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transitions by Alan Z. '23, MEng '24

memories of first snow

This post started as a voice memo, taken during a walk home. Its unpolished, initial form, complete with pauses and rephrasings, is here:

I had a very difficult time my freshman fall. I remember feeling like I was always out of place, like I didn’t belong here, or like I was just in the cosmically wrong place. I didn’t know why I’d chosen to come to MIT, where everybody seemed to just talk about math all the time, and the only thing that made me feel more sure about my choice to come here was that sometimes I would visit my friends at another school, and I’d say, “Well, I really don’t like that, so I guess this is the right place.” Most days, though, I just felt like nothing made sense, except for maybe the classes, and even then only because of a combination of P/NR, taking easier classes, and just an incredible stubbornness in getting things done.01 what some people might call a work ethic. but, I'm still not sure I believe them.

I remember the first time the world made sense to me was during Thanksgiving break. I helped out with Thanksgiving at my dorm for the first time. I had signed up because I was a silly little frosh who was signing up for everything—Musical Theatre Guild, lean0nme, Splash, Think, Quiz Bowl, Asymptones, NaNoWriMo—but I enjoyed the camaraderie, enjoyed learning how to hold a knife and butter a turkey and how to make a meal for over a hundred people, and I enjoyed the afterwards, where I watched The Emperor’s New Groove for the first time with a bunch of people I barely knew, all of whom have long since graduated.02 well, Paolo's still here, but y'know.

And, then, that Sunday, on the first of December, I went to the Museum of Fine Arts with a friend. It was—and is—a lovely museum, with so much to see. I had just started my journey of starting to appreciate art museums, which, looking back, I am so happy to have gone on. But, the thing I remember most was that, midway through, as we walked between two exhibits, we got a peek out the window, and snow was falling. It wasn’t a lot, but it was coming down, and it was so pretty, and I suddenly felt lighter inside.

As we walked out of the museum—maybe thirty minutes, maybe a few hours later—the sky was darkening, and the whole outside park was covered with this thin layer of snow—maybe an inch, maybe half an inch—and I finally thought, “Hey. I’m home here. I’ve made it.”

a thin layer of snow blankets the ground in front of the museum of fine arts

And it was this feeling that suddenly I knew where I was supposed to be, and the place I was supposed to be most was here, and I twirled out into the snow, which I had been expecting for months—I mean, in South Dakota, it snows in late September, or early October at the latest—and I thought, “this is great,” and my friend looked at me like, “what are you doing?”

And I thought, and maybe I even said, “you have no idea what this means to me.” And, she didn’t. It was true.

To say I’ve felt at home at MIT ever since is probably a gross overstatement. But, I do know that, that December, I began to feel a lot more comfortable. I began to understand it was possible for me to find niches where the things I cared a lot about lived, and that finding a way forward was possible. I started to just be present; I no longer wanted to leave. I found myself surrounded by people who cared, somehow, from my friends on my wing, to the strangers I made dinner with after a final, on a floor of East Campus I had just one friend on.

It’s been five years since then, yet this story still sticks in my mind. I’ve told it over, and over, in a way such that perhaps my memory of it is corrupted beyond repair, but it just sticks in my brain so vividly, this sense of belonging. It is never true that MIT is easy, and this journey has been full of incredible ups and downs: I can think of semester after semester where I have struggled immensely, or where I’ve made mistakes I would consider anywhere from mild to catastrophic, between things I’ve failed at and people I’ve hurt. At my core, though, I have felt at home here.

This semester—my first semester as an MEng, a graduate student—has returned to me feeling out of place. I don’t really know what I’m doing; or, at least, I don’t feel like I’m making progress in the way I should be. I feel like all the people around me have their lives figured out, like they are on some clear track—the PhD students are settled and working, the undergrads are settled and working, and the other MEngs seem to be as well.

Maybe the answer is just that I’ve never worked like this before. It’s never been true that almost half my time has been devoted to one activity—in this case, TAing. It’s never been true that taking multiple classes—even “just two”—feels like a distraction rather than the primary thing that I’m doing. It’s so much harder to prioritize long-term projects with uncertain and inconstant progress—that is, to do research—rather than to do tasks on a fixed timeline, and I can see the days fly by without progress. No one day is a killer, but in combination, well—

It’s a mode that I’m not sure I can handle. It’s a mode that is difficult, one that I’m not sure fits the way I think. But, it’s the mode that I have to exist in, at least for now.

This Thanksgiving break has given me a little bit of a respite—it’s given me the same kind of break as I got freshman year. I even helped out with Thanksgiving again, and this time, I was not the new frosh, not able to do anything, but the retired exec member sitting around and watching as the new people ran things, and they did a good job, and I knew in my heart of hearts that I had done a good job of training new people, and then letting them go.

But, I am still waiting for the moment where I feel like I have found my place, where I am feeling like I am making positive progress, where I feel like I am doing something I know I can do. I don’t know if that feeling will come to me tomorrow, or the week after, or, really, never. After all, the MEng is designed to be a three-semester program, and I’m one term in, and I’m about to write a thesis proposal about something I really don’t have any clue about, and that’s terrifying.

Even, still, I do remember the feeling of snow on the ground, the feeling of being free and at home for the first time in forever. And, I feel that maybe, just maybe, that feeling might be coming to me again soon. After all, it has come before. The transition, it seems, is just hard, but it is never impossible. Maybe that is true of all things.

And, if not, at the very least, this break has been a good respite. I can breathe once more, and it is once more into the hectic but familiar two weeks between Thanksgiving and the end of the semester. Once more unto the breach, indeed.

  1. what some people might call a work ethic. but, I'm still not sure I believe them. back to text
  2. well, Paolo's still here, but y'know. back to text