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Monday, 6 July 2020

My experience studying at MIT in Boston

Jessica Quaye MIT graduate. Currently on a Google Internship

Choosing the university you want to go to is an important decision and, while everyone wants to go to the top universities, there are a few things to know before you start your applications.

We spoke to Jessica Quaye, a Ghanaian student who studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), often ranked as the top engineering university in the world. She applied to MIT with support from AFEX Test Prep, a Ghanaian Educational Agency that set up in Kenya in 2018.

 OK, first question, tell us about your process of getting into MIT, how did you decide on the university and also what are you studying?

Jessica: Okay, coming out of high school, I really enjoyed studying chemistry, mathematics, and physics. I was really fascinated with learning about the scientific principles behind the way things work, so I wanted to pursue a degree in engineering. I chose MIT not only because it is the world's best engineering school but also because of the strong culture of Mens Manus, which means ‘mind in hand’.

MIT for me had a strong culture of academic rigor, studying the theory and practically applying it by building appealed a lot to me. Then I was exposed to electrical engineering and some programming, which I found really enjoyable. So, I ended up majoring in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

 

I know MIT is a very hard school to get into. On top of just the academics, what can students do to stand out?

Jessica:  I would just highly encourage people to justify for themselves why they want to go to a specific college, so don’t just apply to a school because it's a top school where everyone else is applying.

Spend time researching the size, the culture and the program you want to pursue and see if there is a fit. Also, in terms of what to do, don’t just fill your high school career with extracurricular activities just for the sake of doing so. Discover the things that you are passionate about and pursue them relentlessly. When you care about something you will go the extra mile for it, even if no one is watching, and I feel that should shine through your application. There are some things you just cannot fake.

Jessica Quaye MIT graduate. Currently on a Google Internship
Jessica Quaye MIT graduate. Currently on a Google Internship

What was your experience with AFEX like?

Jessica: The college application process, in general, was a very introspective time. I spent a lot of time reflecting on my journey so far, thinking about where I wanted to go, and with AFEX I really appreciated the emphasis on doing the work for yourself because it helps you understand your motivations and what makes you unique. AFEX was extremely instrumental in helping me craft my story - the way that it reflected where I came from as well as where I was going. I went through several iterations of my essays, talking about the things I had done, and each time I could see them taking shape and becoming something I was proud of. Sometimes the way the story is represented, because of the education system I had gone through and the way I communicated, was not necessarily suited to the American system. So having my voice amplified, or tweaked in a way that highlighted who I was, was extremely important and helpful.

 

What was that transition like for you; did you get any culture shock? And what advice would you give to students who are going to America for the first time?

Jessica: Nothing could have prepared me for my experience when I first went! Honestly, I feel like you are told one thing and you're like “Oh yeah, sure, whatever, I’m going to be fine” and then you get there and you’re like “Wow!” This was something completely different from what I was used to having grown up in my home country. The food was different, the weather was different, the culture was different, and there was just so much to take in in so little time.

On top of this, you had the added rigour of MIT and things moving fast. You need to find your way to keep up with it. But, especially at a school like MIT, there was a lot of support for students.

Try new things but remember to stay true to yourself. If there are certain things that you would rather not do, you are not going to be forced into them. Peer pressure exists everywhere and it's up to you to define what you are looking for out of college. America is such a great country but there are definitely things about it that are not as great.

 

What did your family think when you got in?

Jessica: Oh my days! I still remember that night, they screamed! Everybody says it but trust me, when you do apply and you are refreshing your browser page the night of the release of the admission, it's crazy! It was about 10 pm in Ghana and almost everyone in my house was asleep so I opened it and I thought “God, even if it doesn’t happen, I am comfortable just knowing that you have a plan.”

Then I opened it and I saw “CONGRATULATIONS”. I screamed! I screamed so loud that my mum came, my older brother came, they were like “what's happening? Are you okay?” and I was like “GUYS, I GOT INTO MIT, I’M GOING TO MIT!”

I couldn't believe that the thing that I had worked so hard for and dreamt about for so long had just come to life right in front of my eyes. I was so excited. Everyone rejoiced with me.

I'm sure my parents also had concerns about me being so far away, being in a new place where things could be really difficult sometimes. And I did have my fair share of struggles at MIT but they were happy for me in knowing that that was where I wanted to go and what I wanted to pursue.

What was the hardest thing for you at MIT?

Jessica: The hardest thing was getting through sophomore year. In freshman year, you have general requirements which, for the most part, is material that you have been previously exposed to.

But in sophomore year, you jump straight into your major. So many people find it so difficult to keep drinking from the same fire hose, but with new material that you never accounted for. It was very difficult, I was struggling, things were not going well. I was always going to mental health and student support services. It was a really difficult time.

I was actually supposed to go to Italy to participate in one of MIT’s training programs but because of everything that had happened to me in the fall, I just took time off and came home. Just so that I could come to spend time with my family, recuperate, recalibrate, and remember why I went there in the first place.

Sophomore year at MIT is where most people realize “Okay, you got into MIT and things may have been smooth sailing but no matter how much of a giant you are, MIT will knock you out at some point.” But there is always support, that’s the thing. There is a cushion to catch you when you get knocked out and bring you back. I don’t know how other colleges would have handled it but MIT did a phenomenal job.  

Do you want to study at an American University?

Would you do it all over again now that you know how difficult it was once you were there?

Jessica:  YES! 100%. I would not trade my MIT experience for anything. The pain and the joy and everything that I experienced at MIT really shaped me.

Besides just struggling and learning to be empathetic, I met people from all over the world. Brilliant people, accomplished people, people who had the burning desire to learn, to grow and to be better, and I think it challenged me personally- to accept that sometimes you are not always going to be the best and that is okay, just learn from the best. You are in this environment where you can learn to thrive so don’t let imposter syndrome kill your passion.

You don’t notice an instant change but, over time, you become this person who thinks about problems in different ways and it is beautiful to have experienced it. I would do it all over again! Even with the pain!

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