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‘Twas a good semester ‘twas by Vincent A. '17

:’( the end of Pass/No Record

December 29, 2013

Nine days ago, I was at the Boston Logan Airport, and it felt strange–it was the farthest I’d been from the MIT bubble in months. When the plane took off, Boston dropped beneath me, a sea of darkness cut through by millions of nighttime lights. I pressed my face to the window, not quite sure how I felt. It was this strange mixture of disbelief and excitement. My first semester in MIT was over.

Since then, I’ve been with my aunt and her family in North Carolina. We’ve been visiting relatives, eating awesome Nigerian food—how I missed that!—and looking forward to a wedding that’s been on everyone’s mind for the past week. The pre-wedding dinner was last night, and it might be the strangest and most fun thing I’ve seen all week. From the ululating screams of the women followed by fluid circular dancing to a synchronized warble my cousins shimmied to, the heavy African undertone was all too reminiscent of home. So, although it’s likely I won’t be there till summer of next year, I really miss Nigeria. I missed it in MIT too, the food, the drama, the culture, although those feelings were often buried under the breakneck pace of classes and piling mounds of p-sets.

The week prior to finals, my roommate James Deng and I did visit a Nigerian restaurant in Boston called Suya Joint (suya being a tasty and extremely spicy meat). It was a memorable experience (and not just because it took two buses, the T, and an hour to get there). I didn’t hesitate to take with me some leftover ogbono soup when I couldn’t finish everything we’d ordered.

Speaking of memorable…the snow. Oh my God, the snow. There hasn’t been any snow in North Carolina since I’ve been here, but that’s fine, because the image from Boston still lingers in my head.

I saw snow for the first time earlier this month. I woke up thirty minutes before my first class, and rushed into this speedy rage, trying to shower and brush and have breakfast and dress up at the same time. When I burst out of my dorm, I was so frenzied that the first stupid thought that came to my head, and I kid you not, was, “Why is it raining dandruff?”

And then I saw the sheets of snow on the ground, the millions of flakes pouring from the sky. It wasn’t dandruff, I observed astutely. It was…SNOW. My jaw dropped. For perhaps a full minute, I stood outside, staring in unbroken awe at the air. I don’t know how long it took me to recover, but I did shut my mouth and head to class as quickly as I could.

For the next three days, I looked forward to snowy days, to catching flakes in my hands—and sometimes, without choice, in my mouth. However, by the fourth day, the snow morphed into some monstrous full-blown downpour. You’d think it would know its bounds!

“Darn snow,” I’d mumble angrily, while it assaulted me, drawing a film of white across my glasses and peppering my clothes with endless flecks. I guess snow and I have a love-hate relationship, because right now, I’m looking forward to seeing a bit more of it over the coming months without, you know, becoming a human popsicle.

It really does take understanding what happened during my gap year to put to perspective just how much I appreciate being at MIT, and I promise, I’ll blog about it soon. I’ve been thinking of all the things that happened this semester, trying to summarize them, but I can’t.

The blogs try to capture snippets of MIT life, but the continuous, overall sense of what the Institute has felt like the past four months somehow seems beyond the ability of words. There’s the often-said energy of students, reflected in their hurried paces through the Infinite Corridor, their fervor in talking about their work, the vivid pictures they paint when describing the odds surmounted in a bygone hell week. Then there’s the up-and-down curve of work here—sometimes it feels good. There’s joy in challenge, in starting out having absolutely no idea how to begin a problem set, and figuring out most of it a couple of hours later. Sometimes, it feels really…bleh. It’s dark outside, pressing quiet aside from the rumble of cars. A few people are still in the lounge studying or watching Pokemon or some anime or Rebecca Black or The Walking Dead. For you, there’s a p-set or a midterm that requires a lot of stress-inducing attention due to some build-up of work from the past few days, or to the fact that, you know, it’s 3AM in the morning, you just don’t want to touch this. You don’t want to but you have to; you need to.

