Campus Life

Times Have Changed

let me go back in time

"So many things have changed after you left, Vivian,” Mr. Arnold, my former club advisor, said wistfully as I sat across from him in the upper school cafeteria. It had been seven years since I set foot in Taipei American School, an international school I attended in Taiwan for two years in middle school. Two years is short, yet I had many vivid memories, from the Chungyi Orphanage outing to the Candlelight Dance.

I wasn’t sure what these “changes” constituted, but I knew that part of the changes included Orphanage Club, the volunteer club I was heavily involved in during that time. Other changes I anticipated learning about were administrative ones, such as the many donation plaques on the walls and the newly built gate with turnstiles.

I thought the conversation would be more light-hearted by sharing recollections and asking how other people in the club were doing, but the conversation left me feeling sad and nostalgic about a past that couldn’t be restored. He began the conversation by talking about how much difficulty the club experienced ever since I left. Some of these issues were ones I was aware of after I left, such as the flood that destroyed the club’s storage room in the basement and COVID putting a standstill on major events, like the Pearl S. Buck Christmas party.

But there were other issues that I didn’t expect to happen, such as the administration requiring the club to have no money in the account to comply with their rules of nonprofits. This new rule didn’t make any sense to me because money is necessary for clubs to operate at a bare minimum. I was even more disappointed to hear that fundraisers, like the flea market sale, weren’t an option anymore. After the pandemic, the school decided to become a closed campus, which meant no more public events like the PTA Spring Fair. The whole thing reminded me of MIT’s choice of keeping its closed campus policy last fall, and many MIT community members disagreed with this decision.

I couldn’t believe that iconic schoolwide events were now only for affiliates of the school. I didn’t understand why the school administration was making it more difficult for student organizations, especially volunteer and outreach clubs like the Orphanage Club, to be engaged with the surrounding community. Doesn’t such a policy further reinforce the idea that an elite, private institution is an ivory tower, sealed off from the greater community?

I also experienced these feelings of frustration when I had discussions with other MIT ESP (Educational Studies Program) members on how to run Splash, an educational high school program, despite having restrictions on student numbers and no open access on weekends. Hearing this news from Mr. Arnold reminded me of last year's discussion about whether MIT should be an open or closed campus, except my former school is still a closed campus.

The specific issues that my club experienced were distinct from the ones I encountered as an admin in MIT ESP, yet I noticed some similarities between the two organizations: new administrative policies that place more strain on student organizations and the pandemic being a huge disruptor on club operations. Before I go on, I need to consider that as much as students, including me, disagree with the administration, in the end, we must learn to understand their views and make compromises, as difficult as that may be.

While I understand that administrators are more concerned about issues such as liability and safety, sometimes I feel that ultimately, such policies end up putting a lot of burden on student groups to do a lot of extra work just to comply with the rules. I don’t want to be too critical and get into the weeds, so I will end my thoughts on administration there.

It was sobering to learn about the changes in administration and challenges in the Orphanage Club, but I found it uplifting to hear that the high school officers were trying their best to think outside of the box of other fundraising methods. I am hopeful that the current and future students of the club wouldn’t let anything stop them from achieving the club's mission of helping the underprivileged and needy.

I was also touched to hear that there were some young students eager to join the Orphanage Club in middle school. Hearing about these excited fifth graders reminded me of the time I just joined the club as a new sixth-grade student, idealistic about changing the world for the better. I miss the energy I once had, committed to the belief that volunteering would have a positive impact on an individual, whether it was making care packages for the needy or encouraging others to donate to Oxfam on Hunger Day. If only I could go back to that optimistic mindset and not let cynicism get in the way of things.

Listening to Mr. Arnold talk about some passionate students in the Orphanage Club, like the current president, made me wonder if I even had a passion for anything anymore. Sure, I have some hobbies that I include in introductions about myself — I like running, reading, and learning French on Duolingo. The problem is that I don’t have a core passion that I once did in middle school such as community service, which was once a central core of my identity. I still like learning about various topics in the life sciences, but doing lab work makes me forget about the overarching goal of improving drug delivery to cure cancer.

Two years of college have already made me feel tired to the point that I don’t feel like I have the mental energy to think about other things besides classwork. I used to be very involved in ESP, but now I feel kind of burnt out from the experience. I want to go back to feeling excited and caring about activities outside of classes, but the issue at hand is I don’t know how. Finding the right balance between not letting academics at MIT overwhelm and consume me while having the time to pursue other activities has always been a challenge.

