My Undergraduate Days

(From Aidan Directors Blog, 16 March 2009)

ANNOUNCEMENT: MIT Club of Malaysia will organize the annual Undergraduate Admissions Talk on the 21st of March (Saturday) at the Royal Selangor Golf Club. I will be on the panel to talk about the MIT admission process. Newly admitted students will address the audience to share their experience in the admission process.

Details at http://alumweb.mit.edu/clubs/malaysia/events.htm .

Congratulations to my student Saw Yihui for her acceptance to MIT Class of 2013. She received the decision yesterday and informed me on the phone earlier this morning. I’m sure she will do well at MIT.

Also, congratulations to my other student, Loke Zhi Kin. Zhi Kin got admitted to Caltech. I wish him all the best.

Let me reminisce a little about my undergraduate days.

I attended high school at MRSM Jasin, where I met Khairul, Alif and Akmal. After that, I did a prep course at UiTM Section 17 Campus, known as the International Education Centre (INTEC), where I met Iznan. After a year at INTEC, I went abroad to do my undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

MIT is the place where math nerds and hacker kids go to school, or so the stereotype goes. The reality is more complicated; MIT is famous for its engineering and science departments (the most popular major is computer science) but MIT also have decent humanities and arts departments. But stereotypes exist for a reason, and MIT is awash with nerds who can solve triple integrals in their head, and dweebs who think that staying up all-night coding in assembly language is more fun than frat parties. MIT students and administrators try too hard to suppress their nerdy side, giving out shiny, colorful pamphlets to potential students showcasing our “diverse”, “lively”, and “vibrant” student body. Yes, MIT have its share of archetypical college types, the Euro-Asian girl with a Ukranian father and a Korean mother, who lived in Senegal and Paraguay, who shaves her head for charity and wears goth fashion, who double-majors in Nuclear Engineering and Anthropology, who spends her summer break trekking Himalaya, who listens to emo rock and plays intramural curling (you get the idea). All those pretensions aside, MIT is a big place for big nerds.

I am one of the math nerds, so I majored in (surprise!) mathematics. At MIT, math majors like to think that people in engineering look up to us. We, symbol-jugglers who think up deep theorems that could never find any use in the real world, did our part by thumbing our collective noses at people who applies knowledge to solve real-life problems. This is just harmless snobbery. The same goes to people in theoretical physics. They pooh-pooh the lower rung of scientists who actually do experiments in a lab. And let’s not talk about them engineers, with their three significant digits and real life approximations. Leave us physicists alone with our spherical cow.

Sometimes math majors are actually useful. This is because every undergraduate has to take freshman calculus and freshman physics, and if you belong to the rare breed who gets admitted to MIT but is no good in math, you can always rely on the math majors to differentiate your inverse trigonometric functions for you.

What struck me when I first arrived there, was how MIT people always put function over form. MIT have shabby buildings compared to the lush, sprawling suburban campuses in Malaysia. The campus is located on the ugly, industrial side of Boston, and there is no place on campus worth taking pictures at. That does not stop tourists from clicking away with MIT buildings as background, to let other people know they have been to MIT.

The hacker culture at MIT is legendary. The is a student group on campus called the Student Information Processing Board (SIPB, pronounced “sip-bee”). According to their official website, SIPB is “MIT’s volunteer student group dedicated to computing”, but really, these are some of the best hackers in the world. The is a (perhaps apocryphal) story about SIPB people hacking government computers at a top secret facility. Truly believable story, if you ask me. I still remember a SIPB guy who is blind, and used a special Braille computer. I can’t even write a single line of code in any programming language, but this guy can *hack* using Braille. “Dedicated to computing”, indeed.

At MIT, there is this really long corridor connecting the east and west sides of campus, and being nerds that we are, the corridor is named the Infinite Corridor. When I first arrived on campus, I stayed temporarily at the west side, and I learned that I have to cross the whole length of Infinite Corridor to get to the math department. I felt that the trip is too long, so to save time on daily commute, I applied for an east campus dorm before semester started. It turned out that the Infinite Corridor is not that long, after you crossed it about four thousand times. Wikipedia told me the Infinite Corridor is 251 meters long.

