During my time in Brazil, a part of my identity I have been continually aware of is being an MIT student. Everywhere we have gone, we are introduced by the team as MIT students, and I notice a change when people hear it. They seem to pay more attention and take an interest in us that was not as strongly present before. I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Recently, when people ask me where I go to school, I’ve started saying “Boston” instead of “MIT”. It’s definitely not because I’m ashamed of going to MIT. Rather, I had a hypothesis that the fact that I go to MIT overwhelms someone’s impression of me, and it is seen a much bigger indicator of my personality than the way I actually interact in that social situation. I thought it would be interesting to test out.
For most of my undergraduate career, I was part of an organization called the Freshman Leadership Program. As counselors, we would go over different aspects of identity and which parts of our own identity stood out to us. We came to the conclusion that we often thought most about the parts of our identity that put us in a group that was marginalized in some way. For instance, counselors of ethnic minorities would think about that aspect of their identity a lot. Women seem to think about gender more than men do. However, my understanding of which part of my identity feels the most obvious to me in different contexts has changed upon reflection on this program abroad. Perhaps it is not just the parts that make us feel marginalized, but rather a larger set of elements that warrant special treatment, either good or bad.
When I’m on campus, everyone is an MIT student, so I don’t think about that much. When I go home, I become more aware of it with all of my mom’s friends asking me how to get in, what my grades and SAT scores were like, and what I do at MIT. Where I go to school is usually the first thing they know about me, which I guess makes sense if they have not met me in person yet. When I go abroad, it becomes an even more notable part of my identity. Because of this, going to MIT is something I thought about a lot while in Brazil this month. I wonder why it’s so much more prominent here. People find things that are rare fascinating, so maybe it’s because going to school in the United States itself is a more ‘untouchable’ opportunity here than for students born and raised in the country.
On the surface, it is definitely flattering. I know that being an MIT student is something they view as a very positive thing rather than something to put me down over. But once in a while, I do feel a lack of a sense of individuality. When trying to get to know someone socially, I’ve noticed that people sometimes forget my name, just categorizing me with that group. They clearly want to get to know me, but it does occasionally feel like they want to get to know an MIT student and not actually me. At a few points this month, I was interacting with someone who I later realized did not know my name. Usually, I’d then also realize that most of our conversation was about math or science things I did in high school rather than about my personal interests or thoughts.
As I reflect on my travels to other places as well, this pattern of special treatment becomes even more evident to me. Last year, I was in Jordan as a part of the Refugee Learning Accelerator program, and people initially knew me for where I went to school and it felt like an unfair social advantage I had over other students there. Even people much older and more experienced than myself seemed to think of themselves as less knowledgeable than me. They showed me immense amounts of respect I usually see reserved for elders, which confused me. The first two days were primarily about school and how to get to a place like MIT. As the days went by though, I had so much fun playing games like Mafia with all the students every night. We got to know each other on a more personal level, and it felt like a cohesive group rather than a hierarchical one. The memories beyond the first few days are my favorite ones, and I have started to think I can get a head-start on that phase by avoiding mention of where I went to school.
To be honest, being an MIT student is a big part of my identity. I’ve had a truly wonderful time here. Since I’ve graduated, I wear my brass rat everyday, and it reminds me of the countless memories and friendships I’ve fostered here. At the same time I want to be aware of different parts of my identity at different points in time. Academically and professionally, there is a large emphasis on my college. But socially, I’m starting to wonder how much I want it to represent me. I feel like it gives some of my social situations an added business tone, and I don’t want that. I want to be known for the way I interact and the way I lead, more than the grades and scores I received. It feels so much more right to be known as ‘Sravya’ than ‘MIT Girl’.
Sravya Bhamidipati is a member of the Graduate Class of 2019 studying Computer Science. This independent activities period, she is teaching STEM and Entrepreneurship in São José dos Campos, Brazil.