The final countdown

There’s a little more than a month left of school, which means nostalgia is beginning to set in. As I look back at my college years, I’m somewhat overwhelmed by how much I’ve learned and grown since I first stepped onto campus my freshman year.

I think I’ll wait until I’ve actually graduated before doing my whole “look back on college life” post, so in the meantime, I’m just going to reflect on a few things that have happened this past semester.

To drop or not to drop

I dropped a class around four or five weeks into the semester, which is the latest I have ever dropped a class. My team was having some team dynamic issues, which really stressed me out. Every time we had an assignment due, all I would ever talk about with my friends was how frustrated I was with how my team was working.

At some point, I decided we needed to have a team meeting to discuss how things were going. I voiced my concerns and asked for ways in which we could alleviate the situation. I actually left that meeting feeling quite optimistic about the rest of the semester. Long story short, things didn’t get much better, so I decided it wasn’t worth the continual stress to remain in that class.

Dropping that class was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make because I didn’t want to abandon my team, and I didn’t want to feel like I was just giving up when the going got tough. However, I realized that sometimes I have to choose my battles. I don’t have to fight the hardest battles every time just because they are the hardest. If what I’m fighting for is not worth the struggle, then it is okay not to go up for that fight.

Turns out that decision was probably one of the best decisions I have made this semester. I quickly went from being miserable all the time to feeling the happiest and least stressed I have felt during my four years in college. (Also, it just so happens that the class structure changed, and the teams were disbanded soon after I dropped the class. Fortunately, my team did not suffer the consequences of being short one member.)

Showing up

Back when I was a freshman, a professor once told my class that opportunities are everywhere, and all you have to do is show up to learn about them. Someone in my lab emailed out about a Science of Learning Journal Club meeting, and I decided to go. Even though I had to shift around some other commitments and skip lunch to read the journal paper, I’m really glad I did so because I had a blast at the journal discussion.

I’m proud of myself for going even though I didn’t know a single person who attended that discussion. I was the only student among a bunch of Open Learning staff members, so I definitely felt out of place at first. Fortunately, they were actually super excited to have a student’s voice join their discussion. I’ve never felt so special just to be a student.

During the span of one hour, I met some incredible people who all care deeply about education and participated in some thought-provoking discussions about learning science concepts. I can’t wait to see everyone again next month because even though we represent very different demographics, I still felt like I had found my people.

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What I learned from taking a class in prison

This past semester, I spent more than 30 hours in prison as part of my non-violence as a way of life philosophy class. I was one of 9 MIT students who made the hour-long drive from Cambridge to Norfolk every Thursday to attend class alongside prison inmates. I’m still trying to make sense of my prison experiences, and though I can’t say that I’m necessarily a changed person because of the class, I can certainly say that this class has made me think more about issues I hadn’t thought about before, and it has helped me learn more about myself and my own beliefs.

Each week, we covered a different non-violence-related topic (e.g. anger, forgiveness, honesty, and punishment). During our breakout sessions, we would split up into groups of 3 MIT students and 3 inmates and discuss the week’s topic. As the semester went on, many of the inmates started opening up more about themselves, and something I really appreciated was their honesty. The forgiveness discussion was a particularly riveting one, and I think it was primarily because seeking forgiveness from others requires demonstrating vulnerability and opening oneself up to the judgment of other human beings. I think it was at this point when I started developing a soft spot for my inmate classmates.

For my final class assignment, I wrote a paper on how the criminal justice system should prioritize educational programming for the prisoners because it helps rehabilitate offenders and sets them up for success upon their return to society. My initial thesis also mentioned releasing prisoners early if they could convince a panel of judges that they were ready to contribute positively to society. Looking back, I realize that I wanted so badly to believe that all my classmates were wonderful people and that they all deserved a second chance. After all, I listened to them tell their stories, and many of them seem hungry for the chance to help make the world a better place.

To be honest, I’m struggling a lot with writing this blog post because I’m not entirely sure what I think anymore. Transitioning into “stream of consciousness” mode…

My cousin’s three-year-old daughter has nightmares whenever she watches movies or TV shows with bad guys in them, so her parents simply stopped showing her movies and TV shows with antagonists. It occurred to me that I was doing the same thing to myself by convincing myself that there are no truly bad people out there in the world. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and believe that there is good in everyone. I guess it makes me feel safer, and because I’ve been living in a bubble all my life, that way of thinking has been completely fine for me. But maybe that’s not the smartest way to think.

