Catherine Zeng

Why We Came Back to MIT

Before taking time off from MIT, I was already starting to feel jaded. At the time, I was taking three technical classes in computer science and a HASS class for chamber music, a pretty standard course load. But because my friends and I were spending all of our time hacking on personal projects, I was always behind for my coursework. I didn’t understand why I was spending so much time learning information that I may never use as an entrepreneur, and I was frustrated that grades mattered so much to me when they are otherwise just arbitrary numbers. I felt a lot of internal conflict, so when I received the opportunity to leave MIT to work on our personal projects full-time, I was thrilled.

It’s hard to appreciate the good parts of being a student when many of us have been stuck in classrooms for 12+ years straight without ever experiencing the outside world. However, after spending 8 months in San Francisco, I started to miss MIT sorely. Specifically, I missed having the freedom to grow and being surrounded by friendship and comradery, which are, in my opinion, the core benefits of being in a college environment.

In the real world, you are expected to help solve society’s problems directly or contribute to the company that you are working for in order to make money; the focus is on on how you can serve others, as opposed to how you can best serve yourself, and money is the ticking time-bomb that puts constraints on what you can work on. As a student, these externals pressures are put on halt. For a few years, you don’t have to worry about money and can focus on more long-term goals; the college environment lets you develop skills that have higher payoffs, but may take longer to learn. In order to build our boba machine, for instance, we needed to understand servers, websockets, arduino, hardware, and have strong programming experience. These skills were learned through years of working on useless projects and taking classes, neither of which had immediate payoffs.

Further, I felt very lonely outside of MIT. Because we needed to make plans with friends in advance in order to hang out in San Francisco, we often wouldn’t see anyone for days. In addition to the lack of physical companionship, the nature of our interactions, especially with friends made through Y Combinator, felt shallow. In the professional world, your reputation matters a great deal, so it is in your best interest to show others your best self. This is especially the case in the startup world, where the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” sentiment is strong and shallow business relationships predominate. In contrast, because MIT students have accepted that they are still growing, it’s much more acceptable to show your vulnerable self to others so that deeper friendships can be built, leading students to feel a sense of comradery with each other. The college environment has a culture of honesty and acceptance that the real world lacks.

Last March, when my boyfriend and I visited MIT for Ring Ceremony, a kind friend let us crash in her room for a week, and we spent the week visiting with friends. Throughout the visit, I felt a deep sense of nostalgic and grief that I would never be able to relive these undergraduate experiences again had I dropped out of college. I realized that I was miserable in San Francisco, and the feelings of contentment and excitement that I felt on MIT’s campus were feelings I hadn’t felt for a long time. These feelings, in addition to having the freedom to grow and being surrounded by comradery, helped us decide to come back to MIT. Sometimes we still feel FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) about what we could’ve done had we stayed in San Francisco, especially when we see our Y Combinator friends’ successes: some have sold their companies already, and others have raised multiple of rounds of funding. However, there is a time and place for everything; we can always start a company later, but it will become progressively harder to come back to MIT and relive our undergraduate experiences.