tldr: breaking cruel rituals
Blog post number 6 on MITAdmissions!
a joint post with Admissions Officer Jeremy, we stan
Song: burnt espresso, by Sidney Amos
Paige: Nearly three years ago, I was writing my college application essays over cups and cups of coffee. After some brutal months of SAT subject tests and trying to figure out how to apply for financial aid, I turned in my applications. Then, I stopped thinking about them.
I had turned in what I needed to. My essays were some semblance of who I was, and while I might wish I hadn’t used so many commas in retrospect, I was proud of what I had turned in. Four years of high school effort summarized in various 500 word responses. And thus, I [perhaps somewhat naively though I think it was for the best] stopped thinking about my applications; there was nothing I could do after I turned them in even if I wanted to.
A short while later [arguably much shorter than if I had been actively stressing about the wait], I was accepted into MIT early action. I cried on the phone with my counselor as I told her the news, sitting on the floor and feeling the world stop spinning for just a moment. I didn’t know what direction my world was going to start moving in next.
A few months later, in a fairly active discord channel of 2024’s [though no longer quite as lively], some of the admissions officers were talking about applications, including the one and only Jeremy. I, perhaps a bit narcissistically, asked him if he remembered anything from my application.
Prospective students often ask me to share the most memorable essays I’ve read as an admissions officer. I often reply that the most memorable essays were often unintentionally memorable. I explain that you shouldn’t try to be memorable in your college essays; you should try to be knowable. In other words, while I’m reading your application, you should seem like a real, three-dimensional person—a person I can imagine on our campus. It shouldn’t matter if any particular essay you wrote persists in my memory or not. But while I’m reading your application, I should be able to get to know you, as much as one can know another person mediated through essays, transcripts, and letters of recommendation.
In light of COVID-19, the admissions office started experimenting with using Discord to create a space for prefrosh (admitted first-year students) to interact not only with each other, but with MIT upperclassmen, and Institute staff members. We were navigating the exhausting world of “virtual events” and found that the chaotic enthusiasm that Discord allows aligned appropriately with the student community at MIT. I didn’t expect to spend so much time on the 2024 Discord, to be honest—but after many, many late nights/early mornings, it was clear that the platform had consumed me.
It became relatively common for prefrosh to ask AOs in the server what we remembered about their applications. (After all, their college application is one of the few things we had in common: they submitted it, and we evaluated it.) Every once in a while—assuming I could actually discern the identity of the user on Discord—I’d share a memory or two from an inquiring applicant.
“Didn’t you build that quadcopter for your maker portfolio?”
“Are you still running your viral slime Instagram account?”
When Paige finally asked, “What do you remember about my application?” I could only really recall two things. “You like math, and you like coffee,” I relayed. “And you’re from somewhere in California.”
I was relieved I got it right, and hadn’t mixed Paige up with another student [P: though frankly I wouldn’t have blamed Jeremy if he had]. My interest in math pales in comparison to Paige’s, so I focused our conversation on our shared love for coffee. I rattled off a few of my favorite coffee shops near MIT, and promised I would give her my full list of recommendations once she got to campus.
I then suggested that we should grab coffee sometime when I got to Cambridge. I had never been to Cambridge before. In fact, when I got accepted into MIT, I remember reading the acceptance letter and thinking to myself “Wait, I thought this school was in Boston, not England.”
In any case, Jeremy agreed and said something along the lines of “There are lots of coffee places around to try!”, rattling off a list of two or three. Through this fairly short conversation, my (vague) concept of MIT began to colorize. MIT was no longer just a name or a place [that may or may not be in England], but a community that I could become a part of– if nothing else, through the use of coffee. I looked forward to grabbing coffee with Jeremy.
Coffee was a big part of my high school experience in Fresno, something that Jeremy was able to experience a part of recently.
It’s a cruel ritual of adulthood to run into an old friend with whom you’ve lost touch, and exchange a ceremonial “It’s been too long! We should grab dinner sometime soon.” You never actually meet up.
Refreshingly, this past summer Paige (who was spending the summer in Cambridge to do some math stuff [P: an accurate description] on campus) reached out and invited me out to coffee, just like we had discussed on Discord more than two years prior. To my surprise, we actually did meet up.