In terms of politics, the conventional wisdom on campus is left of center, thanks to the East Coast location and the liberal, educated population of the Greater Boston area. Noam Chomsky, famous left wing thinker, is professor emeritus at MIT.

Due to MIT’s proximity to that other school (I can’t remember the name, it starts with an H and rhymes with Barvard), often comparisons are made and good-natured rivalry between the two schools are fostered. However, the rivalry is somewhat mild. MIT can’t match Harvard in sports, so the rivalry is about who has the bigger brains.

MIT student body are constituted somewhat differently from that of Harvard. Because Harvard have the Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Law School, Harvard tend to attract a higher percentage of “leaderly” types compared to MIT. MIT breed technocrats: people know their technical stuff well. There is a saying (I’m paraphrasing), that MIT people can be very smart, but they’ll end up working with some idiot with a Harvard MBA. People who go from Boston to Washington are usually from Harvard, not MIT. Although MIT have a faculty member who served as the director of CIA.

MIT truly sucks at sport (surprise!). I pity the football team. They don’t have cheerleaders, and nobody goes to see their games. MIT students are not willing to sacrifice precious coding time to watch our proud football team, the Engineers (heh) getting trampled by some hick college team from rural Massachusetts.

One thing I enjoyed at MIT is the view. MIT is situated along the Charles River. The MIT president at the time was Charles Vest. People call him Chuck Vest. Naturally some people call the river Chuck River. During winter time, the river is frozen so people can walk on it. It is said that in the old days, many MIT students fell into the Charles and drowned. That’s why MIT put a requirement that all undergraduates must pass a swim test in order to graduate. During nonwinter months, there are many activities you can do on Charles: yacht, kayak, crew. I tried crew once, and it ended up with my shoulders aching for a few days. Better stick to doing math.

The downside of MIT (and Boston in general) is the winter season. To give you an idea of how bad it is, it snows in *April*. I don’t mind the snow but I hate the windchill which feels just slightly better than locking yourself in a fridge. And I can do without the slippery sidewalks. After some time, I would fall on the sidewalk so many times, that I can take a walk with a girl and fall many times without feeling embarassed at all.

I didn’t drive in Boston because I did not have a license, so I took the subway (known as the “T”) everywhere. The T is not much better than the subway system in KL. In fact some of the stations are dirty and dangerous, and you would find there beggars and creepy old men in trenchcoats. My female friend told me she was flashed at a subway station once. Although Boston is safer compared to, say, Detroit or Chicago, I didn’t go out alone after midnight.

Bostonians are proud of their sports teams, and deservedly so. Boston Red Sox won the World Series 2004, after last winning it in 1918. Some people believe the long winless streak is caused by the “Curse of the Bambino”. As expected, the resulting celebration quickly turned into a riot. If I remember correctly, one student got shot during the riot. The football team is New England Patriots (but really a Boston team), which won the Superbowl in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

Another thing MIT is famous for is the Hacks. Basically, a hack is a cool engineering feat done by anonymous “hackers”, often in the middle of the night, for the public to see and enjoy during daylight. Sometimes hacks require an incredible amount of engineering ingenuity, but the result is worth every effort. Hacks are thought-provoking, funny, and most importantly, do not cause damage to property. You can read more about MIT Hacks at http://hacks.mit.edu/.

I spent four years at MIT, and graduated in 2005 with a degree in mathematics and writing (although I’m not very good at both). I still keep in touch with my college friends, especially those from the Senior Haus and the math department.

Now I miss my MIT. Who wants to go to Boston with me?🙂

5 Responses to My Undergraduate Days

  1. Coyin says:

    wow. suhaimi i LOVE this post! haha though it’s like a year later now, but it certainly gave me a very good insight into MIT. =)

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  3. resampadi says:

    🙂

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