You are reading about the experiences of someone plunged into a world far removed from his natural habitat.
I am no freshman. I am in fact an exchange student, studying at MIT for one year after a prodigious voyage across the pond from “Merry Olde England.” By way of introduction, my name is Mark, a name that, when spoken in my native English accent, becomes unintelligible to a worryingly large sector of the Boston population. A typical greeting goes something like this,
“Hi, I’m [insert name here], I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Hi, I’m Mark, nice to meet you.”
“What’s your name again?”
“No, Mark, M-A-R-K.”
“Oh, I thought Muck was a weird name!”.
Anyway, what I shall be writing about are the similarities and differences between what I’m accustomed to and comparing that to life here at MIT.
The Cambridge-MIT Exchange, which brings me here, takes place in what for me is my third year, but in the United States is known as “junior” year. In fact, one of my first observations after arriving here was the intriguing choices for the names given to different years here.
Puzzling to my untrained mind was that “junior,” a word I assumed to have connotations of being young, is used for the second oldest set of undergraduate students. The term “freshman” is self-explanatory, but prior to my arrival in the States I would have guessed juniors would be the second youngest, then the sophomores. The Internet tells me that the roots of the word “sophomore” lie in two Greek words, namely “sophos,” meaning wise, and “moros,” meaning foolish, which is eminently more plausible and subtle than my own initial theory that it is the result of a game of Chinese Whispers (or Telephone in the U.S.) that started with “soft-no-more.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, my theory was met with derision from my fellow exchange students in one of our numerous pre-semester meetings. Either origin, the word is at least an apt description of students in their second year, unlike “junior.”
While I may be new to this establishment, being familiar with the college lifestyle has given me experience with taking advantage of the opportunities that only exist the first few weeks of college. I was savvy enough to make full use of the variety of free food events offered on campus, knowing they do not last forever. At least I thought they did not last forever, but MIT proved me wrong. I had yet to decipher the true “free food oasis” nature of the Sloan Business School and have since heard tales of students who have survived entire semesters without spending a dime on their own meals, tales that gained credibility in my eyes after having witnessed a group of people bearing Tupperware arrive at our new president’s inauguration reception.
I, meanwhile, doled out my email address to all sorts of weird and wonderful clubs and societies at the Activities Midway in the pursuit of Skittles packets and mini Hershey’s bars, attended barbecues for any and every cause, and even chanced upon leftovers from a freshman families’ orientation. I thought I was playing the game well, but my actions paled into insignificance compared to those of one of my roommates, who not only seems to get at least two meals a day free of charge, but also frequently brings home entire packets of cookies and chips plus assorted bottles of soda.
On a deeper note, I found myself observing the impish excitement of the freshmen starting out in college more than experiencing it myself. They brought back not-too-distant memories of moving out of the family home for the first time: the sense of complete freedom, limitless possibilities, and the slight homesickness nobody admits to.
This time around, I was expecting the same again, but it never came, at least not exactly the same. In many ways the freedom of being able to do whatever I pleased is stronger here than back when I was a freshman, or “fresher,” as first years are known in the U.K. Here I have a seemingly endless selection of classes, as opposed to Cambridge, where degree courses are much less broad in scope, and students have more time for numerous activities and pastimes.
However, this excitement was also tinged with the knowledge that work is more serious now that I’m closer to graduating than starting out — tough classes and none of this “pass/no record” for me — and that while in my head I’m still a wide-eyed kid straight out of school, in reality I’m not.
Time at college passes inescapably quickly, so if this piece is to have any sort of message, it’s simply the age-old adage of making the most of it while it lasts.