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Graduating students look back on experiences

J. Dai
J. Dai
Elena A. Smith
Elena A. Smith
Becky Pferdehirt
Becky Pferdehirt
Jesse Smithnofsky
Jesse Smithnofsky

As thousands of students prepare to receive their MIT degrees on Friday, Tech Talk spoke with four of them about what they learned at the Institute, how MIT changed them, and what they plan to do next.

J. Dai - Vancouver, B.C.

Receiving the S.M. in media arts and sciences (thesis research on "intelligent" image retrieval for online communities)

The most important things I'll take away from here are the relationships I formed. I learned that the academic path is not for me right now and that I have a long way to grow as a person...

The best part about MIT? The opportunity to work with amazing people with very different backgrounds, and the chance to do theater in such an exciting environment. [Dai received the Laya and Jerome B. Wiesner Award for achievement as a performer, designer and videographer.]

[I learned] that grad school is just a means to an end. The hard part is figuring out what I'm passionate about.

Post-grad plans: I'll work full time on Microsoft's search engine as a program manager in Seattle and do theater in the city. Eventually I'll get an M.F.A. in directing and try to do theater full time.

Elena A. Smith - Oak Brook, Ill.

Receiving the S.B. in management

The nicest surprise about MIT for me was the relative nonexistence of competition. Soon after classes began, I discovered that pretty much everyone I encountered was eager to work together to solve problem sets and, in general, to collaborate to achieve great things. There are an incredible number of amazing people here and with this environment, it doesn't suprise me that MIT can accomplish so much.

At times, I feel a bit more cynical or pessimistic, but most of the time, I still have a pretty good outlook on life. I think MIT has also shown me to keep the big picture in mind. If you focus too much on the small stuff, it's easy to get lost or left behind.

Post-grad plans: I'm taking the summer to travel abroad and then will be starting a career in electrical engineering in the fall. I plan on grad school, but have made no definite plans yet.

Becky Pferdehirt - Middleton, Wis.

Receiving the S.B. in biology

The education has been wonderful, but without a doubt it's the people here who have really made my MIT experience special. When I first came here, I was afraid people would be introverted--only interested in their studies. I've been so surprised. The people I've met here I've no doubt I'll be in contact with for the rest of my life...

The best part about MIT was being part of Alpha Phi [sorority]. It was wonderful to have an academic life, social life and community service. Spending last summer in Paris through the MIT-France Program was the most amazing experience I've had here...

I've been very impressed with the foreign language program. In about two years I went from knowing no French to being pretty fluent...

MIT students love to hate MIT. My advice is to not be afraid to own up to the fact that you like it here. The key to being happy here? Have interests and do things outside of just schoolwork, and don't be afraid to do things that aren't typically MIT.

Post-grad plans: I'm taking a year off before entering a Ph.D. program in biology at [the University of California at] Berkeley. This summer I'll be bartending back in my hometown of Madison, Wis., then in the fall I hope to attend beauty school. I've always been very interested in fashion, hair and the art of makeup, and think learning about them would be a good life skill.

In spring 2005, I want to do a combination of traveling and community service. I've applied to the Mercy Ship Program, in which doctors stop at ports along the African coast to give free health care to people who wouldn't otherwise have access to it. I don't have any medical experience, but they need volunteers to help the doctors with small tasks. If I don't get into that program, I'll apply for something through Habitat for Humanity.

In the long term, I'm planning to continue in academia. Some day I'd like to have my own lab doing cancer-related research.

Jesse Smithnofsky - Eighty-Four, Penn.

Receiving the S.B. in computer science and engineering

First of all, I loved MIT. I loved the chance to meet absolutely incredible people, to take on amazing challenges (25 hours a week on subject 6.170, 10 hours a week as an officer in my fraternity, and 10 to 15 more in the pool for the swim team), and to have fun all at the same time.

Coming in, I suspected that, as a whole, MIT people would be pretty good at life in general---things like conflict resolution, setting priorities, and meeting deadlines. How else did they get into this place? As it turned out, I was completely wrong about that.

I also thought that there would be a fairly strong sense of community at MIT. I don't think that's true either. People know their suitemates or maybe even the people from their dorm or living group, but beyond that nobody knows anybody. I'm guilty of it, too; my 10 best friends are all in my fraternity.

I think I've grown up a lot. Unfortunately, I believe I've developed a lot of stereotypes about people. The simple fact of the matter is that they're reinforced everywhere you look at MIT and you have to stay on the ball to not judge people by first impressions.

I'm in a fraternity, so I can use that one as an example. I feel like a lot of people at MIT just assume that the fraternity guys are arrogant jerks. Sadly, some of them are, but as a whole many of us are quite decent people. I'm guilty of some of these assumptions as well, but I recognize them and try not to let them affect my actions.

Post-grad plans: I'm hoping to stay here next year for an M.Eng. After that I'll probably end up as a coder somewhere. I haven't thought much beyond that.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 2, 2004 (download PDF).

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