helped. I’ve fallen in love with these little echo moments and the way they assure you, like a newborn baby does, that the world doesn’t end when you do. I’m cataloguing them all for a blog post, but it’s not ready yet; I want to collect as many as I can before I post.

Another part of that rightness is the one I want to talk about today. It’s the way that the senior mindset has settled over my shoulders — that mantle I saw them all bear, year after year, and never understood. I can barely understand it now; I rewrote this post a lot trying to break it down. In the end, I decided it came down to this.

  1. I know what’s best for me.
  2. I know that what’s best for others isn’t always best for me.
  3. I know if others judge me for doing what’s best for me, I can and should ignore them.
  4. I know when I don’t know what’s best for me.
  5. I know I’m not the best at everything.

That’s kinda a chonky set of claims, huh? I want to be very clear that this is in respect to undergraduate life at MIT only; I’m not saying I’ve got this whole weird adventure called life figured out. And I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging. I do genuinely think this is just part of what happens to you when you’ve spent enough of your time (and soul, and heart, and energy) in the same place.

The last time I was on this campus, I was halfway into sophomore year. It’d be a little disingenuous to say “I was still figuring myself out”, because good lord am I still figuring myself out now, too. But in a real way it’s different. I think back then I was only just starting to understand what figuring myself out would even mean, and that it was a thing I could do. And now, I’m well along that journey. I don’t always know what I want, but it happens a lot more often.

And that knowledge brings such a confidence with it. As a freshman and a sophomore, I always feared that I was doing the wrong thing. Wrong in so many ways: what if the thing I was doing was wrong for me or for my future (item #1)? what if other people were doing something more fun, and I didn’t know it (item #2)? What if someone else thought I looked dumb doing it (item #3)?

I felt sooo guilty about doing what I liked to do, just ’cause some other person, maybe real, maybe imaginary, didn’t like the same things. If I ever actually saw someone else doing something different from me, I would automatically feel bad and “wrong”. So I’d let them convince me to do what they were doing, and then I’d feel bad too, because it turns out doing stuff you don’t like isn’t fun (surprise). And it also turns out that different people can like different stuff (double surprise!) Now that I know that, I do what’s right for me, and I like it, and I don’t let anyone convince me02 Importantly, I also try not to convince other people that they should do what's right for me instead of what's right for them. otherwise.

So, I go to lecture, and I don’t feel bad about it. Somewhere in my old blogs there’s a self-deprecating quip about how I never skip lecture. Now I can make the same quip without the self-deprecation: I like to go to lecture. And I like to get a lot of sleep. I like a quiet Friday night.03 Friday night is THE BEST time to do laundry, because there's always an empty dryer, unlike literally any other time. And I don’t worry that someone else is judging me for these things — not because they aren’t judging me, but because I know that if they are, they’re wrong.

But at the same time I know when I don’t know what’s best for me (item #4). I know that when I’m worrying over triple-checking a pset, I’ll get a fine grade if I just turn it in without looking at it again; so I do, and then I do. I know if I wait one more day to reply to an email, the person I’m replying to won’t ever think about how I was a little late. I know I like to go to class; but I know that when I wake up and feel like crap, if I skip it and email my professor, they’ll tell me they’re glad I stayed home and they’re happy to help me catch up.

And I know that I don’t know everything — none of us do (item #5). I know that there’s a class where I know something someone else doesn’t, and a class where someone else knows something I don’t. (And damned if that isn’t on every advice post for freshmen, but of course, you never really believe it until you’ve lived it.) I know that if I’m feeling stupid trying to do a hard pset, someone else is too; and if I’m confused in lecture, someone else is too. So I post my question on Piazza04 A website that MIT and a lot of other schools use, where each class has its own forum for students to ask questions without bothering to make myself anonymous, and I raise my hand in lecture.

It is incredibly refreshing to have all these certainties about something, for basically the first time ever.05 I felt something like this as a senior in high school and that was pretty great too. But because high school occupied so much less of my life than college does, the feeling was much less strong. And they bring me more than just happiness right now: they tell me something about my future, too.

I don’t think that the lesson to take away from this is “when you’re in the freshman-equivalent position, don’t worry”, because, if you’re me at least, being a freshman inherently means worrying. Instead, I think the lesson is, “if you’re a freshman and worrying, that’s okay, because one day you won’t worry anymore.” Right now, I’m a senior at MIT, but I’m still a freshman at adulthood. There’s tons of stuff I’m stressing over getting juuust right: finding a lab to work with next year, leasing an apartment, figuring out what kind of job I want to have. And all of these things are normal freshman worries! But I can learn from this year that one day, I’ll be a senior again; I’ll know what I want and enjoy what I have. And knowing that that certainty will come later makes the worrying now just a little bit easier. This, too, shall pass.

  1. Sort of. I'm probably sticking around a little longer to get a master's. More on that later. back to text
  2. Importantly, I also try not to convince other people that they should do what's right for me instead of what's right for them. back to text
  3. Friday night is THE BEST time to do laundry, because there's always an empty dryer, unlike literally any other time. back to text
  4. A website that MIT and a lot of other schools use, where each class has its own forum for students to ask questions back to text
  5. I felt something like this as a senior in high school and that was pretty great too. But because high school occupied so much less of my life than college does, the feeling was much less strong. back to text