Uncertainty

Mixed heritage, post-grad fears, and quantum physics

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I just graduated from MIT. On graduation day, I walked from the chaotic crowds at the ceremony to an equally chaotic reception in a building nearby. There were thousands of people, all mostly on just one quarter-section of our campus. My father wanted to take a lot of pictures. I didn’t really process the event at the time, and was more focused on making sure all my family members were comfortable and well accomodated.

In the days that followed it started to dawn on me, bit by bit — constantly forgetting to turn around my brass rat (the position of the beaver being a symbol of graduating), watching certain friends depart one by one, and realizing they would be physically farther and more removed from my life. Of those staying in the area, like me, or of underclassmen friends at MIT, I wondered how I would strike a balance between moving on and staying connected.

MIT kind of works by tearing you apart, and then forcing you to put yourself back together. The academic part of this is fairly obvious, and generally good. We go through a lot of failure, and it is painful in the moment, but afterward, you find yourself rid of the fear of failure. You find yourself surprisingly willing to try new things. If you were once afraid of being unable to do something because you weren’t good at it or didn’t know how, MIT shows you that you can’t do the things you are good at and think you know how, so it makes no difference. You learn how to do both the things you thought you knew, and the things you didn’t, better. You learn how to carefully pick apart and criticize your own work for its own sake. And you also learn to be ok with turning things in imperfect, because nothing is perfect, but also sometimes way, way less than perfect, because sometimes just finishing the damn thing and moving on is what really matters.

Like everyone else, I was torn apart academically, and slowly, carefully pieced myself back together. But I was also torn apart in a more personal, visceral way. I was pulled inside out. I could not identify what mattered most to me anymore, what my core values were, or more accurately, whether they were important or realistic. I felt like I had lost who I was and what defined me.

I’m still working on putting all of that back together.

During graduation, I felt something important floating above my head. It was alluded to in many speeches, but never explicitly stated. My freshman year, three students committed suicide. This would, unfortunately, be a recurring theme. I don’t blame the institute for this, and I have heard that other STEM-focused universities have this problem. I can imagine how, possibly, selecting what are often extremely self-critical and disciplined people can probably skew these statistics. I don’t presume to know what a solution is. But I do know that these events fostered a difficult emotional environment for everyone I graduated with, and contributed to the breaking down of self. And while we had many tools to build ourselves back up academically, we had, at least at that time, very few to mend hollowed, dissociated feelings or mutilated self confidence.

It is not so much that I no longer know what my values are, or who I am, but more that I am incredibly uncertain about whether those were realistic values, or whether my sense of self is accurate. As a freshman, I had written “Belive In Good” on the cover of a sketchbook I had. Even then, I had felt that this is something I would need to be reminded to believe in, rather than naturally believing in it as I always had. I became uncertain about goodness and good things, that kind acts could be universally pure or uncomplicated or worth it.

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As an MIT Admissions blogger, I got a lot of emails. One of my favorite emails that I have ever received from a prospective student was centered on a blog post I wrote, “Alien in America”, which I composed after a series of police brutality incidents. In it, I talked/vented about feeling ostracized and uncomfortable due to being a mixed-race person, and especially, a black mixed-race person. (This is a huge, pervasive topic in my life, which I hope to cover in more detail in another blog post.) Part of my struggle with my identity and self, an old one that has always been there, is simply dealing with being a mixed person. I, myself, am comfortable and secure in all my cultures and all the parts of my identity — the problem is how difficult it seems to be for everyone else to be comfortable in this, too. I have often felt forced into one box or another — or worse, ignored by the very people and nations I call my own.

This student delivered an inspiring and comforting line:

“The fact that you come from different backgrounds actually makes you exciting . . . You don’t have to belong to a particular place. Like an electron you are cooler and more intriguing when you exist in all your states at the same time.”

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Electrons can be in multiple states at once. This idea is the central tenet of quantum physics, but understanding this theory or making it useful in applications like computing gets more complicated.

Last Sunday, I was in the MIT COOP with my father and brother, preparing to leave for Denver before I started my job. That was the clearest moment I can remember starting to feel a little stressed about graduating — I felt this wave of imposter syndrome. Even though I already graduated, I started to feel incredibly inadequate and fraudulent and that maybe I did not deserve my degree, or the title “mechanical engineer” — a feeling I still have, now. I feel very worried and strangely anxious about some abstract future, although I shouldn’t be — I have already secured a job, and even signed for an apartment. For some reason, these things do not provide me with any comfort. It is hard to describe — it is almost that I worry about the concept of the future rather than the future itself, as in the short term everything has been decided already, for pretty much the next year or two at least, barring some unexpected emergency. I worry about being and feeling inadequate; I meta-worry that feeling inadequate will be a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes me act more inadequate than I actually am. The one concrete worry I have, which is a synthesis of these less concrete worries, is that I am terrified that I will never get in to graduate school, and maybe because it is more concrete I have latched onto this one and vented about it most to my family and friends.

I saw a children’s book in the checkout aisle called Quantum Physics for Babies, which reminded me of that email I had received a while ago, from a prospective student. At the end, after a few short explanations on electrons and occupying multiple states and uncertainty, it said simply, “Now, you’re a quantum physicist!” I laughed at these certain words, describing a child’s mastery of such a difficult and uncertain subject. I want to be comfortable in uncertain and ever-changing positions. I myself have always been that way — occupying many languages, cultural customs, continents. But somehow, I have never been able to acheive feeling comfortable in this constant state of flux.

Quantum physics is often seen as hard or confusing. Sometimes this is impressive, if you can claim to “know” quantum physics. Sometimes, this is intimidating — most people are turned off just by the word “quantum”. When people are initimidated, they may shy away from such a problem, or ridicule it, or call it unnecessary, or give up on trying to understand. If being mixed, like being an electron, is “cool” because you can occupy multiple states at once, how other people actually see you can be similar to how they see this concept of multi-state electrons — confusing, difficult to understand, occasionally impressive (“you speak 4 languages?!”).

I am still picking up the pieces of the person I was, and trying to build the image of the person I want to be.

I am finding that it is much harder to build a quantum computer than a standard one.

But I hope the result will be similarly groundbreaking.

Written by

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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