Practice imagination in MIT Hogwarts
Where empathy and compassion are the real magic
In J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard, she talked about the importance of imagination. I was really struck by her definition of imagination – how she described it as people “thinking themselves into other people’s worlds”. It made me appreciate my own capacity for empathy and compassion and how that’s been strengthened by the challenges I’ve experienced.
I came to MIT after finishing my undergraduate in Taiwan. I am a Taiwanese, a woman, a first-generation student, an international student who had no family in the US. These identities defined how I perceived myself when I arrived here. I was a muggle intruding into Hogwarts. I was scared. I didn’t think I belonged here.
I was constantly worried about my English. Once, I ordered a sandwich at a cafe and the barista asked me: “white or wheat?”. I thought she was asking the existential question of “why are we?”. During my first months in the US, I would confuse people by mispronouncing my English name (“Jan” instead of “Jane”). Classes got more difficult, especially when I struggled to understand the accent of the instructor.
I had difficulties expressing myself. I was raised in an environment where humility is deeply worshiped. When I was looking for advisors, a professor would ask me what I planned to research, and my answer would always come off as very insecure. (“I currently only have some pretty small ideas.”) After I told several professors that I only created small ideas, was doing okay in class, and was not sure how to think about a problem, I was told to go talk to more professors, since I just seemed so incompetent.
In class I was often one of the few female students and found myself struggling to speak up. When I took the courage to discuss my psets with other students, I failed to tell them when I disagreed. I would say, “You may be right, but look at this, if you calculate this part… but once again you might be right.” I didn’t have the courage to stand up for what I believed.
As an international student, it was disorienting to not know how to do some of the simplest things. Where do I go when I’m sick? What do I do to get a new phone? How do I find summer housing or get a driver’s license? For even the smallest of tasks I felt powerless and unsure what to do.
Some small accomplishments here and there enabled me to imagine myself having hidden powers. With this vision, I later discovered how to cultivate them. I’m a bilingual person, which allows me (at the very least) to order some delicious dishes in a Chinese restaurant. I managed to strike a balance between confidence and humility, which enabled me to find my current advisors. I fought off my own gender bias. I learned to be more patient with myself. It’s fine if I don’t know what to do. I’ll learn and would know the next time.
But the most remarkable thing was to notice how the difficulties I had helped me have more empathy – more imagination – for others.
One day, my friend shared that he was struggling with changing his lab. I listened to him, and I found that I could imagine his frustration. We talked about how sometimes it is hard to get a reply from a professor, about how funding may play a big role, about how stressful and frustrating it is to be uncertain about your research group. I could share my experience. I could give him encouragement. I could imagine his world, because my world had been like that.
My roommate told me about her missing home. I could imagine. My labmate told me about her imposter syndrome. I could imagine. An incoming student expressed his disappointment in being misunderstood due to his accent. I could imagine.
And I saw the acknowledgment I provided was magic; it brought light to other people’s lives. Knowing that they were not alone and that someone else felt the same way, my friends gained courage in facing the difficulties. With more self-confidence, they too discovered their hidden powers. My friend found the lab he truly loves. My roommate started practicing meditation. My labmate made up her mind in chasing her dream career. The incoming student started helping with Sidney Pacific events to talk to more native speakers.
As an MIT student, I have been privileged to challenge myself to imagine more. I’ve become a feminist. I’ve learned more about LGBTQ community. I’ve learned about low-income families. I participated in an overnight walk for suicide prevention. In my research I’m now working on figuring out ways to monitor the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
As JK Rowling said that day, right here in Cambridge, “We do not need magic to change the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” To me, imagination is the magic that does not only empower a person, but spreads its spell. Embrace the challenges, unfold your imagination, and welcome to MIT Hogwarts.
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