I know Shamarah from the internet. E-bffs, if you will. She’s a senior in the Economics department at MIT. Yes I said MIT. #getitGURL I wanted to interview her for the blog because she is the antithesis of my post college life – she actually knows what she’s going to do after graduation. As in, she has a job lined up. As in, she’s going to do something with her life immediately after college. Using her degree. I mean, if you haven’t already started clapping and doing that loud whistle through your teeth, you’d better start now.
Read on for our interview: her post-college plans, being a (black) (female) student at MIT, and why she created and curates a Twitter account (@our___Institute) to educate people about diversity at her university.
Q: What are people’s reactions when/if you say you attend MIT? I mean, I imagine people are impressed…
A: Hahaha, well, it varies from “okay smarty pants!” to “oh is that like ITT Tech?” The most surprising reactions have been from complete strangers, especially older Black women. They stop everything and tell me how proud of me they are, like they’re my own family. It’s really sweet and encouraging to know that it means something so special to people I don’t even know.
Q: Give us a bit of background: where were you raised, your family, what led you to MIT and your major? How does your upbringing influence your career goals?
A: I’m from central Florida, about an hour from Disney World. I was raised with an understanding that education was going to be a big part of my future. Mom and Dad grew up in Jamaica and Trinidad, respectively, and neither of them, nor their parents, nor their parents’ parents, etc. went to college for a Bachelor’s. At some point before I was born, they decided I would be the first, and so in my family, learning was really fun, and that particular kind of fun was the kind that would make my life easier down the road in terms of independence, empowerment, and financial freedom. So, I went all in.
I started reading at 2, and always had a new book waiting when I finished one. My mom encouraged (read: forced) me to always go above and beyond in the classroom, doing extra credit whether or not I’d be turning it in. I was in pre-IB and IB programs all throughout middle and high school; I was active in math clubs, show choirs, orchestra, and even the school newspaper for a year. I didn’t know exactly what, but I was trying to do something big, something special with this whole school thing.
(side note by Evelyn — ayyyeee I was an IB student *high five* Theory of Knowledge got on my every last NERVE.)
Q: So then tell us how you chose to go to MIT. A: I remember my guidance counselor telling me that we’d be getting junk mail from a bunch of colleges, and she warned us not to put too much stock in it. “Like if you get a letter from MIT, for example,” she said. Everyone laughed, including me. When I actually got one, though, it kind of scared me. The first thought I had was, “what if I actually got in? No one would even believe it.”
I started thinking about what it would be like to learn there. After that, things are kind of a blur. I got another piece of mail about a highly selective summer program for high school juniors at MIT, so I applied and then got in. I took my first flight by myself to a strange campus over 1000 miles away from home; I’d never felt more at home anywhere. After the program was over, I worked really hard on my college application and got in again. I started freshman year and realized that I wanted to do mathematics but with a focus and a social goal, so bam! economics. And now I’m here.
Q: Describe a typical day for us.
A: I wake up; talk to God; go to class/committee meetings/band rehearsal/trash can drumming class/a planned outing with friends, faculty members, or people I want to connect with; do my homework; and spend copious amounts of time on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube connecting and sharing content with my friends. Sometimes I go to sleep, too!
Q: Have you thought about the post college life? What are your plans after graduation? How are you working on achieving those plans right now?
A: After graduation I’m moving to Washington, DC to start my career as a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton. Since it’s a strategy and technology consulting firm working mostly with governmental agencies, the particulars are either vague or confidential, but i’m incredibly excited to be starting there and also to be living in the DC area. Later on, I plan to pursue a PhD in economic sociology and be a part of the solution to something big. Right now I’m learning more about the field and getting familiar with what kind of research already exists. Having some industry experience under my belt before applying is a good thing (I hope?), so that can be seen as something I’m doing to achieve this goal as well.
Q: *impressed face* So what are the difficult things about your industry/major/profession?
A: For one thing, being a social scientist at MIT can be uncomfortable because my fellow classmates assume that engineering, biology, and chemistry are the only majors that “real MIT students” go for. In a nutshell, the problem can be summed up by the following: I was introducing myself to a friend of a friend and when he asked what major I’m in, I answered him. He said, “okay.. so, anything else?”
