Relearning how to learn

Relearning how to learn

Relearning how to learn

Returning to school after years on a boat

September 21, 2022 | Matthew F.

Mechanical Engineering

As I sat down at my desk in the middle of the Pacific Ocean waiting for an Internet connection, I wondered if the long-awaited response would be sitting in my inbox. I kept hitting F5, hoping that the page would refresh faster. Internet on a naval vessel isn’t as instantaneous as the luxury Internet speeds that you experience as a gamer, blogger, or video streamer on shore. On a ship, Internet is at the speed of dial-up, and we are only given the opportunity to access this precious resource about once a week or sometimes once every couple weeks. For what seemed like an eternity, I waited with great anticipation. Finally, in basic text format, the message came through, “Congratulations on Acceptance…”

Fast forward eight months to the fall of 2021, my first semester of graduate school. I’m sitting in a lecture hall revisiting mathematical concepts that I had not even thought about since my undergraduate degree. As the professor wrote equations on the chalkboard, elaborating on symbols that at one point in my life had meaning, I contemplated if graduate school is what I actually wanted. Five years had passed since I took my last academic class for my undergrad; I was feeling the effects of the academic hiatus. When I had accepted the graduate opportunity at MIT, I did not anticipate how much knowledge had escaped my mind in the past five years.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had always been one of my dream schools. The allure, the prestige, and the challenge surrounding the Institute is difficult to describe. The school was the backdrop for several movies I had seen growing up including “Good Will Hunting” and “21”.  The institute also has its connection with superheroes, as Tony Stark is an alumnus (at least that’s how author Stan Lee described it.)  These movies introduced the notion to me that, for some reason, MIT was linked to success…or at least important enough to be part of the narratives in Hollywood.  During the summer of 2011 (prior to my senior year of high school), I decided that I wanted to be part of the legacy of MIT.

However, life doesn’t always happen the way you have laid out in your head. At least not initially.

I was not admitted to MIT for an undergraduate degree. Instead, I accepted an appointment to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis. On my Commissioning Day in 2016, I tossed my gleaming white cap in the air; time seemed to freeze the moment the cap hit the apex.  In that moment I saw all the hard work the previous years had put me through, but in that same moment I had a realization about my future. All graduates of the Naval Academy move into a career of military service, whether that is through the United States Navy or the United States Marine Corps.

That is how I ended up living my life on boats…submarines to be exact. Yes, the big metal vehicles that submerge and test the depths of the ocean. My years on a submarine had taught me more about myself, than some people may learn about themselves over their entire careers. I learned how to devote myself to learning, how to lead and follow people, find answers to my own questions and how to persevere when the odds seem impossible.  A submarine requires you to become an expert about machines and equipment outside your comfort zone.  To achieve this level of mastery, I had to constantly read technical documents, be capable of intellectually challenging my peers, and exhibit a unsatiable thirst for understanding.  Most importantly, my submarine experience had given me the prerequisite engineering skills to be successful at MIT, I just didn’t know it yet.

As my time on the submarine came to a close, I did not know where to take the next steps of my life. I didn’t know whether I could go back to school, should take another job in the military, or hang up my proverbial boots.  These subjects were the topics of conversation that I had with my Captain, a man who saw the real potential in me.  He suggested that I apply for a program supported by the Navy which allows for oceanographic and ocean engineering research. The program – the Joint Program between MIT and WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute). Under my Captain’s tutelage, I applied to MIT and my decade’s old dream became a reality. 

As I packed up my belongings at the end of the lecture, I contemplated why school felt different. My graduate school experience is much different than my undergraduate experience. Attending a separate institution from my undergraduate only highlights those differences. The starkest difference about the graduate experience is the way students experience learning. 

As an undergraduate, you are expected to go to classes, complete assignments, and earn a bachelor’s degree. The questions that are asked usually have an accepted answer and teach concepts that are useful for solving practical problems. However, real world problems evolve. That is the heart of the graduate experience:  find out what you don’t know, learn about it through research, and come up with a potential solution to a problem which has no definitive answer. The undergraduate degree speaks volumes about an individual’s determination to learn. In contrast, the graduate experience requires that you devote yourself to learning, just as I had discovered on the submarine.

For me, graduate school requires a complete rewiring of my perception of school. I had to relearn how to learn, a process which is still ongoing. The process becomes a part of who I am. Dealing with adversity is part of graduate school, just as it is a part of life. Even though I doubted myself at the time, in retrospect, all the skills I needed for graduate school I had learned during my time on the submarine.  MIT is where I need to be at this point in my life, and sometimes all it takes is someone to believe in you, just as my Captain had believed in me. 

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