[personal profile] jim_p
Or, why I *still* HTFP.

I graduated from MIT 30 years ago. Naturally, I'm getting all kinds of cards and letters inviting me to come back for the reunion and give generously to the Institute.

My time at MIT was bittersweet, with the emphasis on the bitter. I haven't really been back much, either in body or in spirit. I never felt a part of the place when I was there, and I don't really feel much a part of it now. My wife, who flunked out of Wellesley feels more attachment to her alma mater than I do to mine. I never got a Brass Rat. Gold had hit an all-time high in 1984, and the Rat is ugly enough as it is; it's doubleplus ugly in base metal. I've never felt a need to go back and get one.

There were two major things while I was there that really soured my experience. The first was social isolation. I was a weird kid. Really weird. Now that I look back on it, I realize I was really REALLY weird. Having Aspergers was bad enough... there's a lot of that at MIT. For me, compounding that was a seriously warped sense of how people get along and interact with each other. Bullying left me scarred and paranoid; who knows when my new "friend" will turn on me and stab me in the back? Growing up deeply steeped in "guess culture" had me searching out hidden agendas where there were none. I felt I couldn't trust anyone to be straight with me, and I in turn wasn't straight with others. Having parents who prided themselves in how they held themselves apart from "mainstream pop culture" left me with very little in common with the rest of the world (I believe their social sensibilities were trapped in amber back around 1949...).

When I was accepted to MIT, I thought I'd come "home". I thought the place would be filled with weird, folks, nerdy folks, dorky folks, folks Just Like Me. I was disappointed to find that, relative to me, MIT folks were positively *mainstream*, and somewhat hostile to "nerds". THAT is how off-the-charts Weird I was, and how badly I was mismatched to the folks around me.

So there was social alienation... and then there was institutional alienation. It is said that getting an education at MIT is like trying to take a drink from a firehose. This is held out as a Good Thing: there is so much learning available in such volume and speed that it's impossible to take it all in.

Recently I came to another realization. A "firehose" takes on another name when it's trained on people. It's called a "water cannon" and its purpose is to repel undesirables. To rid an area of unwanted trespassers. To send the clear message to Stay Away.

I was typical at MIT in one way: I had developed no study habits in public school because it all came so easily to me. I could get Bs in my sleep and As with a little effort. I struggled mightily with my classes. Since I had grown up believing that my worth as a human being was directly tied to my grades and success in class, I felt like my whole sense of self-worth was shot out from under me. I didn't seek help for two reasons: first, I felt like I was such a pathetic unworthy putz that I wasn't even worthy to darken the doors of the professors or TAs. Second, and I didn't figure this out until much later, in many cases I was SO confused I didn't even know which QUESTIONS to ask, never mind anything else. (I had the same feelings when I worked for a well-known edge networking company that's heavy with MIT folks...)

I remember at one of the gatherings during freshmen orientation, one of the speakers said "Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won't graduate".

The takeaway that I got from all this was "You're not wanted here". The firehose was bowling me over. I felt like the Institute was TRYING to weed out the weak ones so as to make room for the "deserving". Which, of course, made me borderline-undeserving. I never sought out "interesting" research or project opportunities; I figured the researcher in charge would check out my grades and then go "Why should I bother with the likes of YOU?" I was KEENLY aware of anything that reinforced this attitude. I was talking to a friend about maybe taking a "fun" astronomy class. He said "Yeah, if you've gotten all As and Bs so far I'm sure your advisor would sign off on that". Having just gotten a "D" in 6.002, I instead crawled back under my rock.

I felt that I in my misery was invisible to the Institute. There was plenty enough grumbling in "The Tech" (the student newspaper at the time) but "Tech Talk", the Institute paper, was all happy news all the time. This researcher got a fellowship. That professor got a Nobel. Look how wonderful we are to the community. Nary a peep about those who might be struggling.

The ultimate insult? No handshake at graduation. Here it was, after struggling mightily against my inner demons and the Institute's indifference, I manage to graduate by the skin of my teeth. Still, GPA doesn't matter when claiming one's diploma. I could walk that stage as proudly as any of my classmates. In our graduation instructions we were specifically instructed NOT to try and shake the President's hand. I suppose this may have been some time-and-motion expert's way of making sure things moved along, but now that I look back on it it may a well have been a slap in the face. "Here, here's your lousy piece of paper, now don't let the door hit your ass on the way out". The ONE time that the Institute could have put a human touch to their otherwise indifferent attitude, and they blew it.

My wife went on to get a bachelor's degree from Clark and a master's from Lesley. Both times she got a handshake. I saw video of a recent MIT commencement. Looks like they're getting handshakes now, too.

Where's my handshake? Do I get one merely for the fact that I've survived the place, or do I have to "buy" one through a "generous donation"?

