Campus Life the first year

On numbers, and other existential crises

Thoughts from my first day of class


My age when I learned I was going to MIT.

The number of elementary particles in the Standard Model.

The age when Harry Potter became an official adult.

And today, the number of steps across Mass Ave as I proceeded to my first ever class at MIT. 7.016, 34-101.

Obviously, numbers mean a lot at MIT. Courses, buildings, majors, grades — and as a wide-eyed, mildly sleep-deprived frosh, they’ve been overwhelming. It’s been easy to get engulfed in this sea of swirling digits and decimals, but as I joined the procession of sleepy undergrads to the steps of Lobby 7 — undoubtedly one among hundreds on any given MIT day — numbers took on a less defined role.

1125. The number of students facing similar anxiety, but with entirely different perspectives, experiences, expectations, interests. The common thread of the MIT identity, weaving through us a diverse tapestry of ambition and achievement.

In many senses, today was the first of many chapters in the story of our collective MIT experience. Those chapters will be filled with soiled relationships and drunken parties, as well as some of the finest intellectual and technological achievements of the 21st century.

We will create, build, compromise, conquer. We will be inventors and data analysts and economists and historians. We will found companies whose total revenues would be equivalent to the eleventh largest economy in the world. We will, quite literally, change the world.

And in this knowledge, in my seventeen-step walk across Mass. Ave., I had to wonder, where will I fit in this picture?

To me, that’s the most humbling and terrifying and inspiring part of embarking on this MIT adventure. Looking at the several dozen students walking beside you, instantly becoming conscious of how little you know of each of their lives, rich and complex and impressive as your own — there is not much else in the world, I think, that can make you worry so much about what you will contribute to humankind, and yet provide a level of motivation hitherto unfathomable.

In those seventeen steps, I was instantly humbled by the knowledge of the brilliant minds surrounding me, inspired by the contemplation of the minds that had crossed that street before me, and terrified by the uncertainty of where my own mind would eventually lead me.

With the knowledge that my four years would only be a tiny part of the Institute’s history — and an even tinier part of all human history — I was simultaneously ready to start the marathon, and to turn back to my little triple in Burton-Conner and never come out again. Such was the bizarre and contradictory nature of that short walk, and perhaps even my first dose of IHTFP.

As that day went on, profound thoughts of identity and expectation gave way to more practical matters — lectures, p-sets, dinner. My classes were fine, my professors fascinating, my peers remarkable. Numbers crept back into relevance for courses and lecture locations and I set up my classes on MITx. I met some brilliant, passionate people, and I even tossed a frisbee around for a few hours with my new teammates. My first-day paranoia will likely stick around for a while to come, but I’m confident that all those amazing minds who crossed Mass. Ave. Wednesday morning will be right there with me as we aspire to make MIT a better place for having bettered us.

Bethany Cates is a member of the Class of 2019.