Campus Life extra ordinary

a reflection on a reflection on hackMIT

a letter to a writer of the past

there are one thousand one hundred and thirty articles in the “campus life” section of the tech. fifty seven pages, twenty articles a page (ten on the last page, if anyone’s counting). 

i sifted through the pages to seek inspiration for this article, watched the names slowly change as the years went by. imagine getting to know someone without ever meeting them: clicking on their name and scrolling through the collections of words that they’ve thrown out into the void. in many cases, this is a person who has left the shimmery bubble of college. there’s something magical about this, isn’t there? a snapshot of the past, captured in black type across a digital white page.

today, i’m going to write a letter to someone i don’t know. 

ground rules:

  1. the article will be randomly chosen (i’ll select a random page, and then a random article on that page)

  2. i will keep choosing a new article until i find one that is personal/reflective/blog-like. is this cheating? maybe. but i’m writing this, so i get to make the rules :D (this disqualifies articles that are lists of events, recapping specific events, etc.).

after a few attempts, i landed on page 17, article 10: “So how exactly do I make an app?”, written by vivian zhong in 2015.

dear vivian,

you know, a few months ago, i wondered if i would be you. (or rather, whether i would be someone like you, because i hadn’t read your article yet, and — anyways, that’s not the point.) no, not “comp-sci-illiterate” — i was certain i was going to be that part of you. the coding for hackMIT part was what i was unsure about.

i’d signed up for it over the summer on a whim — i was in the middle of MIT’s interphase summer program, and all of my friends seemed determined to participate. by extension, therefore, i had to participate as well. right?

lots of things ended up happening. my time was scrambled by theater rehearsal, so i told my team the day before that i could no longer participate. i still showed up, though, around noon: sheepishly signing in a full four hours later to collect a pile of merch and a free lunch. 

unlike you, vivian, hackMIT did not leave me with a sense of accomplishment. a crafted product. sometimes, i wonder sometimes what would’ve happened if i hadn’t quit before i’d started. would i, too, have found a tentative place within the too-tall world of computer science at MIT? but i’m getting ahead of myself. 

first, what hackMIT did leave me with:

one of the many platonic loves of my life — a friend of a friend. i can’t believe this is your first time meeting her, my other friend had insisted.

a new hoodie, dark green and adorned with the hackMIT logo. i still wear it at least once a week. 

a chicken burrito. not as good as chipotle, but still quite enjoyable. 

an almost heart attack, because i was too distracted by the prospect of pestering my friend who was volunteering, and ended up accidentally leaving the ukulele someone had lent me for theater in the venue. i found it, eventually. thankfully.

a vague sense of regret. maybe, i’d chosen the wrong place to spend my time.

a vague sense of regret, because what if, hackMIT could’ve been the thing to show me that computer science was possible? that i wasn’t too far behind everyone else to learn?

vivian — after hackMIT, did you still cringe whenever you heard someone discussing all the complicated edges and facets of computer science? were you still reminded of how little you knew every time you heard a classmate talk about the new app they were developing or their latest solved leetcode problem?

out of all the fields at MIT, computer science is the one that scares me the most. i know it’s irrational, but like you said: it’s so hard not to be intimidated when there are so many incredible people who just know so much more.

this iap, i had registered for web lab with two of my friends. two days ago, i dropped out. i had contributed nearly nothing to our project, and it felt wrong taking partial credit for something that barely belonged to me. by the time i was halfway through learning one concept, for example, my friends — my brilliant, brilliant friends — had already finished applying it to our actual website. 

i was starstruck by their dedication to this project. the speed at which they picked up new concepts. their ability to spin out new ideas from the cold january air. even when we were brainstorming ideas for our website, i was mesmerized by how readily ideas seemed to come to them, and how quietly genius these ideas were. i know there’s always more to a situation than whatever meets the eye, but i couldn’t help but feel slow, my synapses firing sluggishly through a cloud of thick, muddy sludge.

do i simply not have the work ethic? is my brain not wired for computational logic? does it just work too slowly to keep up with the two-week bootcamp?

i could’ve given a million reasons for why i’d quit, and all of them would’ve been right: i didn’t want to strain my friendships. i didn’t think i was contributing enough to the project. i wasn’t as interested in web development as i thought i would be. i wasn’t happy taking the class. it didn’t excite me like i’d hoped it would.

but the truth is, i still quit. and the truth is, there is still some part of me who thinks i am not smart enough for computer science. that i like words and putting them together and watching them flow into sentences and stories, but only because my brain cannot comprehend how syntax and logic and numbers and objects can be strung into something just as beautiful.

the truth is, there is still some part of me who feels like i’m just running away from anything that i find difficult. if that’s the case, then why am i here? i couldn’t tell you.

have you ever felt like that? like computer science, technology — this institute of technology — might be too much for you to hold?

the thing is, i understand the euphoria you describe. taking 6.100B, fixing my silly little typos and glaring logic errors that somehow manage to evade my eyesight until i take my code to a TA — there is quite literally nothing like the feeling you get when code works. when you take an idea from within your head, transfer it onto the computer screen, and watch as the program spits out an analysis of made-up data points in exactly the way you want it to.

is this a hidden love for computer science? or is it simply the intrinsic happiness that accompanies a feeling of accomplishment? the satisfaction that arrives when something — anything — goes right?

i know you can’t give me answers. but have you ever asked yourself these questions? i know, i know. i’m probably making this a bigger deal than you intended. but i’m curious about a lot of things. did you end up majoring in computer science? did it fit seamlessly into your career? did you ever think back to your initial doubt, and if you did, did you confirm it? or did you laugh and shake your head a little at your silly past self?

and, this “euphoria” that you describe — how can you tell if it stems from a love of problem-solving and logic, or if it’s the product of a passion for computer science? do you think you even needed to answer this question?

you say hackMIT is analogous to MIT as a whole: “It’s intimidating, it’s sometimes hard to get through, but you’ll come through having met the greatest people and passing the most amazing time.” i also see that you wrote this article a month into your freshman year, according to your graduation date. how did you know this was true so quickly? did it continue to hold for the next four years?

will it hold for mine?

this is getting too long, and i have a feeling that i know what your answer to all my questions would be: i’m going to have to figure it out myself.

so, i guess, here goes!