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Now That the Party’s Over: A Look At Freshman Disillusionment at MIT

By Sonali Mukherjee

I really don’t know what it was that triggered the memory. Perhaps it was when the significance of the “Halfway to Hell” mark on the Harvard Bridge finally struck me as I was completing my running route from Boston. Perhaps it was during one of those numerous strolls down the Infinite Corridor when I remain deep in thought about that one frustratingly impossible question in my latest problem set. Whatever it was, it clearly brought to the surface a memory that I had managed to forget. A high school friend of mine who is now a freshman at Princeton once made a remark to me: “you’ll never have experienced failure until you work incredibly hard at something and get nothing out of it.”

Speaking as a member of the class of 2003 at MIT, I must acknowledge the truth of part of that statement, but not all of it. Orientation Week was a time when the freshmen got to know one another, explore the campus, and in general be lulled into a general sense of comfort about the Institute. Of course, the freshmen were warned about the difficulty they were going to face at MIT.

“In every speech during Orientation they acknowledged that point from the beginning. Newspaper articles rank MIT students as one of the hardest working in the nation. But there is nothing... no brochure, no summer program, no study guide that can prepare a freshman for the first month here” said Edward J. Toro ’03, a current freshman.

The shock of coming from educational backgrounds where one is used to achieving the best that one’s school has to offer to MIT where one can tool all night and still barely pass a test, is as jolting as jumping into a pool of freezing water. Coming from a magnet school in Virginia, I honestly believed that I had worked hard in high school. As one of the few people who refused to succumb to “senioritis,” every iota of effort I put into my work and my extracurricular activities paid off quite well.

This situation may sound familiar to many freshmen because we have to acknowledge the fact that MIT students are the best and the brightest; that is the reason why we are here. Then why are we having such a tough time? Why are we subjecting ourselves to all-nighters and the never-ending stresses of problem sets? How on earth did we even end up here in Cambridge? These questions are the real problem sets, not the ones are assigned in class.

“MIT was founded to apply science for the benefit of mankind”, said Marilee Jones, Dean of Admissions, keynote speaker at the Parent/Alumnae Volunteer Dinner on Friday. The only way MIT can live up to this one true value is to make sure it is doing its job of making MIT students cutting edge members of society. When we emerge into the real world in June of 2003, “will be the people running the whole damn show,” as Jones put it.

She acknowledged the fact that with every incoming class there is more and more new information about science that students have to master. As a result, undergraduate work at MIT is an initiation period and freshmen are “samurai in training.” However, Jones’s full faith in the class of 2003 was exemplified by the way she described the contrasts between different generations of MIT applicants.

Whereas the baby boomers were very gender orientated, and the Generation X-ers were extremely cynical, our generation is realistic. “They’ve seen the things happen in Littleton and they know that adults do crazy things they can’t control. They know the world’s not perfect, and that’s OK -- but they want to fix it,” said Jones.

In thinking about my place at MIT, I realize that I am not among the first group of freshmen to go through this initiation period. If this university were really an impossible mission, then from where are all these seniors and alumni coming? The truth is that it is not impossible to be a student at MIT, much as it seems that way. We may be working harder than any college in the nation, but we should be truly proud of it, not disillusioned.

The tough times at MIT should bring us together and increase our school spirit, not drive us apart and increase our apathy towards our school. One cannot measure success by just passing one test or one class during freshman year. It’s the whole experience, from freshman year to senior year that will determine whether one failed or succeeded. One must make the most out of every moment, tough as it is, because from every moment of our initiation, we learn something new. As for my friend at Princeton, I cannot answer his question yet: I still have three and a half years to go.