Leaving the MIT whirlwind
Learning to slow down in France and Morocco
My first two years of college, I found myself getting caught up in a flurry of so many obligations and classes that I couldn’t even remember how many organizations I was a part of. Everyone seemed to be doing so much; why shouldn't I? Each break from MIT was a time to reset, but once I returned to campus, the whirlwind picked up again, leaving me burned out.
Coming back from my MISTI France internship last August, I didn’t want to leave Europe. How could I leave that idyllic lifestyle, with the perfect location, a compelling project, managers I looked up to, and amazing friends? I justified my departure by telling myself, "I don't belong here; I belong on the other side of the ocean." In other words, it was time to go back to “real life.”
What did that mean to me? Real life meant America, MIT, violin, 6.005, hectic schedules, everything I was used to. I remember feeling guilty for not challenging myself technically that summer — I didn’t study for technical interviews, barely worked on a personal project, and spent a lot of time working on the business side for my company. I felt, perhaps wrongly, like it was one of my least productive summers, but maybe the point was to learn things outside of the technical realm. As my fellow intern told me, “You can’t work 12 months out of the year.”
I came back to the “real life” I was just describing, but this time there was a key difference: I didn’t succumb to the external pressure of taking on too much. As my friend who went through a similar realization put it, “I don’t have to be the freaking president of every club I’m in!” Thus, I turned many club commitments, such as my absurd number of dorm government positions, into open pursuits that I could do on my own time: I practiced a different language, ran around Boston, played music with friends, and went to Bible studies. I had internalized the French mode of la tranquillité — peacefulness — and didn’t let that pressure unique to MIT touch me. Despite it being my junior fall, last semester was my easiest one here. I am no longer in the bubble.
That wasn’t my last MISTI experience, however. I just spent a month teaching math and programming to high schoolers in Marrakech through Global Teaching Labs (GTL) Morocco. My main goal was to instill critical thinking and a can-do attitude for problem-solving. Was it exciting? Yes, especially when one of my students solved a 6.006 pset problem immediately, despite not knowing what an algorithm was 30 minutes prior. Was it challenging? Yes, at times, when despite yelling at the top of my lungs for everyone to quiet down, I couldn’t even hear my own voice. During those four weeks, my students wrote their first computer programs, made their first data visualizations, and discovered the many magical utilities of graph theory.
This time, on the plane back to Boston, I tried to compare this MISTI experience to my last one. My awareness went further than it had last summer: I realized that what I was coming back to didn't have to be what I thought of as my “real life.” Who’s to say that “real life” can’t exist outside of MIT, or even America? While trying to get my students to question everything, I realized I hadn’t been doing that myself. The act of inquiry applies not only to science and math, but also to life. This is probably what they mean by learning from your students.
Katherine Young is a member of the class of 2018.