Kat Huang Memoji of me making a peace sign

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Cycle of belonging

5 min read, April ‘20

The problem

Now that I'm home due to the pandemic, I've been trying to make sense of my first year of college and why it felt so unsatisfactory.

Though I'm still in the process of figuring that out, I know that part of my discontent manifests itself as loneliness or some other form of social want.

It's not immediately obvious why that is. Two of my close friends and I have group chats on multiple platforms, a plethora of inside jokes, and an endless supply of project ideas. A typical amount of acquaintance-friends say hi to me in the MIT's Infinite Corridor and my dorm lobby, and I made a habit of meeting new people over meals at least every other week. I was in more extracurriculars than I could usually remember.

College students all over have been forced to leave campus due to the pandemic and among other things, many of them miss being with their second family at their home away from home. It's tricky to word this, but something like: I don't feel like MIT is my community. I miss individual moments and people, but I can't say that there's a cohesive MIT Experience™ concept that I long to have back.

Honestly, it's a subtle feeling. Putting it in words dramatizes it, making it seem as if I constantly struggle with a Big Rift between me and Everyone Else At MIT—no, it wasn't anything like that. Being away from campus has certainly tinted my perspective as well. On the other hand, I probably didn't notice this feeling as strongly before because life usually moved at a pace (by choice or not) that didn't allow for much feeling and reflecting on something like this.

The cause: part 1

Much of my social life freshman year was shaped by whims—uninformed ones, not the good, “trust your gut” kind.

Although I spent much of Campus Preview Weekend visiting dorms with three others who were also committed to attending MIT, I didn't take dorm research very seriously. It didn't occur to me what the implications of that would be. I chose McCormick, the only all-female dorm, because it was clean, quiet ("I'll go elsewhere to have fun, and then come back to a quiet place to sleep and study"), and had impressive views from the roof penthouses.

Living groups are usually a big part of people's social lives and even identities at MIT, since they all have unique cultures. Overall, I didn't vibe with the people in my dorm. At best, I liked that residents were friendly and there was an incredible, supportive house team. At worst, it was a reminder that I'd only found communities I merely tolerated, and that I was stuck for several more months unless I made a dramatic mid-semester move.

I came into college wanting to join an entrepreneurship club, but decided not to go through any business clubs' recruitment weeks because I was alienated by the process. You want my resume? Cheesecake socials? Why is consulting the pinnacle of everything, and why are people dressing up to network—none of it fit with my idea of entrepreneurship, mostly recently molded by my experiences interacting with Y Combinator startups in Silicon Valley.

This train of thought is exaggerated. In reality, I got dozens of recruitment emails for all sorts of clubs during that week and didn‘t read into any of them too deeply. Upon seeing the business clubs’ recruitment week events, I probably thought, “Oh, this is kinda weird." [A toned down version of the above thoughts go through my subconscious.] "Whatever, I'll just join xyz instead. Not a big deal." Aaaand it later became a big deal to me, because most groups like this are only open once a year and I'd closed off potential tight-knit communities by not even giving them a shot before dismissing them.

With sorority recruitment, the exact same deal. I came into college wanting to rush, but I decided—on a whim—not to attend, and didn't realize the implications of that decision, given that formal recruitment only happens once a year.

I joined several clubs and was a bit disappointed that each of their commitments was only one hour a week, but didn't think much of it. During my first semester, I also had some substantial off-campus commitments: preparing a TEDx talk, creating a website for the We Are America Project, and speaking at events for We Are America. I kept busy, but not through MIT clubs or communities.

The cause: part 2

Everything above only tells half the story. The other crucial piece is my mindset—not what happened to me, but the belief system that shaped my response.

For a while, I defined myself—especially in professional contexts—by what I wasn't. (I still do, but I'm trying to move away from it. It creates a false sense of superiority by invalidating others.) “I'm in tech, but I don't want to be a software engineer at Facebook." “I study urban planning and computer science." Beneath those statements are the sentiments: "I'm not that kind of tech person. I'm not a basic computer science major."

My guess is that I harbor some subconscious beliefs like this about MIT as well: “I may be xyz, but that doesn't mean I'm [stereotype about MIT students]." There's a weird brag-ability about being involved in more off-campus activities than on-campus ones, or being less interested in technical subjects than is the norm. Both of these reject expectations for what an MIT student supposedly ought to be.

This creates a cycle: I define my identity by negating MIT student stereotypes, and that seems to justify why I'm not more involved with campus communities. Because I'm not deeply involved with MIT groups, I see myself as even less of an MIT student, and so on.

The fundamental problem with this thinking is that there are no rules for what an MIT student should be. Borrowing an idea from my friend Shayna, it's up to me, as a member of the MIT community, to extend and adapt what it means to be an MIT student.

The solution

The reasonable way to fix this is to find and get involved in a community at MIT that I love. Which is pretty hard to do at this time.

So what can I do now? I think it's changing my mindset, starting by observing my self-talk. I recently remarked that I vibe more easily with strangers from other schools than I do with strangers from MIT. If I accept this observation at face value, I might conclude that I just fundamentally don't get along with MIT People™ as much. Setting aside the excuses I want to believe, though, I think the more accurate statement is that I connected better with strangers from other schools who had similar interests as me than with strangers at MIT who I didn't necessarily have anything in common with.

At the end of the day, “I belong” should ideally be a given. Everyone who is definitionally part of MIT is really part of MIT. If a conflict arises between our notions of who we “should” be and who we actually are, that's not a sign to shed or deny our (metaphorical) membership badges, but to continue adding to the richness of the collective MIT identity by unabashedly including ourselves in it.

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