October 6, 2020 – My physics teacher spilled his coffee today. Some comments appeared in the chat:Apparently today’s topic is fluid dynamics, kids– and the professor was smiling. I was smiling too, but no one knew; in a Zoom class of 30 students, there is no nod to a friend across the room. It was a good time, but it hurt, because after five grueling weeks of class there would have been camaraderie in person. There is a community now, in the Zoom chat jokes, but you have to focus to see it. We navigate this online adventure together, but sometimes it feels like we’re going alone.
I live off campus in Cambridge, in an apartment on the third floor with rust stains in the tub, furnished with sofas we found on the street. My roommates are also the early years of MIT.
Many MIT students study at home, but I had just had a sabbatical year in different parts of the world, and I didn’t think I would grow up if I stayed in my parents’ house. I couldn’t be on campus, but I could at least be in Cambridge. It turns out that many early years felt the same.
My roommates and I met in August. The Campus Sneak Peek Weekend took place virtually this year, and when it was announced in July that only seniors would be invited to campus in the fall, the early years who had met online in April began to publish articles on finding accommodation. Someone wrote a group text about it on GroupMe, and GroupMe groups have mushroomed to match people looking for giant, expensive Airbnbs in suburban Boston, renting retreat cabins in Utah, and taking rooms on Memorial Drive. I found two roommates and a cheap, spacious apartment, but the apartment turned out to be a scam.
I embarked on a second, more frantic tour of finding apartments and roommates. It seemed impossible to find an affordable apartment close to campus, open to a four-month lease, ready to rent to 19-year-olds and, most importantly, real. Making this happen was harder than any test I’ve taken, more stressful than traveling Europe alone. But we did, and I came from Tucson, Arizona to carve out a niche for myself with early years from San Diego, New York, and Miami. We’re trying to make it look like it’s MIT.
Anytime someone is studying. Some of our classes overlap, and we help each other with p-sets, empathize and complain, and celebrate when someone does well. We have assembled a small lifeboat in this vast sea of students, spread all over the world.
And just as we were looking for furniture on the street, we are looking for pieces of the college experience: we all meet in the kitchen at midnight, eating bread with olive oil because we are stressed. We listen to politics, cook for each other, question the meaning of life at 2 am and again at noon. A roommate of mine had never tried that MIT staple, boba tea. Now, thanks to the rest of us, she’s addicted to it.
Maybe it’s MIT culture or maybe it’s Zoom, but high school worries are gone – no one cares if you dress fashionably, or even change your pajamas. There’s less clamor to dominate the discussion, and the Zoom chat is always full of questions. People sometimes try to appear smart, but we get past it; no one is trying to make someone stupid. I can mess up the derivatives and still be treated like smart.
So the university is welcoming, but it is also lonely. In workshops and study sessions, I heard a dozen people say, “It’s so hard to make friends.” When classes are over and meetings are over, our eyes are sore from staring at a computer screen, and we miss the company of warm, breathable bodies. I look forward to having the opportunity to meet acquaintances in the lobby.
I think I have college feelings. The vibe that the whole class understands everything and only you are lost is stronger, as you can’t see the confusion in the blurry zoom thumbnails. The same goes for the feeling that everyone except you is connected to communities you haven’t found.
But I also feel the unique MIT vibe of everyone heading for a dozen goals at a time. I’m working on a fantasy novel, training for a marathon, researching with an environmental group, and blogging for admissions, and all of my classmates are just as busy. I picked up the MIT jargon and can say that I am not completely drunk. I love the rush to baffle a problem and the spark of understanding as my GIR classes revisit high school topics that I had memorized by heart but didn’t quite understand. I learn from teachers who are passionate about their subject. I’m finally taking classes that are close to my heart.
Almost every day, I run MIT. Somehow, a campus that I once thought was hideous has become beautiful for me. In my longing for the college experience, in all its stressful late-night glory, what once looked like ugly dorms and sterile labs strikes me as charming. The sidewalk is solid underfoot, the steps at 77 Mass Ave a few yards away, but I can’t get inside so the whole place feels like a dream. Like a story I’ve been telling myself for a long, long time.
Very soon now, we’ll be there. As I write this in October, spring on campus is a possibility for juniors, sophomores, and freshmen.
Until then, we are wandering in limbo, and it is dark. We spot faces every now and then, hold our work in front of the laptop’s camera while we collaborate on p-sets. We are thousands of miles apart as we learn about the physics of moving light waves.
So, I ride this storm in the lifeboat of my living group. Tonight I have a pint of ice cream to consume and a half physics set to complete. And when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll cross another day.