To Build a Brick Wall: My First Six Months at MIT as an International Student

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These days, on every college campus in the US, you will find an army of Asian international students whose English is so poor that you can hardly communicate with them. Or perhaps, you would not have a chance to communicate with them anyway, since they always hang out with friends in the same ethnic group. They would not speak a word in class discussions, but solve math problems like machines. They would rarely come to socials, and even if they do, they would stay outside of conversations and keep smiling silently and mysteriously.

I was one of them eleven years ago.

 

1. How I Got There: Dreams and Ambitions

There were several reasons why I wanted to come to America, but by far the most important one was because it is the birthplace of my childhood hero: Voyager 2, a beautiful spacecraft and a determined traveler, who left the Earth in 1977, visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and still continues her travel beyond the Solar System. I was seven when she encountered Neptune. Through her digital eye, humans obtained a grandstand view of Neptune for the first time in the history. It was a beautiful blue planet, but a different blue from the Earth. It was a mysterious blue like a tropical morpho butterfly, and a lonely blue like Picasso’s Blue Period. I was baptized as a space geek by that blue.

I also had several reasons to leave my home country. It was by no means because I did not like Japan. Just as every young person, I desired for adventure. I desired for a voyage. Initially I could satisfy the desire by backpacking trips, but soon I started to want more. I wanted to live somewhere far from my parents, somewhere very different from my hometown, and somewhere far more exciting. However, finding such a place is a challenge for a kid who grew up in Tokyo like myself, because Japan is quite a centralized country, where everything is centered in Tokyo. The best schools, the highest paying jobs, the latest fashions, the most stylish night spots, the best anything that attracts young people, are in Tokyo. The only exception is baseball. In my highly biased view, the best team in the country is Hanshin Tigers, which is based in Kobe. (And of course the best team in the US is the Red Sox.) Therefore, if there is any place to go after Tokyo (unless you are a baseball player), it should be overseas.

So, without much thought, I applied to MIT, since I thought that was the best route to NASA, and luckily, I received an offer. Usually, an offer from a PhD program of an American university comes with a fellowship, a research assistantship (RA), or a teaching assistantship (TA), which fully covers tuition with a stipend. However, the offer that I got from MIT did not come with any of them. It was essentially saying “you can come if you have rich parents who are willing to pay sixty-thousand dollars every year through your PhD.” It was out of the question.

But there was another way to go. Research funding comes and goes all the time. So, optimistically, I would be able to find an RA by doing a job-hunting (i.e., asking faculties for funding) after arriving at MIT. And my parents promised me very generously that they would pay my tuition for one year. If I could find an RA within a year, I would be able to stay. If not, there would be no choice but to discontinue my studies and go back to Tokyo.

Meanwhile, I also got an offer from the graduate school at the University of Tokyo. And its tuition was one tenth of that of MIT, which was affordable to my parents. This was by far a less risky choice. Most of my friends’ opinions were that I’d better to stay in the University of Tokyo. I knew it was a logical choice. But I did not want to miss the ride to an adventure. I did not want to give up my childhood dream. I was torn.

Three weeks after I got the unwelcoming offer, I flew to Boston in order to attend MIT’s open house. I wanted to see MIT with my own eyes before making a decision. I also hoped to meet professors in person to find an RA.

I knew that MIT is in Boston (which is not exactly true; it is in Cambridge, which is across a river from Boston). But I did not know where Boston is before the trip. So I opened an atlas, and found two interesting facts. First, Boston is in a state with a strange and unpronounceable name, Massachusetts. Second, it is almost on the northeast corner of the country, even to the north of New York. “So I am going into a freezer,” I thought.

In reality, it was worse than a freezer. Boston had a particularly tough winter that year. Even though it was late March, the city was still covered by a thick pile of snow, and the river was completely frozen.

I talked to a few faculty members during the open house, but RA hunting did not go well at all. Exhausted and disappointed, I took a break from the open house and met my high school friend who had skipped a few years and was already a PhD student at MIT. After a few minutes of chatting about personal updates and rumors of friends, I explained my situation and asked him for his opinion about whether I should stay safely at the University of Tokyo, or take a risk and come to MIT. After a brief pause, he said bluntly:

“You can come, if you are confident.”

