Who we are by Mollie B. '06
All the stuff I've been trying to write since last July. It isn't much, but it took all year...
Two exams down, one to go. Well, strictly speaking, 462 units down, 12 to go. That sounds a lot better.
Exam week is a busy time at MIT; a lot of living groups have free breakfast on exam mornings, then everybody walks to their exams together, buzzing and scheming and comparing last-minute answers. It’s fashionable here to loudly announce your impending doom — you know, it’s bad luck to say good luck on opening night and all that. I heard a lot of conversations on my way to the final.
“I heard that freshman exams were the easiest ones.”
“Let’s hope so!”
“I could go in there, write my name on those tests, walk out, and still graduate. I’m still nervous.”
That last one was me.
As I was walking toward Walker Memorial for my 7.28 final this morning, half of me was focused on the final and half of me was focused on the construction going on in Killian Court — they’re setting up the seats for the 140th commencement on June 9. After four years of pure joy and pure exhaustion, I will be marching in my black cap and black gown to receive two bachelors degrees — one in biology and one in brain and cognitive sciences.
So as I walked to the exam and as I walked back from the exam two hours later, I thought about what we are at this crazy school on the Charles and what we’re not.
We are fiercely independent, fiercely nonconformist, and just plain fierce. We have a fire somewhere way down in the very bottoms of our souls — the kind of fire that can get you through a problem set and a project and a paper and a breakup and an exam and an all-nighter, all in the same week. The words “too many irons in the fire” don’t mean much to us. We like being busy. It builds character.
We are unapologetic academic masochists. Jessie has observed that a greater number of us than one would expect were cross-country and track athletes in high school; we attack school the way some people attack a marathon. It hurts so much while you’re in the middle of it, but it feels so good when you reach the goal. We are lean, mean problem-solving machines.
We are almost pathologically helpful. If someone has a problem, we can’t stop ourselves from helping. There is no cutthroat behavior here — after all, there’s no point in being rude when there’s a big problem set due the next day, and we need every last neuron we can get to help solve the problems. There’s very much an “I’ll scratch your 8.02 pset, you scratch my 18.03 pset” mentality. And the helpfulness doesn’t extend only to MIT students — if you come here on a visit, and you are wandering around lost, I will bet you five dollars you can stop any random undergrad in the hallway and say “Hi, I’m a prefrosh and I’m lost. Can you help me find [the Student Center, the Admissions Office, my mommy]?” and that random undergrad will point you in the correct direction. He might even walk with you to your destination. (This only works with undergrads. Grad students, like slightly rabid cats, are a little less compassionate.)
We want to change the world, but we know we can’t do it alone. Everybody comes in freshman year thinking “I am the GREATEST, and I am going to continue to be the GREATEST”, and then they fail their first 8.01 exam and realize that if they’re going to change the world, they’re going to need to enlist the collective brainpower of everybody else around them. And so that’s what they do.
We respect brilliance, hard work, clever solutions, and technical prowess. We do not respect braggarts, grade-grubbers, or unearned wealth.
You can have a life at MIT, complete with any bacchanalian insanity your mind can even begin to imagine. There are all sorts of student life here, and everybody is free to pursue life as they wish. There are all kinds of people, all kinds of living groups, and all kinds of formulations of social among our 4000 undergrads.
But of course, when you come to MIT and have a wonderful, fulfilling, active social life, no one outside MIT will ever believe you. You have to get used to that.
I’ve had to get used to people saying in disbelief, “Wow, I didn’t even know MIT had cheerleaders! Do you cheer for the chess team?” I’ve also had to perfect the sort of fake smile and forced giggle that people seem to expect when they say such breathtakingly witty things. Why is it funny that someone could be smart and sexy at the same time? I mean, you can be short and blonde at the same time. You can be nearsighted and blue-eyed at the same time. You can also be an MIT student and be perfectly outwardly normal at the same time — although you don’t have to be. What makes that so difficult to process? People are complex. MIT students are complex. This is a fact of life.
I’ve also had to get used to people saying, “Oh, I could never go to MIT. I heard it’s really hard.” Sure, it’s hard here. This is a freakin’ science and engineering school. Science and engineering are hard, whether you’re an undergrad or a grad student or a tenured faculty member. You want easy, you’re not going to find it in science and engineering, no matter where you are.
And no, you won’t be the smartest person here. But if you’re the kind of person who belongs here, that idea invigorates you. As you’ve probably figured out in high school, it’s no fun being the smartest person in the vicinity — there’s nobody to talk to. When freshmen first get here, they usually spend their first few days staying up all night talking to people — it’s so exciting to finally find a big group of people who get you. Not being the smartest doesn’t hurt us in the long run either; almost everybody does undergraduate research (that’s what happens when you have 4000 undergrads and 1000 superstar faculty members), people get to be buddies with their favorite professors, and people go on to get into stellar graduate programs and competitive companies that pay more figures than you have fingers on your right hand (probably). More MIT undergrads get into stellar graduate programs than students from other schools; I suspect this is due to our small size, outstanding support networks, and the general inspiration that comes from being a student at a school that values greatness.
This is the best place in the world. And it’s been worth every second.
1. Alas, I don’t do chances. I don’t know enough to evaluate applicants, which is why I’m a blogger and not an admissions officer. :)
2. Sean asked,
You mentioned Bank of America being close by, is there a Wells Fargo or convenient Wells Fargo ATM machines?
The Wells Fargo website seems to say that there are no ATMs or branches near Boston, and I can’t say that I know the location of any in the surrounding cities.
3. Anonymous asked,
how bad can you do freshman year without getting asked/forced to take a year off?
The Committee on Academic Performance doesn’t set strict minimum standards, and does evaluate every student individually. Generally speaking, they would like to see you complete at least 36 units with at least a C average each term, but one bad term by itself isn’t cause to ask you to take a year off.
4. John Lempka asked,
Basically, I know that my parents will not pay for “family contribution” portion of my financial aid, and I am pretty sure that will be a significant amount. I know this because my sister (who just graduated from college) is $80,000 in debt with a BFA. So, basically, should I still not be discouraged?
I’m always an advocate of crossing bridges when one comes upon them — I think it’s worth it to apply and see the financial package MIT will offer you, then decide if you can or can’t come. Lots of stuff between then and now. :)