Getting closer to my “luck”

The story of my journey to MIT
March 2021
Zhutian
Y.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

This is a story about an imperfect person finding her way towards incredible mentors and places. One day, I wish to hear your version of this story.

4 years ago, I was a sophomore in Singapore, studying signal processing and software development. I wasn’t the person I aspired to be - I wanted to be someone with good social skills and impressive extracurricular activities, someone who would graduate and go on to work in a bank or a consulting company––because that's what I found the smartest students do. In reality, I was quite at the opposite of that. For one, I felt awkward interacting with people. I also hid the fact that I was spending most weekends studying because “that wasn’t cool”. I remember crying in the shower, hating myself for not fitting in.

A mentor noticed my hustles and pointed out that I am well suited to do research. He suggested that I get a PhD education and work on challenging problems that I feel most passionate about.

What was I passionate about? I reminded myself of the feeling of excitement I had when first watching the “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course on MIT OpenCourseware (OCW). I was fascinated by the ways that real-life problems are represented and solved by AI algorithms. I especially loved it when the lecturer, Prof. Winston, asked the class: “Do you want to see a demo?” and then confidently answered his own question: “Let’s see a demo!” The thought of making intelligent and learning machines made the lonely feelings dissipate from my body, like a bright light dissipating all shadows. That was it. I was going to do a PhD in AI at MIT.

I asked the dean of my college for advice. I consulted professors who had previously recommended students for MIT applications. I joined the lab of an MIT alum and completed a research project under his guidance. I found out about the MIT undergraduate special student program (which has ended in 2019), which allowed college students from all over the world to take classes at MIT for a semester. Unfortunately, if I were to spend my second semester of junior year at MIT, I would not be able to complete the semester-long internship and year-long final year project required by my college, so I would not be able to graduate on time.

But I had to ask myself: why do I care if I don’t graduate on time, if in return I could have the opportunity to learn AI at my dream school? So, I submitted an application. In my statement of purpose, I enthusiastically described how Prof. Winston inspired my interest in AI, and explained that there was nothing that I wanted more than being able to attend his seminar in the upcoming semester.

It turned out that most of those who applied got into the MIT undergraduate special student program (at least for EECS). After the initial excitement, I was plagued by doubts. How should I approach Prof. Winston? How should I ask to join his lab? How do I––the shy, awkward person that I am, who has so little knowledge and experience––ask for mentorship from someone as visionary and well-respected as him? Lacking the words, I instead rendered my admiration for his class through a drawing. He loved it. I then had the courage to ask what classes he recommended and what research I could do as a member of his lab.

“You are wound too tight,” Prof. Winston said to me, two weeks after I arrived. “You are trying hard to impress me. Don’t, because you already have.” I felt so embarrassed because he saw right through me. Not only was I always stressed about winning everyone’s approval, but I also didn’t allow myself to play. When he asked me, “Are you having fun?”, I must have looked utterly confused. He asked me again and again; he sneaked behind my laptop and made ghost faces; he acknowledged every step of progress that I made. He never said no, instead responding with a “let me think about this more” or an encouraging “yes”. I found myself starting to share opposing opinions in group meetings, propose side projects, and jump into his office unannounced to show a new demo. I started drawing more, about classes, research, and researchers. I found joy being a shy, awkward loner. I loved my work so much that I rode back home from the lab around midnight every day, singing out loud, feeling on top of the world. I hadn’t been a misfit. I just hadn’t found my community.

I didn’t want the fun to end, so I asked Prof. Winston to co-supervise my undergraduate final project. I found a robotics lab in Singapore where I could give my AI learning systems a body to interact with the world. In this lab, I might fulfil my internship and thesis requirements at the same time. It was a perfect plan, except that it violated my school’s rules in so many ways. I had to appeal to three offices about the internship location, thesis timeline, and curriculum requirements so that I could continue pursuing my passion. Even though I was risking a delayed graduation, I knew that this path was getting me closer to the life I felt most alive in. I trusted that the universe would do the rest for me.

In the end, I graduated from college on time and joined the graduate program at the department of EECS, thanks to the strong recommendation letters from two MIT professors and one MIT alum. I felt so lucky. I was lucky to have met the most inspiring and supportive advisors. I was lucky that the MIT undergraduate special student program was offered in 2018 to allow me to learn from and work with them. I was lucky that my school and my family fully supported my wills.

However, it’s more than “luck”. I am now a graduate student at MIT because I worked hard and incredible people worked hard to support students’ dreams. I am forever grateful to them and want to extend to them a proper thanks. Thank you to MIT for welcoming me; thank you to my parents for your unconditional love; thank you to Prof. Winston for handing me the torch; thank you to myself for daring to pursue my passion and asking for all the help I needed.

This is my story. What will be your story?