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COLUMN

Clouded Dreams of MIT Life and Learning

Guest Column
Jason Harmon Wasfy

For new freshmen, the first week of MIT classes that you have just experienced can be a bit intimidating.

Farewells to family, a hectic search for a living group, and shoving large boxes up dorm stairwells have all given way to big lecture halls and mind-boggling problem sets. Try not to lose sight of the lofty goals that you brought to Cambridge. Those goals and ambitions that freshmen bring are one reason why MIT is such an intriguing environment. Each year, new freshman dreams fuel scholarship and learning at the Institute.

Please don’t abandon those dreams. Too many freshmen I know end up studying chemical engineering, for example, because their parents saw chemical engineers near the top of some salary survey. Study chemical engineering because you’ve always wanted to contribute to society by designing new drugs, or because you love chemistry and physics. Not because of your parents. And certainly not because of money.

Whatever major you end up choosing over the course of the year, work hard. That’s what MIT is all about: it tears you down, pushes you harder than you ever imagined, and then builds you up and prepares you to tackle big problems. Take care not to abuse the freshman grading shield, because that defeats its purpose. If you goof off in core subjects, harder material will catch up to you later on. The Institute hides freshman grades to create a soft transition between high school work and generally higher standards at MIT. If you aim to squeak by, that soft transition becomes a much harder one when your sophomore year on grades forces you to perform under pressure. The system is not an obstacle that you should try to beat; it’s a carefully crafted support designed to make life easier.

But as long as you’re working hard in freshman classes, try to take some risks. Join activities and teams, work in the community, and apply for research positions in areas that you haven’t thought much about before. Grow outwards and expand. Don’t rule out options until you know what they entail. Few eighteen-year olds have enough experience to rule out too many options, and MIT boasts a wonderful spectrum of opportunities and resources.

One of these resources is our extraordinary faculty. Your professors are the best in the world; make sure you get to know them. Push yourself to learn from them -- inside and out of the classroom, about their expertise and how they made life decisions to become who they are today. From a twelfth-row seat in a 300-student lecture, appreciating approachable and friendly professors is a challenge. But I assure you, the Institute is full of friendly people who are willing to teach you, learn from you, and help you discover scholarly and professional options.

You will encounter, however, the occasional professor who says that he doesn’t have time to help you. Don’t back down easily. A little bit of initiative will go a long way.

One point is more important than the rest: never taint your integrity. I’ve seen and heard about a good deal of cheating at MIT, since the work can seem overwhelming and enforcement is lax. Don’t buy in. You can always raise your grade point average later, but once you sacrifice your integrity, you can’t bring it back.

Feeling in awe after last week is understandable. But please make sure that the awe doesn’t become disempowering. You will grow to see, I hope, that the Institute is a place of empowerment. Living and learning among some of the best thinkers in the world will give you powerful insights. You have the chance -- and indeed, the responsibility -- to contribute your skills and dedication to any number of worthy goals, over the next four years and throughout your lifetimes. Don’t take that lightly.

And whatever you choose to do over the upcoming year and beyond, remember the dreams that brought you here.

Jason Harmon Wasfy is a member of the Class of 2001.