Many of the prisoners are serving life sentences. I know what some of them are in for, and I still struggle to comprehend how anyone could commit such atrocities to other human beings. Like I said earlier, I have a lot of respect for all my classmates, so it makes it difficult for me to understand why or how they could have committed those acts. I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance for sure, and quite frankly, I don’t think it will ever go away.

I guess if anything, this class has reminded me just how complex the world is and how much I don’t know about it. I’m sorry this post doesn’t have a “punchline” or anything. I just wanted to get something out there before I forgot all my thoughts.

last first day of school

I can already tell this semester is going to be incredible. After several semesters of taking classes simply to fill requirements, I’ve finally made it to the part where I get to fill my schedule with only classes that I actually want to take.

I was talking to a sophomore friend the other day about whether or not she thinks she changed a lot during her freshman year, and I loved her response. She said that she doesn’t think she necessarily “changed” a lot, but she definitely discovered more about who she is as a person. I love that description because it really resonates with me and how I think being in college has transformed me as an individual. For the most part, my interests actually have not changed that much since high school, but the process of trying out different things has made me more conscious of what I really enjoy and care about.

Without further ado, I hereby announce the class lineup for the semester, as well as my personal goals to kick off my last year as an undergraduate student.

  • 6.809 Interactive Music Systems: About 70 students pre-registered for this class, which has only 18 spots. I am so grateful to be one of those 18 students, especially after attending the first class today. The instructor Eran Egozy was not only one of the adjudicators during my clarinet audition last year (and probably this year), but he is also one of the founders of Harmonix, the company that created Rock Band and Guitar Hero (no big deal). My friends who took this class last semester had nothing to say but good things about both Egozy and the curriculum itself. From what I can tell from the first day of class, 6.809 is going to be awesome. I mean, what better way to combine computer science and music than to learn how to enable everyone to experience the joy of making music?
  • 6.828 Operating Systems: We’re taking it a notch down by exploring how operating systems work. My computer systems class last semester (6.033) gave an overview of the Unix file system, virtual machines, and the shell, but we pretty much covered all the OS-related topics from 6.033 in one 6.828 lecture. Needless to say that this will be quite a challenging journey, but fortunately, I have a bunch of friends in this class with me.
  • 6.175 Constructive Computer Architecture: My sophomore fall, I took computation structures (6.004), which introduced the building blocks of digital systems. 6.175 is a follow-up class that focuses on implementing different versions of pipelined machines and culminating in implementing a multicore processor. Pretty gnarly stuff. Other than the fact that only 10% of the class is female, this class seems super interesting, and I really like Professor Arvind’s lecture style. Today he drew an analogy comparing Picasso’s 75 or so recreations of Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” to our own recreations of pipelined processors. This class will also hopefully make me a more useful lab assistant for 6.004 this semester.

Other highlights from today, which I will use to segue into two of my major goals for this semester.

  • Be kind. One of the first things I did when I moved in a few days ago was put up some banner paper so that I could create the Sharpie mural I’ve wanted since last year. At the top, I wrote the words “be kind” in big letters. Those are the words I wake up to every morning and remind myself of throughout the day. To me, it’s a reminder to be kind to others and to be kind to myself. Quick example: Today I bought lunch at Stata, and when I asked the checkout person how he was doing, he said excellent and gave me a smile. After paying, I made sure to wish him an excellent rest of the day, to which he responded, “Thanks. I appreciate it,” and gave me a smile in return. It took no more than two seconds on my part, and I won’t claim to have made a huge difference in the world or anything, but it felt good to have contributed to making another person smile at least once more today.
  • Relax and make time for friends. In stark contrast to freshman year when I was frantically trying to make friends, I actually have an incredible support system now. Everywhere I turn, I see familiar faces. It’s still the beginning of the semester, but since it’s the last time all of us will be living on campus together, I want to prioritize making time to hang out with my friends.

Stay tuned for thoughts on my other two classes, which have yet to start… 🙂

Junior Spring Postmortem

This is my usual end-of-semester postmortem. I’ll try to address some of the goals I outlined at the beginning of the semester and gauge how successful or unsuccessful I was at achieving those goals.

Invest time in people.

Meets expectations.

  • Although many of my friends were occupied with their busy schedules this semester, I still managed to show my support by attending their dance performances and the like.
  • I also shared a lot of meals in the dining hall with friends. Rather than eat all my meals alone, if I felt up for having company, I made it a point to text at least one or two people to join me.
  • I’m also glad to say that through my diverse set of classes, I met some new friends, who were able to share personal experiences of theirs here and there.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Exceeds expectations.

