GERARDO: So it’s the fall of 2018, or it’s approaching the fall, and I’m coming in to MIT with my parents. And we’re really excited because I’m at this amazing place of learning. You hear about this place in movies, right, so it’s really cool. And with it comes a sense of excitement, wonderment almost, because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants but also a sense of indigestion, right, of just like, oh god. What’s going to happen next?

But luckily the first couple of weeks were OK. I go into my, for example, graduate biochemistry class– and so that’s my background what I came in knowing. I come in with a sense of, kind of, comfort that everything’s going to be OK, that I am capable of going here, finishing my degree, and then leaving in somewhere around five to six years, which is very exciting.

But then comes along another sort of obstacle a couple of weeks in, where we’re going over a relatively simple topic that is called replica plating, which is where you take a plate of cells and then you press a piece of fabric onto it to pick up the cells. And then you put that piece of fabric with the cells on it onto a plate that has no cells. So, essentially, you’re just, like I said, transferring cells from one plate to another.

And we were reviewing this topic with my friends, just in the regular study room, me and some other friends. And I think I raised my hand because someone was lecturing. And I said, wait, so what are you talking about? How do you move from one plate to another? They said, well, you just put the piece of fabric on there. And then I asked them, what do you mean you just use a piece of fabric? And then they said, you just use the piece of fabric.

And I think we continued with this almost circular system of questions over and over again, until they got to six or seven questions later, when it seemed like I was asking my questions as a joke. But in reality, I was totally and utterly befuddled by this process. And they ended up laughing at me, which was truly shocking, because at that moment was when I kind of went from thinking I can do this to maybe I can’t.

And so it kind of just nudged me. And it kept on nudging at me to the point where, for example, I was also in a class with a professor, and I was going over some sort of experimental design. And when we were drawing our experimental design I drew a little drawing of a cell. And I happened to put a smiley face on it because that’s just how I was taught by an instructor all the way back probably in high school.

And they made a point of it. They kind of just remarked on it. And when they remarked on me drawing that, it also made me once again question whether or not I could do it. And so instead of this vibrant, excited graduate student I kind of became this worried graduate student. What did I actually get myself into? Because even though MIT is a great place of learning it also just seemed very inaccessible to me at the moment.

And so these things just kept on happening. And I kept on questioning my ability to be here, my competency, so to speak, until eventually I got to a point where I needed what I would call professional help. And I decided to email one of my professors, and he was very understanding. He actually replied within the day. And he mentioned, oh yeah let’s just meet, here are a couple of days that I’m available. And one of them happened to be Sunday at 7:00 PM.

And I was astonished because you would think that a professor would have very little time or they have other things to do. But this professor took time to say, oh yeah, my schedule is actually totally open on a weekend at a really awkward hour, which is pretty crazy.

So I went and I met him. Essentially I went to his building. And so then we met. He let me into his office, and he was very cordial. He also took a lot of time to make sure that I was comfortable because he gave me a cup of tea. He was able to give me a– he let me just sit in his office and just chill out for a minute or two because I think he could sense that there was a sense of, kind of, malaise coming from me, like a sense of pain.

And so, as a result, he just at one point just asked me what exactly is happening. And what I thought was going to be just a brief conversation about my academic performance, or how to better my academic performance, ended up really turning into a lot of the emotional turmoil that I had faced in the last couple of months.

And so I had told him all sorts of things like, for example, that I felt incompetent, and that I thought that the others– and that I had these experiences where I just felt like I just wasn’t– like I just didn’t belong here, and how everyone else seemed like they belong here but not me.

And I think upon me saying that, there was a sort of silence for a minute or two. And after a minute or two he just turned to me and he said, what makes you think that the others also feel perfectly competent. And upon him saying that, there was a sense of relief from the idea that I wasn’t totally alone. And that some of my experiences were not, per se, unique and that instead this is something that a lot of other students are facing. But maybe we have a lot of trouble voicing.

And so instead of thinking of that one time when my friends were laughing at me as them mocking me or them calling me incompetent, in reality, it’s probably that they were reflecting on their experiences. And they saw that even someone else who is also very smart has trouble with something seemingly simple. Or even a professor pointing out a certain type of drawing is not necessarily him saying, oh man, this guy is incompetent. It’s more so, oh, that’s a different viewpoint that I hadn’t considered before.

And it’s taken some time to truly delve into this topic of self-love and self– and my ability as a student. But it’s really forced me to think of my studies not as a competition but instead as a time for me to grow and learn as much as possible.