After we discussed changes in the Orphanage Club and the school, Mr. Arnold asked me about my college life. I told him the basics — I am majoring in Computer Science and Molecular Biology (Course 6-7 for MIT speak) and I am part of organizations like MIT ESP and The Tech. Before the conversation came to an end, however, Mr. Arnold asked me, “What do you want to do after graduating from MIT?”

Never had such an ordinary question felt so jarring. It wasn’t even a strange philosophical question I couldn’t answer. I already answered this question many times in recent years, from meals with family friends to conversations with people in the lab. The tone and way he looked me in the eye with such gravity left such a strong impression on me that I couldn’t forget this moment. I had to say something different this time.

My standard answer in the past was quite simple: work in the biotech or pharma industry and potentially pursue a PhD after undergrad. Let me correct myself: that was the response I said a year ago when I was still a Course 5-7 and didn’t yet experience a mini quarter-life crisis of why I didn’t enjoy wet lab research as much as I expected. The updated answer in 2023 would still have something to do with the life sciences, but with a greater focus on the intersection of health and computer science. My honest answer would include having some remote interest in life science consulting and tech companies, but it didn’t sound authentic.

“I am not sure. Probably work in the biotech industry after graduation,” I said reluctantly. I knew my answer fell flat.

My answer wasn’t a bad one per se, but my response made me sound like I settled for some ordinary life by following what most people around me are doing: study hard for the interviews, secure a job at a top company, and live a comfortable life. Having such goals are understandable and relatable, and I have also developed these goals over time, but they remind me of a book titled Excellent Sheep. It’s about the phenomenon in which a lot of students at elite colleges end up doing consulting or finance instead of thinking about what they truly want to pursue.

I knew that Mr. Arnold expected me to say something beyond career and professional goals, like something along the lines of raising awareness about societal issues and taking action to improve the lives of those who need help. Unfortunately, my current goals have not considered ways to tackle society’s pressing issues yet.

One thing I will never forget about Mr. Arnold is that the spirit of the sixties still lives inside of him: the activist spirit, idealism, and passion for the betterment of society. It is this distinctive character that I haven’t quite encountered elsewhere in my life  — the drive to make the world a better place that starts with serving the local community. In other words, I can’t think of many peers like Mr. Arnold in my day-to-day life. Similarly, I struggle to think of organizations in my life like Orphanage Club that focus on charity. Perhaps I am being harsh, but I honestly can’t.

I shared these feelings of frustration with him. “You know, I don’t know a lot of people like you in college. I can’t think of an equivalent organization like Orphanage Club at MIT. Not a lot of people volunteer. So many people are focused on getting a good job, doing pre-professional things, and thinking of putting things that look good on their resume.”

“It’s a problem I am also aware of and notice among college students, Vivian,” Mr. Arnold said with a troubled look that I also shared.

Hearing him ask this question was the first time I was mad about chasing the shiny attractive things in life, whether it is securing an internship at a prestigious company or focusing on landing a six-figure job after graduation. Maybe it is the internship searching season that’s causing me to change my mind, but it seems like everything is about serving my interests first instead of having goals that I used to strive for back when I was in Orphanage Club, like being selfless and helping others around me. 

To some extent, I feel like college has made me lose sight of the bigger picture in life. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered how much good would come from working at a top company if I end up not even liking the job. What difference would extra money make if I spend forty hours or more every week on something that I dislike?

My time with Mr. Arnold flew by quickly in an hour. Usually, I have a hard time answering deep questions reflecting on my experiences in the past since most events in my life are rather ordinary. If someone asked me which conversation I had that was meaningful, however, I would say my conversation with Mr. Arnold without a doubt. I have had memorable conversations in the past too, but never had I one that made me reflect so critically and analyze how much I have changed over the years. Maybe the passage of time is what’s forcing me to consider that times have changed.

Before we ended the conversation, Mr. Arnold asked, “Let’s meet again for lunch before you leave Taiwan in August, okay?”

“Yes, for sure. Thank you so much for having me.”

I said goodbye and then left the school gate. On the bus ride to the MRT station, the conversation still lingered in my mind. It was nice to visit the school after so many years, but also sad that I couldn’t recognize some parts of the school. The atmosphere wasn’t the same anymore. Feelings of melancholy enveloped me when I thought of how I went from a kid with big goals of helping society to a college student that conformed to common career paths.

So many things are different now, from the school to the club to myself. As much as I wish things were like the past, my intuition tells me that it will be very difficult for my former school to reinstate its old policies and administrative rules. The same goes for my former club, which leaves me with the question of how much of my past self can be restored. It’s something I have control over, right?