It was somewhere along the Pacific Coast Highway, shaded from the setting sun by a row of tall palm trees on both sides, a refreshing headwind wrapping itself around my motorcycle helmet, when it suddenly occurred to me that I’d found what I was looking for. I’d spent the past several months away from school, searching, scouring the vast world outside and within for some elusive purpose, a gem of insight that would justify the profusion of pain and doubt that veiled my time in college up to that point.
And now, surrounded by seemingly perfect tranquility, a paradise of sorts, I finally reflected upon the utter absurdity and futility of my endeavor. I was in a land far, far away from home, a land filled with beautiful sights, sunsets, mountains and forests, but, regardless of all this outward beauty, I suddenly felt the most intense longing for my home back in Cambridge, my little corner of the universe called MIT. Why did I ever leave my home?
Ironically, I Had Truly Found Paradise by being away from it, and the realization was truly disarming. My search had come to an abrupt end, and from that moment on I knew all I wanted to do was to come back.
When I returned, not much seemed to have changed at first. Other than the strange requirement to wear helmets while sailing and my newly acquired ability to see Maseeh from Mass. Ave. over the smoldering ruins of Bexley Hall, MIT went on buzzing with its usual hypnotizing activity.
Classes began, schedules filled up, sleep mysteriously evanesced into oblivion, and clues to research problems began popping up in my morning cereal. But beneath the layer of familiar patterns and routines, I experienced a fundamental shift in how I related to MIT and what sort of role it began to play in my life.
For the first time since early freshman year, I actively wanted to be here, to engage with all facets of life at MIT, to feel and experience and learn and immerse myself in the rivers of wonder that permeate its halls. There appeared a joyous quality to my everyday experience, a thrill that originated from my exposure to the amazing environment of MIT, a burning happiness that grew and pulsed the more I began to engage with it.
I was so excited by my sudden discovery of this spark that, upon return, I joined the Returning Students Group to connect to more people who’ve gone through similar experiences, and asked them to share some of their reasons for coming back and the consequent changes they have perceived in their day-to-day lives. I was expecting a homogeneity to their responses.
In fact, the different answers I received were so unexpected that I felt it necessary to write this piece. I was surprised to find that the only thing the returning students all had in common was the fact that we all decided to come back. Beyond that, everyone had a different reason for being here, for putting up with the frequent rides aboard the struggle bus. Some had no reasons and did it out of habit. Some loved it here, some tolerated it, some had a personal vendetta against it. Some fought, some took the punches. Some swam, and some sank.
I now realize that the lack of a common denominator among all the students here is what makes MIT what it is. Our unique culture is a byproduct, a side effect that naturally arises when amazingly diverse people come together to engage in pure discovery, to probe and explore and fail and attempt again, to triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
The outside grandiose façade of MIT comes as a result of the vibrancy, the drive, the sheer momentum and invigorating force of the inside of this place, all supported and perpetuated by the beautiful and brilliant people here — by you and me.
The world outside of these walls is dull and slow. Here, however, there prevails a selfless pursuit of awe-inspiring, intricate things that changes and opens you up to new dimensions of possibility and wonder, that makes you aware and appreciative of things you never even knew were possible. This was what I found on that breezy day on the motorcycle.
Ever since I came back, life here has become one of choice, not one of unchangeable circumstance — I am here because I want to be here, because every morning I wake up and choose to power through the challenges I face and emerge victorious. It occurred to me that MIT is not a separate something that “happens” to you, because you’re not separate from it. Remember that you are a part of MIT: you shape and affect it, you are “happening” to it.
You are MIT.
Every day I encounter people who are struggling here. It is a hard place, but most of the time the troubles that people have aren’t academic — they stem from a somewhat sub-optimal view of MIT and people’s relation to it. The point of coming to MIT shouldn’t be just to get a diploma, or to ace a class. If it is, then you are choosing to tolerate challenges, to endure them instead of seeking them out. You’re unwittingly signing up for a very prolonged, painful existence.
The point should be to spill your curiosity and wonder out onto the world and to develop, direct, and use it. MIT is a means, not an end. A means of achieving things nobody in the world thinks are possible, and that’s what makes us different. Each person here is on their own personal journey — one of knowledge, skill, leadership, personal growth, and peace. The success of that journey is the ultimate point, and everything that happens in the process should be seized, cherished, venerated.
People here care intensely. They are passionate and genuine, and I learned that such an environment is not a given. This place is magic, and to continue being magic it needs magical people interested in magical things. People like you and me. You are at the top of the world, and you are able to do great, amazing things. Take pride in that. Marvel at the improbability and nuance hidden in that. Keep doing magic, my friend. You are a part of my experience here, a part of my home, and I am extremely grateful to you for that.
Harry Bleyan is one happy camper. Mens: 2016. Manus: 2017.