Addressing the Class of 2003 at the welcome convocation on Thursday, President Vest praised the audience for having the “intellectual capacity, the energy, the imagination and the personal will to succeed” at MIT, and because it “believes in excellence.” These kind of hollow bromides, offered with glossy, rehearsed sincerity, generally do not resonate with me. Vest’s comments, however, proved particularly memorable, if for no other reason than their unexpected optimism and romanticism.
Most freshmen who gathered in Kresge auditorium to listen to President Vest prognosticate on the value of a technical education in tomorrow’s brave new world really have no concept of what the future holds for them. College was an oft-spoken-of institution, made inevitable by our parents’ considerable expectations and our own considerable ambitions.
Whether or not we stand as the inheritors of a hallowed tradition of technological innovation, most freshmen simply can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the daunting neural activity that goes on here, by the campus with its austere concrete facades, and by the prospect of living in an environment which will reduce our once impressive achievements to intellectual flotsam.
Luckily, our incorporation into this new, scientific subculture has been facilitated by a group of generally approachable upperclassmen, administrators, and even professors. The students in dormitories and fraternities, with the exception of the iconoclasts at Bexley, have been consistently willing to answer questions and offer advice. Of course, no one comes here to be coddled, and if we wanted to be encapsulated in a neo-Gothic or Georgian wonderland, we would have opted for the Ivy League.
MIT is markedly different than its peer institutions. Students here, while they have a propensity to complain about the sheer volume of work they face at times, take a sort of masochistic pride in suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. No matter how disparate their backgrounds, whether they are international or from the Midwest, interested in mathematics or urban planning, students have in common hundreds, thousands of hours devoted to research and studying.
This might partly explain the egalitarianism that pervades the campus. While all students here are not necessarily equal, they all deserve a certain degree of respect for their willingness to drink from the proverbial firehose. Freshmen are isolated only because they have not yet earned the right to sympathize with each other over time collectively spent pursuing one goal -- surviving four years at MIT.
I don’t know yet if this is the right place for me, and Vest’s perennial consolation that the admissions office doesn’t make mistakes did not serve to appease any misgivings I might have. If nothing else, freshmen can look to the fact that after four years here they will, for the most part, have an utterly pragmatic and workful degree which will certainly separate them from the minions of American Studies majors who have no other recourse but to recycle their degrees in classrooms.
This seems to be a place where the technologically inclined, referred to as geeks in other circles, seem to have free rein as they prepare to increasingly corner an economy that relies on their expertise and ingenuity. And considering kids here know what role they will assume after they leave, they seem to be exceptionally unpretentious.
While students are lured here more by the projected starting salaries of programmers than by what Vest considers “our obligation to repair our world for the sake of ourselves and our children,” it cannot be doubted that MIT is home to the movers and shakers of the world. That is what most accurately defines this place; everything else, the idiosyncrasies and pressure, are simply necessary consequences.
Clay Martin is a member of the Class of 2003.