“How was your first week, hon? Have you found any fun clubs to join? Are you making any friends?”
Typical Mom, still thinking of me as a kid. I had just started a graduate program at MIT. I was joining a group of the world’s most elite scientists, and I certainly didn’t have time for the frivolous extracurriculars I wasted my time on as an undergrad. No, the next few years of my life were going to be nothing but utter devotion.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking this way when I started, but those who have been around MIT a while can probably predict how it worked out. By Thanksgiving break, I was completely burnt out. Lectures and research just kept getting more difficult. My stress levels were skyrocketing, but spending all of my time focused on work had left me without the support system to deal with it. The truth was that the sense of community I had developed as an undergrad was an essential part of my learning that provided me with consistent motivation and encouragement while my other motivations ebbed and flowed. I was going to be at MIT for several years, but if I was going to keep my sanity for even one, I realized I needed to feel at home. Luckily, it wasn’t too late.
Upon realizing that I needed a life outside of my studies, the first thing I did was look for groups to join. It didn’t take long for me to find a local church that I connected with, which was a huge step towards a sense of belonging. It gave me an immediate source of emotional support, connected me with people who could mentor me without giving me a grade, and even gave me the chance to meet other MIT students I wouldn’t normally have run into, some of whom have become incredible friends. Back on campus, I also decided to step outside of my comfort zone and talk to my department’s student organization about joining their intramural soccer team. Even with an outstanding record of seven losses and one tie, this turned out to be a really fun experience! It gave me the chance to develop relationships with the other students in my department outside of lectures, and even just an hour of scheduled exercise per week did wonders for my stress levels.
At this point, with some solid relationships in my utility belt, I started feeling revitalized. Something was still wrong though. For some reason I still didn’t feel at home. I felt… lost. Eventually I realized that part of the problem was that I was literally lost. As someone who had never been to the Boston/Cambridge area before, I had no idea how to get around and was constantly relying on Google Maps just to navigate campus or get to the grocery store, something I’d never had to do in my previous home. Once I realized the problem, I determined that every day I was going to find a new place on campus that I had never been to before to have lunch or study. Sometimes I did this by myself, and other times I enlisted my new friends to show me their favorite spots. Then, once I felt comfortable on campus, I turned my sights on the bigger target, Boston itself. I started by doing the touristy things, like trolley tours and the Freedom Trail. Then I started to venture out to the rest of the city. This got a lot easier and more fun once I found MIT’s Bluebikes discount ($35 annual membership for unlimited bike rentals), and soon I was cruising to every corner of the city. When I had finally found some favorite spots that I knew I could go to and from without pulling out Google Maps, I really started feeling like I belonged here.
After just a couple months of tackling grad school with this new attitude, my bright eyes and bushy tail were starting to return, and I realized that there was only one part of my new life where I still felt out of place: my classes. Like many students, when I entered grad school I joined a department in a completely different field than I had previously worked in. I was jumping into graduate level courses for subjects that I had almost no experience with, which meant that no matter how hard I worked, I would inevitably get to the point where I had no idea what to do on a p-set. The problem was that outside of the few that were on the soccer team, I had never taken the time to really talk to the other students in my class, and asking for help the very first time I talked to someone just filled me with dread. Finally, I got lucky enough to be invited by another student to join their weekly study group, and it was a huge sense of relief. I suddenly had the chance to get to know the other students in my field and to understand that others were struggling and that I wasn’t an idiot. Now, I set up study groups in every course I enroll in, and it has been a huge help to lower my stress and raise my grades.
If you’re like me, it’s easy to get caught up in the challenge of a graduate program and to think you’re not allowed to focus on anything else, but feeling like part of a community makes a world of difference in your mental health and ability to learn. Once I came to that realization for myself, I was able to break down the areas where I felt out of place and come up with my baby steps towards change. Now, the next time I inevitably get burnt out, I know that I won’t have to look far for chances to recuperate. I can find my rest and reassurance here because I have finally made MIT my home.