My rebellious spirit reacted naïvely to his challenge. He could do it. Why can’t I? I asked myself.

Indeed, I was very confident. But where did the confidence come from? Well, I was an ambitious, and perhaps naïve, 22-year old man, who had performed well in high school and college, who thought his English was better than most of the Japanese colleagues around him, who was never short of friends, and who always took a leadership role in every occasion, from a Cansat project and class discussions to a tennis club and parties. I was confident that I could do the same at MIT.

Thus, I made a decision. The decision was, of course, to take the challenge. The challenge came with a one-year time limit. Within a year, I must find a professor who would recognizes my ability, and offer an RA.

“I can do it.”

I thought optimistically.

MITから眺めたボストンの夜景。この景色に何度も心を助けられた。

2. How I Lost My Confidence and How I Rebuilt It

I came back to Boston in late August of that year. The airplane landed at Logan Airport past 11 pm, where I was welcomed by a cool, comfortable breeze. Two huge suitcases were full of stuff, and I was full of confidence. When a cab driver asked me where to go, I proudly replied “MIT.”

However, in the following six months, the confidence quickly drained away from me, as gas escapes from a punctured balloon.

The first obstacle that I hit was classes. One of the four classes I took in the first semester was on satellite engineering, in which students worked in teams to design a spacecraft through a semester. Back in Japan, I always led teams in such situations. But things did not go as always before. Although my English communication ability was well above average Japanese students, it was miserable among American students. Furthermore, compared to typical Japanese students who are shy, passive, and silent, American students tend to be much more articulate and opinionated. My ideas spoken in my poor English could hardly be communicated to the team. My slow and influent remarks were often interrupted by impatient team members. (That was not nice, but understandable because we got an astronomical volume of homework every week and all of us were under significant pressure.) But if I stayed silent, the discussion moved on as if I were not there. In sum, I could make zero contribution to discussions, let alone take on a leadership role.

I also hit a social obstacle. I particularly had a hard time at parties. It was partially because the informal English spoken at parties was very different from what I learned in school, and partially because the loud background noise and music made it even more difficult for me to listen to the conversations. Someone would make a good joke and everyone would burst out laughing, but I alone could not understand it and stayed silent. I did not want to interrupt conversations too often by asking others to repeat the jokes every time. However, if I stayed serious while everyone was laughing, I felt more isolated from the company. Soon, I leaned to pretend to laugh. I felt very stupid. Time flew very slowly when I sat at a party, stayed silent, observed undecipherable conversations, and mechanically pretended to laugh when everyone laughed. I had nothing to do other than sip beer, so I kept sipping beer until I got drunk, but without any fun. I felt miserable when I got home from such a party. Soon I became reluctant to go to socials. I often declined invitations by making up reasons, such as being busy with homework.

RA hunting did not go well at all. Professors often just ignored my emails requesting an appointment. Even if I could meet a professor, the answer was always the same: “unfortunately I don’t have funding at hand.” I think I was almost a paranoid. I doubted that the professors said so not because they really didn’t have funding, but because they wanted to reject me in an unoffending way.

Seasons turned quickly and the balance of my bank account decreased monotonically while I was struggling. As the snow started falling, I started worrying about the time limit. And the confidence, which once had filled me up, was all gone. I was a deflated balloon, punctured on the way to flying up high, and now fallen to the ground.

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Lost of my confidence and pride, with no professors to advise me and no friends to rely on, what was left for me was just to work hard. I literally worked day and night. I think it was a fear, not a hope, that drove me at that time. A fear of going back to Tokyo miserably and being laughed at by friends back there, to whom I had talked big.

Besides working hard, I changed the strategy. The Satellite Engineering class required each team to submit a report every other week. We would first discuss in the team, and then assign tasks to the team members. I gave up competing with native English speakers in discussions. I accepted other’s opinions, sometimes reluctantly, instead of insisting on mine. Instead, I poured all of my energy into the tasks assigned to me. While I was very poor at speaking English, I was still good at many things, such as math, computer programming, understanding research literature, and building a logical argument. My strategy was to contribute to the team and impress the professor by focusing on what I was good at.