  • I think I did surprisingly well with this goal. In fact, I might have gotten dangerously close to apathy. Whoops.
  • My attitude this semester was generally to do the best I could at each step of the way without stressing too much about the details.
  • For example, I used to care a lot about getting every single question correct on exams, but this semester, my strategy became to study as much as I needed to feel confident going into the exam. I carefully answered each question to the best of my ability, but I wouldn’t dwell too much on those that I wasn’t sure about. This lowered my stress levels significantly, which allowed me to move on to my next task immediately after taking an exam.

Communicate effectively.

Meets expectations.

  • My Voice and Speech for the Actor class is pretty relevant to this goal. One of the most mind-blowing discoveries I made this semester was the realization that delivery is just as important as content. In fact, some would argue delivery is more important than content. You can express two entirely different ideas by adding different vocal choices to the same sequence of words.
  • When I made this goal, I was mainly concerned with my ability to explain concepts to my 6.042 students. In the end, I think I did quite well. The part that made the biggest difference was preparation. When I looked through the problems ahead of time, I found that it was much easier to give coherent explanations on how to solve the problems. This was true even when I held my review sessions.
  • My computer systems engineering class was my first technical communication-intensive class. Although it was a lot of work, I certainly learned a lot about reading technical computer science papers and writing system critique and design papers. I certainly have lots of room for improvement, but I think I made good progress this semester.

Be willing to ditch your plans.

Exceeds expectations.

  • I had my fair share of ditching plans to study in favor of going out with friends on Friday afternoons. I still managed to complete my work somehow, and I’m glad to say that I feel just that much closer to the friends I spent more time with.
  • It’s fair to say that I pretty much “winged” it this entire semester.

Conclusion

Honestly, this past semester was probably my least favorite out of the six I have completed so far. I ended up taking a lot of classes simply to fulfill requirements, and unfortunately, I simply didn’t enjoy some of them. On the bright side, during my remaining time in school, I’ll have the freedom to take classes I’m actually interested in!

My biggest achievement this semester was teaching the inaugural CodeIt App Inventor class. There are things I’d like to change for the future, but I’m quite happy that nothing crashed and burned entirely. I have a running list of improvements to implement for next semester, and I’m looking forward to seeing how much better we can make the program within the next year.

Believe it or not, taking the acting class made me a better musician. Although I am still far from ever becoming a professional clarinetist, I now have a better sense of what it means to make “vocal choices” in the context of music. At least my chamber teacher seems to think I have improved a lot this semester 😛

Lastly, I wanted to say a few words about participating in the engineering leadership program this year. Although the leadership classes were not my favorite, taking the end-of-year cumulative quizzes made me realize just how much content we covered over the course of eight or so months. I’m by no means an expert in everything we learned, but at least I’ve had some exposure to the various concepts. As with many things in life, leadership takes time and practice to develop, but through this program I was able to soldify my foundation just a bit more.

College and Gender through Books

“One of the insights at the core of the college idea—indeed of the idea of community itself—has always been that to serve others is to serve oneself by providing a sense of purpose, thereby countering the loneliness and aimlessness by which all people, young and old, can be afflicted.”

from Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been spending more time reading books just for fun. It’s been a good reminder of how I can learn about other people’s perspectives on the world just by cracking open a book. I know I’m not great at writing book reviews, but I do know that articulating my thoughts helps me make better sense of books. So here goes the rambling…

College

Big Idea #1

The first book I finished reading last week was Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Delbanco talks about how college as an entity first arose in the United States and how it has evolved since then. The message that really stuck with me, though, was the idea that colleges have done a great job of cementing socioeconomic inequality in the United States. A person’s chance at having a high-paying job is higher if he or she attends a brand name college or university. However, at the same time, the children who are most well-equipped for and most likely to be admitted to those institutions are children who already come from families that have a decently high income. These children can afford to attend quality schools and participate in extracurricular activities outside of the classroom. Thus, the people who are more likely to be effective change makers in struggling communities (i.e. people who themselves grew up in these communities) are the people who have significantly more hurdles to overcome to make those changes. According to Delbanco, “it is often students of lesser means for whom college means the most—not just in the measurable sense of improving their economic competitiveness, but in the intellectual and imaginative enlargement it makes possible.” I don’t have any solutions to this problem, but it does remind me to be thankful that I have the opportunity to attend such an incredible institution myself. I think it gives more meaning to all the time I dedicate running outreach programs and making sure they are accessible to as many students as possible.

