If you told me in high school that I would go to MIT, I definitely wouldn’t have believed you. And if I had, I would have been terrified of the future.
Although I certainly was not sheltered from most aspects of life, I would say that I was, to some extent, sheltered academically. I went to a school where my mom worked, for kindergarten through twelfth grade. After high school, I enrolled in a small liberal arts college that was quite literally sheltered by the purple mountains surrounding it. The town had one stoplight. One. Needless to say, I rarely ventured off campus except for the trek to the closest airport to go home.
I joined a research lab for the first time exactly one year before I graduated from college. The resources and opportunities amazed me. There were plenty of chemical fume hoods, rotary evaporators, and automated flash column chromatography systems for everyone. This is because I was the only one in my lab. No postdocs. No graduate students. Only one other undergraduate, who worked the exact opposite hours as me. My advisor joined us in the lab for the first couple of days to walk us through his classic aldol reactions and the first step of the proposed 13-step synthesis. After that, it was like being visited by a fairy godmother if he ever walked in through the lab door.
In the spring of my senior year in college, I sat down with one of my favorite professors to discuss graduate school prospects. I made the mistake of describing my anxiety about being accepted to MIT.
“If you’re honestly surprised that you got in,” he said with a stern look, “you should not have applied.”
He was right. If I hadn’t thought it was possible to get into MIT, I wouldn’t have wasted time applying. I was driving to the airport just a few weeks earlier when my cell rang, but I missed it. I pulled over and traced the number to an MIT faculty member in the Chemistry department. He left no voicemail, which would have been expected if it were an acceptance call, but even so, I was shaking with excitement as I tried to return the call. I could have focused on the unknown — why hadn’t he left a message? — but I knew I got in. If you hope for something to happen, it would be a lie to say that you were surprised that it actually did.
Maybe my description of surprise was just an inappropriate attempt at a humble-brag, but as I sat in my professor’s office, there was still an undeniable groan of anxiety in my brain. MIT has a high concentration of geniuses, Nobel laureates, and high school valedictorians. I imagined the halls filled with coke-bottle-glasses-wearing chemistry Olympiad winners who had been excelling in their field since 9th grade. I was not picturing people like me.
As visit weekend approached, the anxious groan shifted from “there’s no way you’ll get in,” to “there’s no way you’ll like it.” I was already looking forward to returning to the sunshine of California as I drove into the Cambridge Marriott parking garage. Boston had way more stoplights than my tiny college town.
The first event at visit weekend was a meet-and-greet between students and faculty. I had imagined the professors might be like giants, looming several feet over the students fidgeting over the hors d’oeuvres. However, when I walked into the room, the atmosphere was the opposite of what I expected. It’s hard to describe a gut feeling, but the first thing I noticed was that both the students and faculty were funny. They revealed a genuine humor, which made me feel relaxed, unlike many of my visits to other schools.
Ultimately, I decided to come to MIT for many different reasons. I’m not ashamed to admit, however, that a large part of my decision was based on my gut feeling telling me to ignore the anxious groan in my brain. The reason I had trouble imagining someone like myself being at MIT was because I had an inaccurate perception of the students, one that was largely based on movies and stereotypes and enforced by gossip on online forums.
There are all kinds of people here. In my department alone, I’ve met others from small liberal arts colleges, graduates from massive state schools, volleyball players, chemists turned biologists, physicists turned chemists, oil painters, and trash novel readers. I may not have met someone with the exact same background as me, but I have met dozens of people with whom I have something in common.
It’s true that the academic culture at MIT is different from any experience I’ve had before. However, no one here has had an MIT-like academic experience either. I don’t think this sort of environment exists anywhere else.
Of course, I still picture giants walking down the infinite corridor. But I can’t ignore the fact that I am one of them now.