I came back to MIT as a graduate student more in spite of my time as an undergraduate here than because of it. And I’m so glad that I did.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My hesitation wasn’t because my undergraduate experience wasn’t amazing. It was. I loved my first time at MIT, and would definitely still advise my past self to come here if for some reason that was what I was forced to use a time machine for. But, around November of my senior year, I was itching to try something new.
Part of that itch was because I was tired. Tired of Boston’s dreary winters (snow is not a good look on a native Floridian). Tired of being so far away from family. Tired of having to drink from the ‘firehose’ that is MIT.
A bigger part of that itch wasn’t an itch at all. I realize now, in hindsight, that it was fear. Put simply: I didn’t I want to leave MIT while there were still stars in my eyes. I feared the risk of tainting those precious memories if graduate school ended up not living up the expectations set by my first four years here.
It didn’t help that my senior year was bogged down with stories of and experiences with bad ‘cruft’ – students who had graduated but still clung to the people and places at MIT that they had loved. It made me worry that staying was the ‘complacent’ choice. That I could end up like those cruft, resented, rather than remembered fondly. That I was limiting myself by staying in my comfort zone, rather than expanding myself and trying something new.
Did I need to leave MIT behind so that I could ‘grow up?’
By accident or by design, it turned out that MIT was the last of my campus visits for prospective graduate programs. I was honestly beginning to despair a little at that point. Each university I had visited up to that point had been… nice. They just weren’t quite what I was looking for.
Then something incredible happened during my ‘visit’ to MIT. I fell in love. Or, should I say, I fell in love again.
There was something about the quirky passion at MIT that was missing from those other universities. It was what I had first fallen in love with back as a high schooler making my first college visit. To my 17 year old mind, it seemed that everything at MIT, from the people to buildings (hello, Stata Center) to the dang club posters just oozed passion for their topic of interest, with just the right edge of geekiness for flavor.
Now that I could see what MIT was to me again, I wanted to stay.
The thing about fear is that it can be confronted. It can be overcome, if you have the right motivation, and I had finally found my motivation. So, I resolved to enjoy MIT just as much as before, but to make a tangible effort to enjoy it differently.
I spent my first semester as an MIT graduate student making sure not to become the complacent cruft - a hanger-on.
First, I relocated. and I took advantage of my new location. The dorm I moved into is on a different side of campus, which means I have a new ‘convenient radius’ worth of places to go. I’ve tried to take advantage of this by trying new restaurants and exploring new places. Now that I have a proper kitchen in my new place, I’ve also learned things about myself that undergraduate self had hid, like that love to cook,
Next, I made a huge effort to attend orientation events – especially for my major – even though I was already familiar with MIT. Orientation is when people start their searches for new friends, and I felt it was critical to make some graduate friends, rather than relying solely on my old ones. As it turns out, being able to give an insider’s opinion on things in and around MIT works really well as a way into conversations with new people, and can make you rather popular with people who keep getting lost. This helped me build a group of friends that was entirely separate from my undergraduate experience.
Finally, I connected the old and the new. As great as it was to, for example, be dragged into the Pokemon Go craze by my new friends, I also maintained a – greatly reduced, but still important – connection to the old. I invited one of my new friends to play Dungeons and Dragons with me and some of my old friends. I occasionally hosted dinners for all of my friends at my new place. I organized movie trips that included both undergraduate and graduate students.
This semester has been a great experience in getting the best of both worlds for me, and I really think it’s attainable for all MIT students. So, if you’re an MIT student hesitant to stick around, I encourage you to closely examine why, and then see if maybe your fears, too, can be overcome.