Not everyone here is as rude and presumptuous as this fellow, but it does happen. I think it’s based on ignorance. The truth is, MIT is made up of five schools: Engineering; Science; Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Architecture and Planning; Sloan School of Management Sciences. The Institute is a vibrant place of innovation. We’re in the business of creating technologies that change the world in a ton of ways – not just by building fancier robots or coding fancier programs. Don’t believe the hype – each and every one of us, regardless of major, have to master the same crazy hard math and science courses to graduate from here. Some of us just have to master that in addition to a completely disparate field of study while we’re here, too.
As far as my major, I’m actually the only Black woman graduating from Department of Economics this year, so I’ve been the only one in all except one of my classes. A lot of other students (and some professors and grad student instructors) look at me like I have three heads when I discuss the low levels of financial literacy and disproportionate instances of unemployment in some American communities – as if they’ve never been discussed in an MIT classroom before.
It stinks sometimes, and it’s been heartbreaking other times. All in all, I’m incredibly blessed that I get to be a part of changing an amazing institution like this. Moments of discomfort are worth it if it means a student after me doesn’t have to feel the same awkwardness.
Q: Do you also have a job? If so, what’s it like balancing that with schoolwork?
A: I’ve had at least one on-campus job every semester since starting at school, and it’s been great. I got to work in the Office of the President of MIT and learn a lot about how things work at the top and behind the scenes. Building connections with staff and administration (not just faculty or fellow students) has been a huge part of my MIT experience, and in many cases, those were the folks who helped me achieve a balance with schoolwork and everything else.
Q: Any tips for youngsters trying to be where you are? What are some mistakes you’ve made that we can learn from?
A: I thought that being good at something would be enough to get what I wanted out of life. I learned that this assumption is bad new for two reasons:
- ONE – when I was no longer the perfect student, perfect choir member, or perfect whatever, my confidence took major blows and I felt like everything I did was kind of worthless. Placing so much weight on something that it starts to define you and your views on success means that when that things takes a hit, so do you and your hopes to make a mark on the world. Strive to achieve success through authenticity.
- TWO – the world is full of very rich, very successful, and very influential people who don’t know as much as I do about math, science, economics, or even grammar. Critical thinking and technical skills are impressive and important, but the idea that they’re a necessary or sufficient condition for success is just wrong. You get farther faster by learning how to value relationships and maintain links to mentors who can — and want to — help you.
Q: Tell us about @our___Institute and the story behind that. what do you hopes comes of your efforts and has any progress been made/what would progress be in this situation?
A: A senior wrote an opinion piece suggesting that MIT’s commitment to diversity and inclusion would and has already “eroded our meritocracy.” He claims affirmative action is not the “right direction” for us to be going in as a university. Essentially, he argues that the practice of actively recruiting women and underrepresented minorities is a detractor from the practice of being excellent. I think that’s a load of particularly stinky garbage, and i wanted to be a part of a campus-wide response from individual students who were rightly offended.
So, among some other things, I began and curated this Twitter account, @our___Institute. The three underscores in the Twitter handle are a testament to who really benefits from a diverse campus to creatively make a real statement about the real erosion of excellence going on here: the perpetuated notion that only students of a certain color, gender, and intended career path are the ones who belong here, and that the rest of us are just taking up space.
It’s hard to tell what “progress” really looks like in this case, but I know that it’s a shift in the mindset that I’m really advocating for. We can’t just decide who people are or what they can do based on how much money they have, or how different from you they look. All I can say is that what’s happening in response to this article and many other inherently wrong attitudes on campus is truly new and revolutionary, and that if we keep going, we might all be surprised by how much progress some frustrated MIT kids can actually make in getting people to think twice about what they believe.
Q: I’m with it! Hopefully y’all can get some good dialogues going — online and in real life. Finally, if you could describe your college years so far in one quote, what would it be?
A: I actually just came across this today!
“If God never gave us more than we could handle, then we wouldn’t be able to handle it when God gives us more.”
I’m so, so glad He gave me more.