We met at a local café within walking distance of campus and my home in Cambridge, and caught up over coffee (an iced mocha for Paige, a black cold brew for me). We jumped right into discussing three of the classic themes of the Paige Universe (or Pagi-nation, as she prefers to call it): math education, math research, and writing. As neither a math educator or math researcher, I found myself pleasantly surprised with how well she was able to hold my attention with math content. More than that, I was excited to hear about how well she was doing at MIT, especially given that the first few years of her undergraduate experience were defined by a pandemic.
I later shared with Paige that I was planning an upcoming outreach trip on behalf of MIT that would be passing through her hometown of Fresno, California. (I remembered the name of the town, this time.) I explained some of the strategy about my visit: the value of visiting different high schools and colleges, partnering with local college access organizations and community-based youth organizations.
“It’s been a few years since MIT has been to Fresno, so it’s time we return in search of the next Paige,” I quipped, only partially joking.
Over the last ~28 months, I have returned to Fresno exactly twice. Once two summers ago for the entirety of summer doing a remote reading program, and last year for a measly 30 days between spring finals and summer research. Or as Jeremy calls it, math stuff.
I love getting a glimpse back into a world I’ve left behind. I mean, I may return one day and settle down, but that’s besides the point. For now, I’m 3000 miles away in Cambridge. And the fact of the matter is, I will likely continue to stay on this side of the world if I attend graduate school.
Stopping by Fresno over summer breaks gives me a snapshot of what I’ve missed. Like my favorite coffee shop hiring new baristas, or my high school preparing for the next class of students to arrive (with their corresponding class year becoming way too high for my taste). The world of Fresno was changing, and I wasn’t changing with it. I was changing in Cambridge. Even just this summer: I was doing research, and cooking for myself, and learning to be a somewhat functional adult who does math. I was even breaking the cruel ritual of adulthood and actually grabbing coffee with Jeremy.
When we met at a local café, Jeremy became three-dimensional to me. Before, he was a 2D blogger avatar with a big smile telling me what all admissions officers (AOs) tell you. Be honest. Be knowable. Be you. To be honest, I thought AOs were being facetious when they said things like this. But after talking about the “Pagi-nation” (lol it’s a stupid name but it is really all encompassing), I understood what he meant. He wanted to know about me, and my experience at MIT.
When Jeremy said he was going to stop by Fresno, I felt like some narrative arc had been completed:
Fresno. Grow. Coffee.
MIT. Grow. Coffee.
And they say coffee stunts your growth.
A few months after grabbing coffee with Paige in Cambridge, I headed to the West Coast for a few weeks of travel on behalf of MIT. After a few days of terrible traffic and terrific food in Los Angeles, I began my pilgrimage through California’s central valley. Traversing several hundred miles of farmland up Highway 99, I finally arrived in Fresno.
My first day in Fresno began appropriately with a visit to Paige’s high school, where I gave a brief presentation about MIT to 75 sophomores, juniors, and seniors. It was helpful to have Paige as a recent alumnus to reference, since it offered evidence that students really do get admitted to places like MIT. Chipping away at the mythology of a place like MIT and making it seem real, approachable, and human is one of my biggest goals when I’m traveling on behalf of MIT.
After a long day of talking to prospective students at Paige Memorial High School (aka Paige’s alma mater), and a few others in the area, I decided to complete the most important mission of the trip: visiting Paige’s favorite hometown coffee shop in Fresno. I made my way down to the Tower District—a hip neighborhood named after the historic art deco Tower Theatre—and grabbed a parking spot next to the famed coffee shop I had heard Paige mention (and write about) on multiple occasions.
The café was busy that Friday afternoon, and the staff were friendly and unrushed in a way that seemed characteristic of the Central Valley. I ordered my cold brew and found a cozy spot in an alcove in the back, nestled among a network of sprawling plants, as Beach House played softly in the background. I admit it felt a bit bizarre to have spent the morning at Paige’s school, and later find myself sitting in her favorite café.
Admissions officers occupy a strange position: we stand at the threshold of young people’s futures. We are tasked with understanding and interpreting the worlds they come from, the communities they are a part of, and the aspirations that have formed within them. We take what we learn and we do our best to build a team of students who, together, will build a new community on our campus. Some people call us gatekeepers, though I prefer to think of us as bridge-builders. And sitting in that coffee shop that Friday afternoon in Fresno, that bridge felt stronger than ever.