On the RA hunting front, I swallowed my pride and got my hands dirty. I exploited the fact that most of the topics covered in the satellite engineering class were what I had already learned as an undergrad. I knew which questions were the good ones. I often raised my hand in the lectures and asked those “good questions,” even though I already knew the answer. It was my desperate effort to impress the professor and make him remember my name.

The professor who taught satellite engineering was actually the one I wanted to work with for research, too. He had already turned down my request for an RA for the same reason that I had heard from all the other professors: unavailability of funding. So I visited his office once again, and asked him – or perhaps I should say begged him – to let me work in his group for free. Yes, I offered him free labor, which he had no reason to reject. My plan was to work hard and impress him so that he would offer the next available RA to me.

I clearly remember the moment when these mentally exhausting efforts were rewarded. I worked until late as usual on that night, when I received an email from the professor. It was the evaluation comments on the biweekly report of the satellite engineering class. And I found an encouraging comment attached to my section, saying: “despite the grammatical and spelling problems, this section is technically excellent.” It was just one of hundreds of comments the professor provided every other week. But it meant a lot to me because, after a long time of being unsuccessful and losing confidence, it was the very first time my work was recognized by an MIT professor. Moreover, it was not just a random professor, but the one who I wanted to work with. I literally jumped for joy in my small and messy dorm room.

From then on, things started to move slowly in a positive direction. I made a friend in the classroom. He would often ask me technical questions about the homework. In turn, he would willingly correct the grammatical mistakes in my writing. I also found the first non-Japanese friends who I could have a good time with, without a need for pretending to laugh. Most of those nice and kind folks who patiently listened to my influent English fell into one of two groups. The first group included those who had international experiences (i.e., international students and American students who had studied/worked abroad). I think they were kind to me because they had gone through the same difficulty as mine. The second group was Christians. I think they practiced the teachings of the Bible, such as “do not forget to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2). Although I have never been religious, I came to have more appreciation for the religion than I had before.

A harsh winter came to Boston again, covering the Charles River with a thick white ice sheet. In February, I finally got an RA. It was not from the professor of the satellite engineering class, but he had recommended me to another professor who was doing relevant research. All of my efforts were rewarded, I thought. The first people to whom I conveyed the good news were, of course, my parents, who always supported and trusted their son.

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3. Eleven Years Later

It has been eleven years since then. I graduated from MIT with a PhD, and got a job at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory – the dream job since my childhood. I still have a strong Japanese accent. I am still not as good at discussion as my American colleagues. I still have difficulty in understanding jokes in a bar. But that is OK. I have some friends. Not many. But really good friends. I also have very smart and friendly colleagues to work with. And, most importantly, every day, I do what I really love: space exploration. I live in my own dream.

In retrospect, what filled me up in my first days at MIT was not a real confidence, but merely an extrapolation of the limited success in a small community. It was like the gas in a balloon, which can inflate a small rubber membrane, but goes away quickly once the balloon is punctured.

Real confidence is like a brick wall. Gaining confidence really means building up your accomplishments, trust from colleagues, and friendship with someone who really understands you through patient and tenacious effort, as if piling up bricks one by one to build a wall that will never give in to rain or wind.

If I were to achieve some success in my life, the wall would be the foundation of the success. If I were to fail, the wall would protect me from storms. Looking back, I honestly think losing all the confidence was the best experience I had at MIT.

Perhaps, the process that I went though is not particular to international students. Losing confidence and rebuilding it could be an essential part of personal growth of unafraid, young voyagers who dare to break out of their shells and sail out to a new world.

And, if you are torn between staying in your safety zone or taking a risk to go and explore a broader world, I challenge you bluntly with these words:

“You can come, if you are confident.”

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Acknowledgement: Amanda Corbyn provided wonderful help to correct grammatical errors of this article.

4 thoughts on “To Build a Brick Wall: My First Six Months at MIT as an International Student

  1. A very inspiring story of personal growth and triumph! Your story will inspire Misaki and already inspires those around you! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  2. I went to MIT as an undergrad and now work at a tech company (we run a major website). I’m actually considering transferring to our Tokyo office, and your advice at the end felt reassuring in a way. Also, I really like your analysis of “fake confidence” and “real confidence”, as that distinction has mattered to me before as well. Basically, this is a great piece.

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