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What’s Next?

By Ian J. Ybarra

We are at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. We walk the same halls and sit in the same classrooms as our predecessors -- women and men who went on to invent technologies, found organizations, discover and explain complex phenomena, lead teams, author powerful books, and counsel chiefs of the most powerful states in the world. (None have actually become President of the United States, but U.N. Secretary-General isn't too shabby.) We study the work of Nobel Laureates while sitting a few feet from Nobel Laureates.

So MIT alumni, faculty, and affiliates have done great things. But who’s next?

We are. We were invited to MIT from all over the globe because we demonstrated excellence in classrooms and laboratories and on stages and fields. In this intellectual community, we sow seeds with much potential to sprout future success. And already, there are signs of a great harvest ahead.

Take, for example, Kristin B. Domike ’03. As an undergraduate in Professor Christine Ortiz’s research group, she began designing a new endotracheal tube that could help prevent millions of injuries to people who require breathing assistance during medical procedures.

Or consider John A. Reyes ’06, who is starting a college preparatory summer program at his high school in La Marque, TX, to provide kids in his hometown with opportunities he didn’t have.

How about Danny A. Nunez ’06? A gifted mechanical engineer, he will soon be listed as one of the few people on a Ford Motor Company patent for an engine oil-efficiency device that might be installed in Ford’s entire fleet.

Along with the honor of carrying the torch in the next leg of the relay, we accept a new challenge. For the first time in our lives, we have to face the full force of the question: “What’s Next?”

Since we took our first baby steps about two decades ago, our paths have been dictated by the education system we were born into. In the United States, it goes something like this: kindergarten at age five (plus or minus one year), junior high, high school for grades nine through twelve, and then college. Sure, we enjoyed some freedom in selecting a university, but in the big picture, four years at Harvard, Stanford, or MIT are really the same diet of lectures, homework, exams, and grades.

While deciding what’s next for ourselves, we must remember there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. However, there are “wrong” questions. They begin, “Should I ...” Wrong. The only thing you should do is not ask that kind of question. There are too many people who are too eager to tell us what we should do. Besides, we’ll always receive that advice, whether we ask for it or not. I can hear it now:

“Susie, you should be more like your sister. She got a $2,000 raise for working every weekend last year.”

“Johnny, I don’t care if you like drawing. You should get your Master’s in chemistry.”

To find our own answers that will make us happy and proud, we must begin questions with “Do I want to ...” We must do this for both the standard (e.g. Do I want to get an internship or do research this summer? And when I graduate, do I want to attend grad school or go to work?) and the offbeat (e.g. Do I want to sell all of my possessions, go live with Buddhist monks for two years, and write a book about my experiences?).

Before this academic term ends we have three and one-half months to enjoy the simple pleasure of not needing to have every little thing under control. As a senior, I understand the temptation to just attend classes, turn in a few pages of chicken scratch that pass for problem set solutions, and rest assured that if we do nothing else, there will still be many people who will think we’re amazing simply because we go to MIT.

Let’s not settle for that. Let’s take time to decide what’s next for ourselves -- something that makes us happy and proud and, perhaps, remarkable enough for other MIT students to talk about in the future.