Happy Birthday, MIT!

My husband and I are in Boston to celebrate MIT’s sesquicentennial. As a Marshall Scholar and an MIT alum, my husband was invited to march in the procession to kick off MIT’s Next Century Convocation tomorrow, April 10, 2011, the 150th anniversary of the signing of MIT’s charter in 1861. I am very proud of my husband and of MIT.

To celebrate MIT’s greatness, I am re-publishing an excerpt of a highly commented (for me!) post I wrote several months ago about why I love MIT.

From “Problem Sets and Poetry: How MIT Made Me Who I Am Today”

… Being back at MIT for a few days and meeting some of my old professors transported me back to my time as a student, some of the darkest days of my life. It also reminded me of my love for MIT. Yes, I love MIT, for two reasons.

One: MIT eviscerated my ego and replaced it with grounded confidence.

I expected MIT to be difficult, but had naively thought I could still swing it without much hard work. You see, I developed quite an ego in high school. Because my English was not great, I focused my attention on math and science — numbers and chemical symbols are universal codes without discrimination. As a result, I excelled in those subjects. Like with many Asian families I knew, I grew up in a family that valued smarts in math and science more than in liberal arts. So, I thought I was the smartest and the best, among other superlative adjectives.

Well, was I wrong.

A seemingly simple problem set from freshman classes like 18.01 (Single Variable Calculus) or 7.013 (Introductory Biology) could knock me down to my knees and engulf me with the despair of total inadequacy. I still remember the deflated feeling of struggling for hours on end on a problem only to realize I was on the wrong track. Given the way the problems sets were designed back then, every problem had a solution, so it would be back to square one.

To make matters worse, I was surrounded by true brainiacs. They sprouted out elegant solutions with little apparent effort. By the end of my freshman year, even the last vestiges of my ego from high school had been removed. I had to face the hard fact that I was only mediocre.

Yet, I continued to drink from the fire hose inside a pressure cooker. And I survived. The euphoria of catching a glimpse of the solution, the beautiful truth, was what propelled me forward. Every step closer to the solution built confidence. Every skill mastered belonged to me and no one could take it away.

I pulled many all nighters that first year. Dragging my tired body back to the dorm after finishing an entire problem set, I savored every step with a satisfied yet melancholy heart. The tiny spot of sun light rising in the distance, struggling against the heaviness of the misty expanse above. Memorial Drive, one of the main campus streets, would still be quiet except for the distant sound of rowing crews preparing for practice on the Charles River. I was satisfied because I had conquered the problem set; I was melancholy because so much of the world’s beauty remained a mystery. But I was on the path — a path against the gravity and the resistance — equipped with the tools to obtain the knowledge and the beauty of this world.

This mixture of agony and euphoria of problem solving is still applicable today. As I explore options for the future, it has been hard to ignore the nagging “what ifs” in my mind. What if I go down the wrong track? What if I fail? Thinking back to the days of the problem sets, I am reminded that failure is okay, that the solution still waits to be found.

Two: MIT taught me to dance the awkward dance and sing the melancholy song.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer. She died my junior year. My life crumbled.

I reasoned, wanting to make sense of this loss. As a biology major, I tried to find a scientific explanation of oncogenesis, carcinogen, gene mutation, and so on, but I couldn’t find solace. My mother never smoked a single cigarette in her life. Why must she die from lung cancer?

Looking back, I don’t think it would have mattered if I had found a scientific answer. I needed an existential answer. Why must life be so capricious? What was the point of it all?

I felt cosmically alone in my search and struggle. My peers tried to comfort me, but they didn’t really understand my anguish, which was like a consuming flame that cannot be quenched.

In my loneliness, I turned to fiction, poetry and biography. One great thing about MIT’s humanities department was that most of the literature classes were taught in seminar style by the professors themselves, not by graduate students. The interactive nature of the classes gave me an outlet to ask about madness and catharsis in confessional poetry, nihilism in Russian literature, and the portrayal of indomitable human spirit in modern Chinese cinema.

Perhaps the universe is absurd. So what? We live in a world dominated by inhuman forces, yet human hearts can still kindle fire, every now and then, in an indifferent world sometimes surrounded by overwhelming darkness. And that is humanity.

When studying Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets, I came across this quote, which I treasure to this day: “We must travel across lonely and rugged terrain, through isolation and silence, to reach the magic zone where we can dance an awkward dance and sing a melancholy song.”

I haven’t thought much of MIT nor my experience there in the last several years while practicing law. It was easy to get carried along by the hustle and bustle of daily life. My life has changed a great deal for the better since my MIT days. With a husband who is my soul mate and best friend and two of the most loving feline babies, my life is mirthful, far exceeding my dreams.

At the visiting committee meeting, we discussed the importance of the humanities in an institution focused on science and engineering. I remembered: literature was the oasis that nurtured my soul. I am where I am because MIT taught me to move forward, to reach the magic zone.

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5 Responses to Happy Birthday, MIT!

  1. UWC says:

    This post comes at an interesting time for me. My father has lung cancer, also never smoked, and will likely die within the week, two months after diagnosis. But he is in his late 80s, and that is far, far different from your mother getting this hideous disease at a much younger age. There is no way to make sense of it. There’s a time to be born and a time to die, and any thoughts I have beyond that are moot. What is the point of it all? I don’t think that has an answer. Maybe small questions have answers but big ones don’t.

  2. Tom says:

    “MIT eviscerated my ego and replaced it with grounded confidence.”

    This actually connects to one of the things I think MIT does wrong: it often destroys/damages the inherent confidence and spirit of its students rather than building upon it with knowledge. When folks ask why it seems like Harvard / Yale students are more likely to end up in leadership positions than MIT students, I think this is a core reason why… my impression is that those schools help their students see how much they can achieve, while MIT often beats into its students how much they don’t know. Sometimes confident optimism is a better result than grounded pragmatism, as long as it’s backed up by the skills to execute.

  3. JP says:

    My college girlfriend always told me how much I would have hated MIT if I had gone there because of the damage it would do to my confidence.

    Not that it mattered, in the end, because my confidence was destroyed in college anyway. College is something that I wouldn’t really wish on anyone. I never really figured out why I was in college or what I was supposed to go do with myself when I was there. I pretty much spent 5 years not adjusting to college. I was glad to get out.

    At least law school was better than college. I don’t still have nightmares about law school. Although I have learned that entering law school burnt out on life and not caring about much of anything is not the best way to start your 1L year.

  4. JP says:

    For your amusement, here’s one Cornell bio/chem professor’s take on MIT and the finanical mess, granted he’s from the LTCM era (I didn’t include the link):

    “This is a seminar given at MIT by Eric Rosenfeld, one of the founders of LTCM. One of his fraternity brothers tells me he used to simply gamble all day and then, when exam season hit, he would drug up the wazoo and study for about five days straight to take the exams. Classic MIT students: They think they are so bright that they are fuckups. BTW-The comment below the talk seems appropriate. This guy is a functional moron.”

  5. UWC says:

    April 24, 2011 at 22:58

    Jennifer, Thank you for your kind words. My father died relatively swiftly and painlessly. The doctors gave him four weeks, but it turned out to be just 1 1/2 weeks. The decline at the end was very quick. Under the circumstances, the situation could have been far worse. It is much worse to linger in a state of pain and disablement. And it is also much worse to die an untimely death, instead of living until you are almost 90.

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