NEKI: I remember telling a friend of mine about my ambition to go to MIT and to write my master’s thesis there. We were sitting in the bar of my student dorm. It was roughly 1 and 1/2 years ago. And I was so excited about this idea to come here. MIT, right?

But it was so much more than that to me because I used to live in a foster home for eight years. And I still remember how I asked him, like, can you even imagine what that would mean to me to go there to MIT as a foster kid? Like, I have never dreamed about going to MIT before.

I was dreaming about having a family like everyone else. I was dreaming about going on vacation with my family like everyone else. And I was dreaming about having a normal life like everyone else. This meant that I need to get out of this mess, this poverty. And strangely, I saw clearly that education was my way to get out of there.

So over the years, I would focus on my studies, just trying to organize my life. I developed this habit of challenging myself to become the best version of myself until another perfectionist was born. So the time finally came. It was summer. And I have prepared this really long list with everything that I wanted to do during my time at MIT, books that I wanted to read, things I wanted to do.

I planned every single detail, even the way I packed. So I would put on my winter boots because I wanted to save space in my luggage. When I arrived in Boston, I went straight to the baggage claim to pick up my stuff. I was waiting there for roughly half an hour until I got suspicious because my bag was not coming.
Turns out, my bag was lost. And this means that I was walking through Boston in this winter boots. It was a really hot summer. So my arrival didn’t went as planned. But I still had my project in mind. And this had to be perfect. It was about AI and emotion recognition, something that I’m really passionate about.
And the innovative part is that we use plants, like plants to detect emotions. Like, is that even possible? Like, how amazing would that be? But after a couple of days, I realized, maybe that is just too innovative for me. Can I really handle that?

I started feeling pressure, this pressure that gets physical. One morning, I was not able to get up to leave my bed. I was just overwhelmed and lying in my bed with the white and cheap sheets that I got from Target. The sun was shining outside. And I used the curtains to hide inside my room because I didn’t want the world to see me.

So I was lying there and thinking about, what I have done? Why did I choose to come to MIT? I could have just stayed in Munich. I would have had an easier life, an easier thesis, maybe. But what do I do next?

If I quit now, there are stereotypes waiting to get confirmed, something like, what do you expect from a foster kid? So quitting was not an option. And I knew that I could not even– I should not think about that. So I needed time to think about how to get out of there.

And one morning, I got a really warm and welcoming message from a friend of mine, Natalie. She was also a visiting student at that time. So we met. And she told me about her experience. I told her about my expectations and experiences so far. And she was in the process of finishing her stay here. I was in the process of starting.

I was just looking at her, at this bright smile in her face. In this smile I saw accomplishment and success because she has finished her master thesis. So I admired her because I wanted to be in the same spot. But I was a foster kid. And she was not.

So I was not sure would I be even able to get there. So I shared my fears and worries. And she would look at me and say, don’t you worry. You’re not alone in this. I have been there as well. And she also told me that there are so many visiting students, basically, every visiting student she talked to that struggled with similar problems.

When I heard that, like, I am not alone. I felt so relieved. And all of this burden that I felt just evaporated. So fast forward to today. I am sitting here to share that my experience here has been a huge success. I have met so many amazing people.

I might not have traveled across the US. But I have explored Boston. I might have not read all the books that I have listed. But I have read a bunch. About my project– it has not been perfect. It was not perfect. But I still have some results. It was a roller coaster. But I can go home.

And yeah, basically, it took me this long and a coffee with a friend to realize that maybe I am not just a foster kid. Maybe I’m just like everyone else around me.