October 6, 2020—My physics professor spilled his coffee today. A few comments popped up in the chat—Apparently today’s topic is fluid dynamics, kids—and the professor was smiling. I was smiling, too, but nobody knew; in a Zoom class of 30 students, there’s no nodding to a friend across the room. It was a nice moment, but it hurt, because after five grueling weeks of class there would have been camaraderie in person. There is some community now, in jokes on the Zoom chat, but you have to focus to see it. We’re navigating this online adventure together, but sometimes it feels like going it alone.
I’m living off campus in Cambridge, in a third-story apartment with rust stains in the bathtub, furnished with sofas we found on the street. My roommates are also MIT first-years.
Many MIT students are studying from home, but I’d just spent a gap year in different parts of the world, and I didn’t think I’d grow if I stayed in my parents’ house. I couldn’t be on campus, but I could at least be in Cambridge. It turns out many first-years felt the same way.
My roommates and I found each other back in August. Campus Preview Weekend took place virtually this year, and when it was announced in July that only seniors would be invited to campus in the fall, first-years who’d met online in April started to post about finding housing. Someone made a group text about it on GroupMe, and the GroupMe groups multiplied to connect people seeking giant expensive Airbnbs in the outskirts of 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 round of apartment searching and roommate seeking. It seemed impossible to find an apartment that was affordable, close to campus, open to a four-month lease, willing to rent to 19-year-olds, and—importantly—real. Making that happen was harder than any test I’ve taken, more stressful than backpacking through Europe alone. But we did it, and I’ve come from Tucson, Arizona, to carve out a place with first-years from San Diego, New York, and Miami. We’re trying to make it feel like MIT.
At any given moment, somebody is studying. Some of our classes overlap, and we help each other with p-sets, commiserate and complain, and celebrate when someone does well. We’ve patched together a little lifeboat in this vast sea of students, spread over the world.
And just as we hunted for furniture on the street, we’re scavenging for pieces of the college experience: all of us convening in the kitchen at midnight, eating bread with olive oil because we’re stressed. We’re tuning in to politics, cooking for each other, asking about the meaning of life at 2 a.m. and again at noon. One of my roommates had never tried that MIT staple, boba tea. Now, thanks to the rest of us, she’s hooked on it.
Maybe it’s MIT culture or maybe it’s Zoom, but the worries of high school are gone—no one cares if you dress fashionably, or even change out of pajamas. There is less of a clamor to dominate the discussion, and the Zoom chat is always full of questions. People try to look smart, sometimes, but we’re outgrowing it; no one tries to make anyone feel stupid. I can mess up derivatives and still be treated as intelligent.
So college is inviting, but it’s also lonely. In breakout rooms and study sessions, I’ve heard a dozen people say, “It’s just so hard to make friends.” By the time classes are out and meetings are over, our eyes are sore from looking at a computer screen, and we miss the company of warm breathing bodies. I’m longing for the opportunity to pass acquaintances in the hall.
I think I’m feeling college feelings. The vibe that the entire class understands everything and you alone are lost is stronger, because you can’t read confusion in fuzzy Zoom thumbnails. So too is the sense that everyone but you is connected to communities you somehow haven’t found.
But I’m also feeling the uniquely MIT vibe of everyone driving toward a dozen goals at once. I’m working on a fantasy novel, training for a marathon, researching with an environmental group, and blogging for Admissions, and all my classmates are just as busy. I’ve picked up MIT lingo, and I can say I’m not completely hosed. I love the rush of puzzling out a problem, and the spark of understanding as my GIR classes revisit topics from high school that I’d memorized by rote but hadn’t really understood. I’m learning from professors with passion for their topic. I’m finally taking classes that I care about.
Nearly every day, I run by MIT. Somehow, a campus I once thought hideous has become beautiful to me. In my longing for the college experience, in all its stressful late-night glory, what once looked like ugly dorm buildings and sterile labs seem lovely. The pavement is solid underfoot, the steps at 77 Mass Ave mere feet away, yet I can’t go 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 first-years.
Until then, we’re wandering through limbo, and it’s dark. We glimpse faces every now and then, hold our work up to the laptop camera while we collaborate on p-sets. We’re thousands of miles apart as we explain to each other the physics of traveling light waves.
So I’m riding out this storm in the lifeboat of my living group. Tonight, I have a pint of ice cream to consume and half a physics p-set to complete. And when I wake up tomorrow, I will cross off one more day.