And of course, there are those around you. By day, my roommate is Advanced Chemistry vigilante and SAT tutor; by night, he’s the typical thought-buried p-setting MIT student; by early morning, he’s an awesome, awesome friend, taking a study break beside me while we watch Breaking Bad together and appropriately exclaim in open-mouthed awe at the continuously brilliant plot-twists. It’s a lot of fun being with the people here. One second, they’re discussing algorithmic efficiency and geometric invariants with each other (or just how much their week sucks). The next, they’re singing very, very badly to karaoke songs (kidding, delete one very) or playing video games or just pressing you about that special someone you stare at for all fifty minutes of Multivariable Calculus. At its core, MIT is a community of people who aren’t merely brilliant and quite apt at undertaking the challenges of a really difficult curriculum, who are here in the first place because they’re quirky, friendly, full of life, deeply in love with something, and can optimistically make a mark in society. When deeply entrenched in the bubble, it’s easy to take them for granted, but if you stop to think about it, there’s always gratitude at their presence. At its worst, MIT will drain you and kick you and punch you and proceed to slam your battered body against the alchemist statue. Then it will you flush you down the toilet and drag you out by …well, you get the imagery. At its best, it’s a very, very happy place filled with people you admire, inspire, care about or some combination of those three.

Over what has been an incredibly fruitful semester, I’ve made and lost friends while navigating the labyrinthine workload here. I’ve made stupid mistakes and amazed myself. I’ve laughed and clapped hard, whether it was at a student a capella concert or a student-group Shakespeare rendition of Hamlet. I’ve met some of the most accomplished people I might ever have the fortune of meeting. I interacted with professors whose accomplishments might fill several pages of a novel, things you couldn’t tell from watching them make sappy puns about pizza and play around with food (concourse professors come to mind). And beyond the semester for me has been the college experience itself, watching an electrifying dance at Boston University, exploring restaurants with my friends, seeing movies at the Loews Theater near the Commons, sitting quietly by the Alchemist Statue and watching people play Frisbee on the Kresge Lawn.

A recent e-mail from an international student asked me what my favorite memory thus far from MIT is. Boy, that’s hard. So many good ones. Can’t really say, but maybe, in a weird way…maybe it’s all the way back during Orientation week, when making friends simply took five seconds, when the Class of 2017 was this gigantic bundle of joy and excitement and unrepressed energy talking about high school and an upcoming semester and how awesome MIT would be. When, of course, the food was surplus and free. When we were still discovering the several physical and non-physical aspects of the Institute. We were scavengers, archaeologists, our smiles unending, our hopes high, much of MIT unexplored, awaiting our rock-piercing hammers and sharp-ended shovels.

I’ve come a long way since that week, and maybe the reason I love it so much is that I can feel how much I’ve grown since then. You wouldn’t believe how certain I was that I would dive head-on into the waiting classes and p-sets, never to complain about them, to always do them on time, to be the most studious, most hardworking boy there ever was. This…didn’t quite happen. Some weeks were good because those were just good weeks. Some were good because I planned well. Some weeks were bad because those were just awful, awful weeks. Some were bad because I exhibited all the management skills of a chimpanzee on rollerblades.

But it all comes down to this: in my second blogpost on this site, I wrote: “I felt it sink over me, the awe of MIT, the awe of its history reaching up from invisible depths to welcome me with open arms, the awe of what lay ahead, the awe of what was coming. I felt happy.” Months have gone by since then, and those last three words are still true. Right now, I feel happy. Making the choice to attend MIT was a personal one, and for me, it was the right one. Regardless of the clash of good and bad times I’ve had here, I feel happy. I would choose MIT again without thinking about it.

The fall semester is over. I passed all my classes—goodbye, Biology, you were beautiful, but you also used my body as a pinata. My websis account says I’ve gained 54 Institute units and satisified 4 GIR requirements.

Spring semester is on the way. I understand what’s coming a whole lot better than I did at the time I wrote my second blog. I also know I don’t really know what’s coming. In its own way, MIT is a conundrum. You can’t always tell how things are gonna be, a class, a midterm, a friend, an experience. They can all change without warning. One thing I do know for certain is that the next semester is going to be a lot more challenging. It’s the end of Pass/No Record. I’m also going to take harder classes.

“We think you and MIT are a great match.” Words on my letter of admission I’ll never forget, words that are true to anyone who reads them on theirs. The MIT experience is a powerful one. Spring is going to be fun. It’s also going to be incredibly rough. What a semester it’s been. I look forward to the next.