My back was facing the small interview room, door slightly ajar so I could hear every word. I was 10 minutes early to my UROP internship interview and I was really, really nervous. This was an interview for a UROP posting, I already thought I wouldn’t get because the attached abstract made zero sense, like not even a clue, and this was confirming every suspicion that I shouldn’t be here right now. The girl currently being interviewed, was an upperclassmen who was talking about her credentials. She mentioned having taken 9.66, a near graduate level course in Computational Cognitive Science, which I was also “taking” but just for exploration so I knew I was f*cked. 3 minutes until the appointed time, and I’ve already run over how I’m going to apologize for wasting their time, how I’m very unqualified for this, how I’ll just leave now to make the interview process easier since I’ve no skills to offer anyway.
The girl leaves and a bald, slightly ogrely looking man comes to the door,
“Hi. You can come in now”
My palms are so slippery, I get my stuff and walk in, and see not one, not two, but three interviewers.
“Have a seat.”
I stood there not knowing who to face, sat down, making myself small, and eeked out a slight laugh, “Hi”
“Soo… do you want to tell us about yourself?”
I stutter and say I’m a freshman interested in computational neurosci, and that I took 9.66 last semester…
As I sask me a few more questions. I actually get out my laptop and show them my 9.66 final project like an excited 1st grader at show and tell. They mention that if I didn’t understand the abstract it’s completely fine, they’d walk me through it. They ask me how much time I have this semester and I say, well enough. A little later it’s over and I walk out grinning.
“HOLY SHIT. HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT”
I’m screaming and jumping up and down because on my phone my email read that I’d gotten the post and they were ready if I was to work with me. My bf laughed and was like of course.
This isn’t unlike what happened when I applied to MIT. Around this time in August two years ago, my dad and I were in heated late night, wake-your-brother-up “discussions” about what schools I should’ve already been applying to. My dad suggested MIT and I rejected right off the bat. He said “Why not?” I logged onto MIT’s Naviance page, expecting to see Cal Tech’s unattainable average accepted GPA and actually saw something that was under mine. What??? Okay well, it’s super competitive, only the tennis player last last year got in; look at these low acceptances, some years 0/12 are accepted . But wait, Phoebe got in last year. Phoebe was in my Calculus class when I was a sophomore, She… is actually… kind of like me. I.e. She didn’t have an outstanding achievement that I knew of that wrote Her off as someone who was just unapproachably fantastic.
Over the next few wee hours of the night, it suddenly dawns on me that it might be possible to be admitted and worthwhile to apply. I end up writing 28 drafts on answering “Tell us something you do for the pleasure of it” in the form of a ““…their mouths are going “omnomnom” as they chase after my finger or they’re frantically swimming towards the slowly sinking food, their constant play-like behavior is adorable.” goldfish love song.
But in October I had doubts about this place, the <10% 650/6500 statistic was too much. So I asked Her, if there was something about MIT that surprised Her.
She told me that people at MIT were super humble and chill. My heart beat faster. She told me you can get off the meal plan. I virtually screamed and said “FOOD ;W; woaaaaaaaaaa“. And She went “foooooooood“. She was so surprisingly friendly for someone that intimidated me in the past. Even though we were in the same Calculus class, She was a year older and I’d never really talked to Her before. She was part of that friend group with CTY, mandarin chinese school kids that I never was part of, and evidently great at flute. She said “like it’s not your stereotypical weak nerdy people at all” and I went “huh” and I cited a Tennis star that went earlier who was also a compsci whiz… She told me that you can’t choose your major until end of freshman year and I was super relieved afterwards. She shared that 3/8 people in her suite liked Origami and that it’s pretty big there. I commented on the weird shape of H entry and asked if this was representative of MIT, She responded “gay construction workers totally encompass the spirit of MIT”.