They never cared about me then. Why should I care about them now?

Date: 2014-03-03 11:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] madbodger.livejournal.com
Ouch. I feel you, man. And I'll shake your hand, not just as a friend, but to congratulate you on your accomplishment.

Date: 2014-03-04 09:01 am (UTC)

Date: 2014-03-04 01:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] donnad.livejournal.com
I understand, I felt the same way about my time at both UMass and Harvard. Nobody I befriended at either school is still in my life, they were okay to hang with for short periods of time while still in school, but it was all surface, nobody created any lasting friendships. I don't know if any of them still keep in touch with each other, but nobody kept in touch with me.

I graduated with honors from both schools, but still felt like nobody really cared.

At UMass, I was sort of pushed through the program with no additional advice about, you should be doing *this* now if you want to work in this field when you graduate. I graduated from UMass with high honors and went out to try and find work. I was told I should be working as an unpaid intern to gain experience, then they would consider hiring me. Nobody told me this was something I could have and should have been doing while still in school.
I went to my commencement at UMass, then washed my hands of the place.
After being unable to find a job I went back to school, more education is good right?

At Harvard, an internship was a requirement of the degree. Good, I'll get some experience. I wasn't given any advice on how to find an internship or what I should be looking for. I had to do it all on my own, finding the place to do it and arranging it and having them deal with the paperwork to prove I did it. No advisor help at all. It wasn't easy and I ended with something I really didn't want to do, but all the best places had already enough interns and didn't need more. I did it, I enjoyed it, but it didn't help me with the necessary experience I needed.

I was very disappointed with Harvard, I was led to believe it would be much more challenging than it actually was. I was expecting the instructors to push harder and be more engaged with the students. I slid through doing a minimum of work and still graduated with honors.

I also learned that having a Master's from Harvard on my resume was probably worse than than having just the two Bachelor's degrees from UMass. I was now over-educated for entry level positions in my field, but had no experience for the next level up. So nobody would hire me. I actually asked one interviewer after they told me that just how was I supposed to get experience then, and she said maybe I should spend a year in an internship. I asked her if they paid their interns, "Oh no" she said, "they are unpaid internships." How does one pay their bills doing 40 hours a week of unpaid work. I was told I should have thought of that when I was still a student and living on Student loans and grants.

I did not even attend my Harvard commencement, they weren't giving out the diplonas anyway, they mailed them.

Neither of my alma maters will get another dime from me.

Date: 2014-03-04 04:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jim-p.livejournal.com
Sorry you had to go through all this (*hug*).

Do you ever get the feeling that there was some secret class or briefing that you were out sick for? How do other people "just know" these things that are crucial to one's success?

It's like I said earlier about my being so confused I didn't know which questions to ask. The flipside of this is the institution perhaps not being aware of what people might be ignorant of...

Date: 2014-03-04 05:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] donnad.livejournal.com
Not likely as traumatic as what you experienced. I am a shy person, but I do not have Aspergers. And I had a social circle outside of my university experiences.

Yes, definitely a what did I miss, did I not get the memo? Why did my instructors and advisor not tell me these things. Did they think I was wasting my time studying my chosen field therefore were not going to help me? If so why was I not told this when I chose that field or at least within a year of starting my studies so I could choose something else. I always wanted to know why other students seemed to get all the help they needed and wanted, when my getting help from my instructors or advisors was like squeezing water from a rock. Did they think I didn't need or want the help? Did I come across as too competant or confident or more capable than I actually was? Was this because I was an "A" student that they didn't think I wanted or needed the extra advice?

I always felt that I was not expected to succeed and that they didn't want to waste their time on me.

Which is kind of exactly how I was treated in high school. I was not expected to graduate, Never mind go to college, never mind go to Harvard for an advanced degree. I was first person in my family, going back generations, to even graduate HS. So in HS, I was put into the business track, not the college or honors track which would likely have been better and more challenging for me in the end. I was allowed to take throwaway classes like gardening instead of stuff like chemistry or physics. Nobody ever pushed me since I wasn't expected to succeed, why would they waste their time on me?


Date: 2014-03-04 04:12 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I was under the impression that Paul Gray never shook hands. Some people, such as former senator Bob Dole dont shake because their hands are injured. Some people don't because of germophobia. I always assumed that President Gray had a good reason. Not everything is about me.

Re: handshake

Date: 2014-03-04 04:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jim-p.livejournal.com
Not true. A quick google image search shows numerous occasions of Paul Gray shaking hands. More importantly, I found a photo from the 1986 commencement showing Paul Gray shaking hands with a graduate as the diploma was handed over.

Story of my life, really.... things getting better *after* I have moved on. Started with my elementary school with the broken-down playground equipment that didn't get updated until after I was gone...

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