Opinion guest column

Getting better by leaving the Institute

Student Support Services failed to solve my problems — I had to deal with them myself

I am no longer an undergraduate at MIT, but my mother still receives notices from the parents’ association now and again. Last week, she received an email from Christina Aprea informing the MIT parents community that a junior was found dead in his dormitory room. The cause of death has not been officially released yet.

During my time as an MIT student in the last two years, my mother has learned about two other student deaths. Both have been ruled as suicide. Regardless of the ruling of this ongoing investigation, the death of yet another student behooves me and everyone who considers themselves a part of the MIT community to reflect on the subtle, or stark, depending on what numbers you use, increase in student deaths on campus.

I did not graduate from MIT. In fact, the reason why I am no longer at MIT is because I transferred to a university back in my hometown. I faced many problems, probably not unlike what many of you face now at MIT. Never-ending problem sets; a foreign environment; peers who seem so far from human in their astronomical abilities; family and friends back at home who were so excited for me, and who had pinned so much hope on what could come out of graduating from a top university. In a way, I was stuck between the genius classmates who could not understand how to help me, and my family/friends, who apart from being far away, did not understand that I needed help. Throw into the mix a good dose of your regular what-will-I-do-with-my-life crisis, and maybe problems forming any “real,” substantial relationships, and you have a rather unhappy situation.

All I want to say is, there is life outside of MIT. MIT is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for success. Unfortunately, I’m not a wildly successful entrepreneur who can be a living example of this. But I can tell you that it does get better. And if you don’t want to do it, you can choose not to — your family and old friends may not be as disappointed as you might think.

In case the conversation, if there is any, turns to how to help students while at MIT, I will relate my story.

I sought help — I was referred to S�, which stands for Student Support Services. Wherever I turned, administrators, professors, and even acquaintances would say “You should go see S�.” I did go to S�. It was a full semester-long (or more) affair. Long story short;I did not find S� to be helpful. The deans there are overworked, and what they do is mostly administrative, such as preparing documents for your transfer and such (I had to inform Financial Services of my termination as a student myself — after they billed me with the semester’s fees weeks after I had left MIT), or referring you to various links on the S� website. The most concrete thing I got out of my sessions was the dean handing me an application for readmission. That is not to say they have no power. They have an immense amount of power. Their recommendation virtually decides whether the Academic Committee votes for you to stay in MIT if you been performing below par academically.

What I am saying is that, don’t build S� to be a place where all problems are solved. As it always is, the only way to solve problems is to solve them yourself. Of course, we could always use some support and encouragement, but that is not what S� is. S� is not the place you can go to when you are staying up at 3 a.m. trying to start on the second question of a 10-problem problem set due 9 a.m. that same day. You have to make approximately three-week advanced appointments to see anyone at S�, and when you are there, you sort of have to figure out what you want them to do for you. Do you want them to contact MIT Medical? Or perhaps write a letter to your professors? Like I said, S� is administrative, not therapeutic.

I feel that if students sought support from S�, they might not have found what they were looking for, and sometimes, when what you think is the last gas station has no gas, you might give up completely.

We are all so busy, it seems a little too rosy to think that a support group could be formed for students facing personal difficulties (even if people had time, think of the stigma). I guess we could start with just for everyone to be a little more forgiving — if something is wrong, it’s wrong — but if someone fails a test, it doesn’t mean they can’t pass the next one, or that they become worthless if they fail many tests in a row.

Maybe these are experiences completely different from what anyone is experiencing — in that case, thank you for reading anyway. But a discussion about the quality of student life makes talking about the S� inescapable, and I think it’s important to get the perspective of someone who has “been there, done that.” And my verdict is that the S� has been completely ineffectual, and might be setting students up for failure.

Shin Nee Wong was a member of the class of 2012

Anonymous about 11 years ago

I think Mental Health is a better place to go for personal support. They have walk-in hours every day from 2-4pm, so you don't even need to make an appointment. The counsellors listen and definitely take an interest in you and want to help. I found that when I went, the doctor asked me questions and listened to my long rambling answers, but she didn't push when I told her I didn't want to talk about some things. At the end, she said some things that I already knew about myself, but hearing her say them helped me a lot. They made my mood make more sense and it was both therapeutic and healing to talk to her. So if you need someone to listen, I would say go to Mental Health. Plus, I found that S3 can't really do much administratively if you haven't been to medical first.

Anonymous about 11 years ago

I think it just depends on who you see and what you're looking to get out of it. I have had long-term support at both S3 and MIT Mental Health. I went to S3 first specifically because frankly, I hate MIT Medical. I find most people there to be rude, impersonal, or incompetent from the doctors on down to the receptionists. I saw someone at S3 for 1.5 years and while I wasn't magically transformed into a genius social butterfly, it was the one hour a week I had to talk about things I felt I couldn't talk about with anyone else. I didn't go because I needed a form signed or an excuse given to a professor, although the situation arose a couple of times where it was necessary. I went because it was only time out of the week where I could say how I really felt and not feel judged as weird, inadequate, or not proper MIT material. During that time I was referred to someone at MIT Medical as sort of a "second opinion" and came away feeling like they cared little about me as a person and treated me more like a problem, so I stopped seeing them and continued my meetings at S3 until I felt okay enough to stop them.

Flash forward a year and a half after that and I decided to see someone at MIT Medical, for the simple reason I'd changed some as a person and I wanted to start fresh with a new person. It was a lot different from my previous experiences at both S3 and MIT Medical, the person was as personable as the one I saw at S3, but also was much better at realizing when I was being too paranoid and dishonest with myself, and also at offering more constructive advice. But it's also because I was at a point where I wanted more constructive advice about how to better connect with people and make sense of social interactions rather than someone I could vent to about how lonely and socially awkward I was.

Even though it may not seem like it, you have a choice in getting help. If you're seeing someone you don't like or is unhelpful, see someone else and keep seeing someone else until you find someone you "click" with. Don't settle for whichever person the receptionist chooses for you because they have the first availability.