She detailed the entire dorm selection process, and I asked Her why She thought She got into MIT. She told me She was rejected by all other Ivies. She shared that She almost didn’t apply either. But She answered “probably flute and my teacher recs, dr. best probably wrote about the awkquardion” She said that “like you don’t know about crazy things that your neighbors did until wayy after you first meet them” I ramble to Her in a way I’m pretty ashamed of now, but shows that I was really nervous.
I was truly very worried, and She kept saying “don’t worry about it”. When I talked about how everyone’s really nervous because Harvard’s EA is tomorrow and Common App was down, She laughed and said, “Tell em to chillax”. She said that girls’ acceptance rate, is twice as much as guys’ and winked. I pointed out that only half as many girls applied.
For me, that conversation was the last nail I needed for my ship to set sail, and the last push for me to finish the rest of my short answers. At the time I had only tentatively done two of the five I needed to submit, and they were also the easiest ones. I ended up submitting at 11:59pm, literally seconds before the deadline because 5 minutes before I didn’t realize I had to also write a heritage short answer.
News came out on 12.14.14, not the real pi day but it was pi time, but it was great nonetheless. It was also great because I got in and it was also snowing. A week before I was pleading on my bed, the closest I’ve ever prayed within recent memory, to MIT that I promise I’ll act on ideas if I got in. That I’d pour every ounce of my living waking passion, dedicate it to you. My bedside lamp probably aroused from non-consciousness to say go the f*ck back to sleep.
Phoebe threw me an anchor, she gave me a picture of relatability and approachability. I was naive, really. She demystified, humanized a place that had intimidated me since middle school when I said once to one of my closest friends that I wanted to go to MIT, but gave up that dream at some point in competitive high school. It was no longer a place where my AP Compsci 4 disqualified me for application. Instead it became somewhere that would accept me for starting even a humble community service origami club
The last time I talked to her on Facebook was a year ago.
At her memorial service, I stood with Crystal in the front of the room that wasn’t big enough to contain all our pain, grief, and anguish. She was one of her long time friends from way before I knew her, at CTY. She was also one of my first and closest friends from the same high school. I was blinking hard, much more than I am now trying to look at my computer screen through old tears, and talked to the audience that I couldn’t see about wishing for a friendship that seemed as close as Crystal and hers. How she brought our Conestoga High School Compsci group at Blueprint to go hacking last minute. I told the audience with tears dripping all over the shaking microphone, shaking under Crystal’s weight, that she had always tried to help me re-define MIT.
“I want to tell you Phoebe, that I really love MIT.”
We went back to our seats and I continued sobbing into the person’s chair in front of me.
I think about her a couple times a month. It’s been just about 10 months now since her suicide on the 21st of September. Since her death, when the cause was announced later in March, asphyxiation, I broke down again. I always, will always feel indebted to her helping me overcome my fears of applying.
Throughout the next year, getting my two UROP opportunities unexpectedly, getting into the MISTI Germany program months late and still being able to be here in Berlin, I realize that I’ve always had my successes come when I truly least expected them. When I expected them not to be so. When I took 9.66 in the fall, I almost didn’t sign up–the Professor whom I spoke to when I asked for advice said he wouldn’t recommend it. I almost dropped halfway through when I realized I was way in over my head with these psets, with zero probability experience, 100% sure. But I ended up passing with a final project to show for it, and it helped me get my UROP when they saw that that took courage and risk to take, and the project on my favorite game of all time, SET, wasn’t half bad either. My determinism set me apart, my courage allowed me to show it. But I clearly started without them, and it took a long time for me to develop these skills.
Phoebe was the only role model I had and I’m not sure if I would’ve approached her if she was a guy: I’m still intimidated easily. When other Asian parents commented, “Oh but you’re a girl”, as if that made my acceptance more expected than accomplished, I was disappointed that they didn’t acknowledge the severe doubt that comes with approaching a world-class institution like MIT. As if the perception of competition should’ve been smaller because less girls apply and more girls are accepted statistically than guys. When in reality at all stages of life, confidence keeps women from acting all the time even if they are evaluated as very highly qualified by others. It takes a lifetime and continued acknowledgement to say “It’s possible, I can try.” or “I’m good enough to do a good job.”—maybe even lead.
