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MIT Technology Review

A small-pond fish in the sea

When I dove into the MIT ocean, I had no idea how crushingly large it would feel. But MIT can’t help students feel at home without understanding what they don’t know.

Ben OberltonBen Oberlton
Andrea Daquino

I distinctly remember the day I found myself sitting at the kitchen table, talking on the phone with my father about where to go to college. It was March of my senior year in high school and I had just finished eating dinner with my family, a simple chicken fried rice I made when I got home from school late. My father wasn’t living at home then for reasons I won’t get into here, so we kept in touch with 10-minute calls every few days. With my laptop in front of me, I pulled up all the acceptance letters I had received, each one offering to change my life. 

As I reread them, I remembered the elation, the fear, the disbelief, the hope that had accompanied each letter. I remembered sitting down with my mother as she told me that she didn’t know how we could possibly afford for me to attend any of those prestigious universities. I remembered later crying in the middle of Briggs Field during CPW when I received a scholarship that would cover my attendance anywhere. I remembered my parents always telling me I could do it if I really worked hard. I remembered my teacher telling me kids “like me” didn’t go to schools like that. 

As I sat there on the phone looking at the blue glow of my laptop, trying to decide where I would spend the next four years of my life, my father asked me, “Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in the ocean?”

The interesting thing about being transported from a small pond to the ocean is that you really do not know what the ocean is until you see it. No one in the pond where you grew up, where everyone looks like you, where everyone understands you and your situation, has ever been to the ocean. The ocean is this mythical place that was only meant to be explored by those deemed “good enough.” For you, it has never existed as anything other than a metaphor. It is not until you find yourself in that ocean that you can even begin to understand the impossible depths that now surround you. It is not until you find yourself in that ocean that the darkness of those depths begins to close in around you, forcing you to realize how small a fish you truly are.

Looking back on my time at MIT, I find myself connecting to the words of mechanical engineering professor James H. Williams Jr. ’67, SM ’68. One of a very small group of Black professors at MIT who started in the ’70s, he has long advocated for Black students and written about what makes their experience unique. In the March 1991 MIT Faculty Newsletter, he wrote: “Though many college administrators throughout the country focus on jobs for their graduates, at MIT we should have loftier aspirations. While this is true for white students, it is critical for Black students. Here’s why. After four or more years at MIT, white students return to white society. After four or more years at MIT, most Black students do not return to Black society. Most enter a twilight zone: a non-­nurturing limbo, hauntingly incapable of accepting them as unmarred people. So, if we as educators do not provide the opportunities for the enhancement of the sociological and emotional ties between Black students and the Black community, we are promoting the further decay of both the Black community and the twilight zone.”

When you dive into the ocean as a small fish, it rarely crosses your mind that you will not be returning to your pond anytime soon, if ever. Now that the ocean is your home, the farther you swim, the less you will see of anything that will remind you of the pond from which you came. Even 50 years after Professor Williams began trying to help his alma mater grasp this, I would argue that MIT still does not fully understand the gravity of his words.

I distinctly remember how so many of my friends freshman year hit the ground running. Their families had prepared them for this, their high schools had prepared from this, their national science fairs had prepared them for this, their international math competitions had prepared them for this. Meanwhile, I was trying to grasp that there was an international math competition in the first place. My friends would talk about where their family traded stocks, or a professor would reveal that most biotech companies got their first couple of million from friends and family. I learned you didn’t need a master’s degree to get a PhD, and that people made careers out of trading and consulting. I remember realizing I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. The size of the ocean felt crushing in those momentsand it can still feel that way even years later. 

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to learn all these things during my time at MIT. But I am also profoundly aware that I picked up this knowledge from passing remarks I happened to overhear; I could easily have missed them if I hadn’t been paying attention. Rarely did it seem the Institute intentionally was trying to help me understand the new world I found myself in. In the same way that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, MIT doesn’t know what many of its students don’t know, and therefore cannot really work to bridge this gap in understandingand this is a problem.

I look back at my time at MIT with a smile, but that does not mean I walked away without acknowledging the Institute’s flaws. MIT accepts its Black students, but does not understand what its Black students need. MIT has historically been a place that draws the biggest fish from the biggest oceans. But it needs to take the time to understand its big fish from the small ponds, too.

Benjamin Oberlton ’19, who earned his degree in biological engineering in May, began the immunology PhD program at Stanford University this fall.