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Turning Off the Firehose

A recent graduate reflects on his last few weeks at MIT.

It is a weekday in late May 2014, and I am lying, face-up, in an inflatable rubber raft that bobs lazily in the non-current of the Charles River.

It’s 70-something degrees and the sky is as clear and blue as it gets. We are in the middle of the three-week biannual period when Boston’s weather is better than tolerable. To the north is MIT’s Great Dome; to the south is the dock off the Esplanade, packed with kids from Berklee and Emerson and Simmons and MIT.

Three more rafts float alongside mine, inhabited by guys sprawled in more or less the same position, beverages balanced on our bellies. The vessels were a cheap, spontaneous Internet purchase in celebration of our imminent graduation; each can hold two 10-year-old kids, or four determined college students unfazed by the prospect of a dip in the Charles. We bought them in early May, when classes began to decelerate, post-grad plans were mostly cemented, and the end of all things MIT loomed large. Call it a last hurrah.

Several days ago, I finished the final assignment to complete my degree requirements—a group paper for 18.821, Mathematics Project Lab. Several days from now, I will walk across a stage in Killian Court to receive the piece of paper that proves this.

It has been an odd spring.

I have sat in class with sophomore and junior English majors at the crimson university two miles up the road, discussing Vladimir Nabokov. I have kissed, or wanted to kiss, three people named Liz. I have gone to the Muddy Charles pub on Thursdays as religiously as I’ve attended certain classes. I have sat for hours over dinner at my house’s grubby wooden table with people who, at various points between my 19th and 22nd years, became my best friends.

Now, weeks before graduation, otherwise ordinary events are granted a certain gravity: not just a quiz, but the last MIT quiz I’ll ever take; not just a p-set, but the last one. In early June, I’ll walk into the 24-hour reading room on the fifth floor of the student center to inhale, one last time before I leave campus, the unfortunately familiar scent of stale air plus body odor plus La Verde’s sandwiches.

People have more time these days. The academic tension has relaxed. But there’s a frantic undercurrent to every social gathering: an awareness that a profound and irreversible change is about to take place. The all-access pass to the American college experience will soon be revoked. And it’s exciting: after four years of incubation, we, the MIT Class of 2014, will be unleashed upon the real world to effect positive change, make money, or do whatever else it is that we might plan to do.

But that eager anticipation is underscored by a sense of loss and fear. However harsh and unforgiving MIT may have been at times, we learned to navigate it. Who knows what chaotic behavior and unknown unknowns the real world might bring?

Here’s how the next few weeks will play out: first, Senior Week, a parting gift bestowed by the Institute in the form of five days of fun and games and food and drink, all on MIT’s bill. Then the wave of graduation events will begin. Families will pour into town. Everything I own will be sold or given away or crammed into boxes.

And then it will be June 6, 2014. As someone who majored in the subject with the highest number in the School of Science (18C), and the owner of a last name near the end of the alphabet, I will be the third-to-last undergraduate to cross the stage. Pro: I will watch all my peers walk. Con: I will boil under the hot sun in full regalia for hours before it is my turn. Still, I’ll giggle like a six-year-old when I see my own personal diploma.

And then, just hours after the ceremony is finished, folks will leave with their families, or jet off on celebratory post-grad trips, or promptly start new jobs. The class will scatter—mostly to Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, but all over the place, really.
For now, though, lounging on inflated rubber in the middle of the Charles, I’m relaxed. MIT is behind me, and the black box of the real world is in front. There’s not much inhabiting the present, so I float on.

Zach Wener-Fligner ’14 went to New York three weeks after graduation to become an Atlantic Media Fellow at Quartz.

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