College Flings and Second Chances

Cambridge, my personal land of could-have-been’s. If you want a sure way to torture me to no end, riddle me with endless what-ifs — what if I pursued the academe? What if I gunned for a scholarship to MIT? What if instead of selling out to the lure of a corporate career, I was actually meant to happily slave away with like-hearted geeks working on the next big thing for my thesis? Argh, it’s driving me crazy just to write this post.

True story: My heart bled for a bit when I saw this.

A true masochist, I whisked myself off to Boston. Rina, a friend who recently moved to this college town to pursue her MBA, kindly let me crash her place, as I subject myself to anguish with tours of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

You can see the stark contrast of these neighboring Ivy League giants. There is something austere, almost solemn, as you waltz into the Harvard campus. Up front, you get the hint that people would go to great lengths to preserve traditions of crimson that have withstood centuries. One of my favorite books, Erich Segal’s The Class, had Harvard as its backdrop, and I could fully imagine the story unfolding in this timeless setting.

MIT's EECS building. How's that for a playful imagination?

MIT, on the other hand, is more playful — the word that comes to mind is wacky, actually. You can sense that at once when you lay your eyes upon the Stata Center, the main building for their Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department. MIT actually encourages their students to uphold a long tradition of ingenious pranks, or hacks, as they call it — the wilder, the better! Who wouldn’t love this place?

Reminder of one of MIT's greatest hacks: This police car was actually found one morning atop MIT's Great Dome (the dome is often a favorite victim of the hacks).
There's a whole corridor honoring MIT's most memorable hacks.

Getting to saunter in the campus grounds was nice; getting to sit in on an actual class was even better! Harvard offers a number of interesting lectures open to visitors for that full Harvard experience. I set my heart upon a Computer Science 10 intro class, which held court in a theater within Harvard’s regal Memorial Hall.

As I step into the basilica-like auditorium, the techno music blaring in the background makes me wonder if I’m in the right place. Once the students have settled in, the professor turns down the music and projects a photo on the gigantic screen behind him. It was a shot of — wait for it — an old photo of Mark Zuckerburg working on (the)facebook. What’s going on?!

After all this time, I find myself back in CS 10.

That was apparently the professor’s segway for his lecture on Javascript and AJAX, and their roles on today’s most popular web applications. The talk made me want to dig up my old CS 10 notes and see what we were talking about back then.

My eyes wander to the screens of about a hundred Macbooks flipped open before me. Facebook, Gmail, YM — I guess doodling in class doesn’t do it anymore, eh? I remember a time when getting mobile in campus meant hauling your monolith laptop to wherever there’s a socket.

Circuit boards! Oooh, memories.

Even though the same open lectures were not offered in MIT, what we got during our free MIT campus tour was even better — we bumped into Mark Zuckerburg! He was apparently holding campus recruitment talks in Cambridge that day, and our tour group came face-to-face with his entourage as they were trying to take a shortcut through a secluded corridor. Even our tour group guide was at loss for words; we were so stunned that no one had the wits about them to pull out a camera. FAIL.

Strangely enough, even though I set myself up for a few days of torture, I got through with my heart at peace. There’s no way to undo the choices I took in the past, but getting to see what I’ve missed and thinking on the alternative learning I’ve gained out of campus set my mind at ease. Thinkers abound both in and out universities, after all. One more thing this trip has made me realize: the door’s always open for those who seek second chances.

Why, hello there, man lost in thought.

Pics galore:
2011-11 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Tour – Picasa Album
2011-11 Harvard University Tour – Picasa Album

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