Big Idea #2

Delbanco also brings up the idea of meritocracy, which was first coined by Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy. Delbanco explains that we have become

a society “dedicated to the one overriding purpose of economic expansion,” in which “people are judged according to the single test of how much they increase production.” In such a society, “the scientist whose invention does the work of ten thousand, or the administrator who organizes clutches of technicians” is counted “among the great,” and intelligence is defined as “the ability to raise production, directly or indirectly.”

Especially at a school like MIT, this statement could not ring truer. But does it have to be that way? I feel myself trying to tear away from this definition of success and coming up with new ideas regarding what it means to live a meaningful life. I haven’t figured out the answer, and maybe I never will, but I definitely think it’s something worth thinking about it personally rather than blindly accepting someone else’s definition.

Gender

This past weekend, I finished reading If I Was Your Girl, a young adult novel written by Meredith Russo, a transgender woman. The book was written from the perspective of a teenage transgender girl, and it opened up my eyes to an entirely different world. It made me realize that it is quite a luxury to feel comfortable living in my own skin. I can only imagine how lonely, confusing, and frustrating it must feel growing up in a body that does not feel like your own and not having anyone around who can explain what you’re feeling. Anyway, the bottom line was that this book made me think about issues I never even knew existed. Although I am by no means an expert on any of this, I know more now than I knew a week ago.

I’m in the middle of another book right now called Symptoms of Being Human, which is told from the perspective of a gender fluid teenager. To be honest, Jeff Garvin’s novel has been a bit harder for me to understand since I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of gender fluidity. It is intriguing, though, to read the thoughts that go through the protagonist’s mind, and hopefully, by the end of the novel, I will have a better understanding of the protagonist’s view on identity.

P.S. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the protagonists in both If I Was Your Girl and Symptoms of Being Human seem to have a special attachment to the Star Wars saga. Maybe it’s about time I actually watch those movies…

Engineering society

Professor Joel Schindall gave a Tau Beta Pi DaVinci Lecture yesterday, and something he said especially resonated with me. He pointed out that the Tau Beta Pi (TBP) mission was to honor those who demonstrated “distinguished scholarship and exemplary character as students in engineering.” Notice how character was stressed in addition to technical prowess.

Back in 1885 when TBP was founded, engineers played a huge role in developing society. Some of the major inventions that influenced people’s lives include the lightbulb (1879), the dishwasher (1889), the radio (1893), the gas turbine (1899), and so on. Introducing these inventions to the public and convincing people to adopt new technologies required exemplary character from the engineers. It was also a good reminder of the magnitude of impact on society that engineers can make through their work.

New semiotic domains

James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy discusses the concept of semiotic domains. Given a domain like basketball or games, there are different modalities (i.e. images, sounds, gestures, and symbols) that convey a specific meaning in the language of that domain.

This semester, I’ve been gaining exposure to two new semiotic domains: acting and biology. For me, a big part of those classes is learning the vocabulary associated with those domains and learning to think the way that experts in those fields think.

The Acting domain

In my Voice and Speech for the Actor class, we are performing monologues from the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith. We’ve only spent one class so far looking at the passages, but I’ve already learned some new terminology from the acting semiotic domain.

My instructor urged us not to use the word lines, but rather the word thoughts when describing the components that make up the monologue. She also encouraged us to breathe after each thought, especially since breathing serves as an avenue for thinking. Breathing often signals that we are preparing our next thought.

If you think of the word inspire, you might think of inspiration, creativity, inventiveness, etc. However, the word inspire actually comes from the Latin word inspirare meaning “to breathe.” It’s still technically one of the definitions of the word, though it is used less frequently nowadays.

The Biology domain

I’m taking the freshman biology class right now, and much of the material is review. Although I don’t necessarily remember all the details from taking high school biology, I’m familiar with most—if not all—of the terminology that we’ve covered so far this semester. Now that I’m seeing the material for the second time, I can focus more on deeper level understanding since I already have some grasp on terms in the biology semiotic domain. I’m a step above being a novice in the domain, which makes communicating new ideas and formulating questions much easier.

Moral of the story

Getting acquainted with new semiotic domains is challenging and often uncomfortable, but in the end, you open up new channels of communication with new people and have new ways of connecting with them.