A re-re-reflection on HackMIT
A reply from a writer of the past to an unexpected letter
I scarcely know how to write this…re-re-reflection, as it were. Thank you, for starters, for coming up with this inspired idea of writing a letter to an unknown alum from the annals of Campus Life.
There is a lot I want to reflect back to you, so your editor is going to have to forgive me for a long-winded piece. I myself did my fair share of ruthless word-cutting during my tenures as news editor and editor-in-chief; at least this is Campus Life and AP Styleguide need not apply as strictly!) But I think age allows me some leeway for rambling — and I am veritably ancient, for I wrote that HackMIT piece when I was not yet 18; I am now 26. Ancient!
You wrote, “i know you can’t give me answers” — but, as chance would have it, a friend and fellow alum from French House conveyed news of your piece to me via the French House Slack, where your Executive Editor, a fellow Vivian, tried to @ me about it. Welcome to “what a small world,” which you will say and hear ad nauseam for years to come!
You probably didn’t really want, and certainly don’t need, any of the answers and unsolicited advice I’m about to spew forth. But since the powers of randomness have brought us together, I will offer my thoughts nonetheless, in the hopes that you will find at least a morsel of use — and, admittedly, for my own catharsis.
“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?”
I did not, in fact, become a course 6! I went into MIT contemplating 3, 6-7, 5-7, 7, and/or 20, and eventually committed to course 20 (with some “do it with me!” urging from a friend). I am now a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering at Stanford doing research in plant synthetic biology. But it has indeed fit into my research career, as it does in most research nowadays. My sophomore year UROP mentor in a bioengineering lab was adamant that I learn Python for data analysis, for which I am forever grateful to him. I don’t know that CS majors would consider it as true CS, but I can code enough to run an ODE model, process big omics data, and sundry other tasks that come up in biology. CS takes on many forms — stress-coding an app in Johnson is far from the be-all and end-all!
(And bold of you to assume that it’s my silly *past* self — I daresay I’ll go on being silly in some way or the other till the day I die)
“after hackMIT, did you still cringe whenever you heard someone discussing all the complicated edges and facets of computer science?”
I did take a few CS classes that I thought would be useful, as part of my major’s technical electives requirement. I can certainly imagine my past self cringing at such conversations if I was stressed about an upcoming machine learning midterm! Other than that, I think I generally took it as an opportunity to pick up a few interesting factoids or terms — or maybe I just tuned it out as background noise.
“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?”
One of the exhausting but splendid things about being in an environment like MIT is constantly being reminded how little I know of just about everything. I think my mind would wither if I couldn’t feed it new and interesting information! I long ago accepted that I’ll never know everything I want to know, but I’m still learning how to prioritize what to learn with the limited time, energy, and concentration I have at my disposal.
“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?”
Definitely the former— I don’t think I ever had a passion for computer science in itself, only as a means to an end, be it bioinformatics or writing a script to scrape social media data about a Chinese actor (one has to keep one’s coding skills honed somehow). I did HackMIT out of curiosity and the desire to know how to do everything at least a little — and probably a hefty dose of FOMO.
“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?”
Susan, did you take and drop the same class I did?! I took a web app development class during IAP of (I think) my freshman year. I could not make heads nor tails out of it, and wondered exactly as you did — does my brain simply not compute? (This was also me throughout all of 8.02, as my brilliant friend cracked the code on empty charged shell after solid charged shell and I sat there questioning my understanding of calculus.)
And I too doubted my own work ethic — was I just being lazy? I still wonder this now, when I feel particularly tired and unwilling to start an experiment in lab. I don’t think I’ll ever find a satisfactory answer to this, so I try to focus on the solution: work on problems that interest me enough to push through mental or physical barriers, and work together with others, to provide a bouncing board for ideas and a relief from tedium.
I encourage you to try the class again next year, if you still have the interest; sometimes it just takes a few tries to get it! I understand a lot of things easily now that once brought the gears in my brain to a grinding halt. (Electromagnetism is not one of these things. On that front, I have simply come to accept that some combination of genetics and not listening to my parents when they told me to study more math in high school has resulted in me being terrible at physics.)
At the same time, the world does not require everyone to know how to build a website from scratch! (I still haven’t!) There are a million other rewarding and impactful things you can do.
“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?”
I really don’t know how I knew that was true! Optimism and faith in the fundamental goodness of people, maybe? That’s gotten me through life so far. But I think MIT is just so chock full of wonderful people that even in one short month, you’ve met enough to know that it’s representative of the whole. And yes, it absolutely held true! As for meeting the greatest people, that continues to hold true even now: you will continue to meet and be inspired by new MIT people after you graduate. The beacon of MIT shines far!
“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?”
Oh, I (and probably 99% of MIT students) am all too familiar with the “why am I here” feeling, the feeling that I could never make the most of what MIT offered. I just said that MIT is a beacon of light; it also casts a long shadow. Even the other day, as I was innocuously biking home, my thoughts drifted to how I was feeling overwhelmed with doing several different projects at the same time, and yet even so it would never feel like enough— not because anyone was pressuring me with their expectations, but because I expect it of myself: to be good enough, successful enough, useful enough to the world (whatever any of that means) to live up to my MIT education. It’s not the externally perceived prestige, necessarily, but rather that I know how much MIT offered — how many resources someone else could have received if I had not been admitted instead of them.
The only solution, for me, is to try and keep my imposter syndrome to a useful level: I’ll never convince myself that I deserved to get into MIT for undergrad or Stanford for grad school, but since I was lucky enough to do so, I’ll try to make the most of it.
I think that’s all the questions! As you noted, HackMIT can leave you with a lot more than a non-to-partially functioning app, and I have reactions to offer on that front as well.
“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.”
I’m thrilled that you discovered a platonic love through HackMIT, and hope you can nurture that friendship for years to come. I have had many friendships that fell by the wayside because the context for that friendship faded: we no longer took the same classes, participated in the same club, lived on the same floor, and so on. It is a bittersweet lesson that I learned after freshman year, and still continue to learn: friendships take active care to maintain, and yet, often all it takes is for one person to say Hello in the hallway or to suggest getting lunch together. I think we are all afraid of being the first to reach out, for fear of rejection, for finding that we are more invested than the other.
“a new hoodie, dark green and adorned with the hackMIT logo. i still wear it at least once a week.”
I have several shirts from my first (and only) HackMIT that I wear to this day — they’re incredibly light, comfortable, and breathable!
“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?”
Regardless of whether or not a degree in computer science is in your future, rest assured that HackMIT will not be the last opportunity to figure it out. As I said before, computer science comes in many shapes and forms, and it’s truly never too late to learn. A former roommate switched from course 20 to course 6 late in junior year, and in my first-year Ph.D. classes, students were learning to code for the first time.
I’ll end where you ended: “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!”
I think that, with such an attitude, you are fully equipped to take on the world! Just remember, and I think you already know: though we each have to walk our own path and find our own answers, we don’t need to do it alone. And as the aforementioned Chinese actor who provided me an excuse to stretch my coding muscles once said, when asked about difficult times in his life: “Every step is a part of your wealth; no one can replicate it or take it away.”
Reflection can at times be a scouringly painful thing, but I’m very grateful to you for giving me the impetus to do so.
All the best,