I’m lucky that my dad even encouraged me to apply at all, but during the process he said countless times that I had no chance, told me to drop the application, that I was wasting my time. I forged through the short answers because I wanted to write, I loved writing them as much as I detested fixing grammatical clarity. We didn’t even visit MIT because my parents thought I’d so little chance, going up would be a waste of time anyway. Ouch.
The sometimes self-fulfilling expectations of ourselves are really the largest barrier to overcome. Or of others, like my parents on my brother and I, asking him to “take up responsibilities as the young man of the house to mow the lawn” and me being 4 years older, nothing. Where’s my chastising? Where’s the higher expectation?
In our HS Underwater Robotics team, I was a co-pres, but not because of any extra technical knowledge. I’d stuck through the club for 4 years, but really wanted to make it more of a team effort instead of 4 nerdy guys who did everything on a cram-session weekend. I noticed, and tried my best to mediate the fact that females in the club wouldn’t be asked for help from the guys who would usually know what to do as often as their guy-friends who knew just as little as the girls. I’d help delegate the sidelined roles because I was aware of this, and the few females themselves weren’t confident in their abilities. In fact not until they screwed together their first metal brace, or their idea for the design accepted did they realize, “hey I can do this!” Same with Origami learning, it takes practice to build confidence. And without it, it’s hard to build courage. I was one of three girls in my Engineering Tech class, the other two both seniors when I was in freshman year. I was so scared, socially awkward with all these guys whom I didn’t know how to be cool around. I mostly worked by myself and was shy about coming out of my comfort zone in front of all these people I was socially unaccustomed to dealing with.
I learned in my research lab here that most women postdocs will drop out later in life and how this is the same for people in tech. That there really are already lots of women going into tech whether for social good or pure interest, but the environment can test someone in so many ways. Even a seemingly innocent and insular research environment can become toxic when it discourages speaking out against your P.I. who has the final say on your paper but is missing points.
I’ve been rethinking my majors, moving from neuroscience to economics, thinking of a double major of 6-3 compsci and 14 economics, maybe even law school afterwards. But I try my best to move now with a stride and momentum, questioning less the possibilities without and more the possibility of success. I might feel more blindsided than before, but I also feel upwardly engaged in the pursuit of finding the ultimate goal of passionate commitment. Towards my own definition of success.
I’ve had to have success first, before I realized that this success is not for me. I’ve had to cut my losses and say, I’m not that interested in Neuroscience, or in the environment of research which feels too isolated for a news-addicted, wannabe social-change loudmouth like me. I’ve had to attain my dream relationship before realizing that it can be so much more than this.
Overcoming challenges is daily, but the appropriate growth in courage and confidence isn’t. We project our success what we want based on experiences we’ve already had, naturally not on what we haven’t experienced.
I’m in a position to be looked up to now, simply because I’m at MIT. I know that I would and I still do to my classmates for the incredible things they do day to day. But I can show those people my vulnerabilities so that when they look at me they don’t see someone flawless, someone who has it all. They see someone who struggled just as much with their doubts, and someone who’s still learning to manage them. As sudden role models, we have the opportunity to become mentors by showing this and be honest to others, not cover our own insecurities by telling other people it was effortless. To not worry, because there’s nothing to worry about.
When someone is alive, others only know them really through an idea. The Theory of Mind, that creates a persona of another. It’s only an idea that we know another person, it’s only an idea that we know ourselves. When someone dies, their physical being is no longer active. But their idea can live on, their essence can live on through their legacy. Parts of who they were lives through us during and after their lives.
So I will do my best, to extend this essence for as long as I live, and your love of MIT. It’s been almost 10 months now. And I want you to know that I still wish you were here.
In memory of Phoebe Wang, Class of 2017.