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Straight From the Heart

Guest Column
Vishwanath Venugopalan

It was the great mingling of the hordes. Killian Kickoff was hanging in the air and everyone was wondering why it took so long to begin. We stood under the trees on the side sipping lemonade, not knowing what to talk about -- every one of us was uncertain and excited about how rush would be for us. We were international students in a new country and a new phase of our lives. In a feeble attempt to keep up polite conversation, I asked the group, “How has Orientation been so far?” And bang came the reply straight from the heart, “International Orientation was any day better than regular Orientation.”

I was talking to a few upperclassmen about their experiences of Orientation. Sure enough, they too mirrored these feelings. I reflected upon this and found that I too had enjoyed international orientation much more than regular orientation. But why? And why did many people feel the same way? The answer to this probably lies in the unique experience of international students at MIT.

Every year international students constitute no more than eight percent of the entering class. They arrive and meet each other at least three days before the rest of the class arrives. This crucial time is the origin of many lasting friendships. Their incredibly small presence allows them to bond intimately with international students of their class as well as upper classes. To most international students, the United States is a completely new country, notwithstanding the images that the media and entertainment industry throw at them. They share similar concerns about the way of life they are about to begin. All this ultimately leads to a well-cemented and special relationship among international students even before the rest of the class arrives.

Earlier in the summer, many international students were part of an electronic mailing list. The forum was quite active -- with discussions ranging from hobbies to ethnic and regional bias. This generated a rich firmament of ideas on which we could base our friendships. We were also in touch with our international mentors and hence, quite in tune with one another as a community. No wonder then, that it was just a question of seeing (as opposed to meeting) each other when we arrived. A lot of credit goes to the upperclass mentors for striking an immediate rapport with us and making our transition into MIT life a pleasant and memorable one. With gentle guidance and true empathy, they put to rest many of my apprehensions. International Orientation to me seemed comfortable, sincere and straight from the heart.

When the rest of the class arrived, I found myself slightly overwhelmed at the number of national students. I had been used to an environment where I would know everyone in my class. Now, I knew only one face in thirteen! The realization can be crushing. Naturally enough, I turned to people I had met and gauged in the past few days. Often enough, I found that they too were in the same predicament, which only served to deepen empathy and camaraderie.

All this is not to say that international students tend to clump into groups removed from a majority of freshmen. On the contrary, they have come here to be part of the unique social, cultural and educational experience that is MIT. As classes start and extracurricular activities pick up, there will be many more opportunities for people to form interpersonal relationships. Neither is it to say that mainstream orientation was a damp squib. In fact, it was a splendidly organized event and will stay in my memory. It was during mainstream orientation that I met many more people, learned more and felt more adjusted. However, those nascent and magical bondings I formed during International Orientation with people adjusting to circumstances like mine will remain long cherished. International Orientation may only appear as a tiny two-day appendage to the Orientation Schedule. However, the Hitchhiker’s Guide of my heart begins and ends with it.

Vishwanath Venugopalan is a member of the Class of 2003.