As an alumnus of Williams College, I regularly get emails from my class officers requesting for donations to the college. These emails try to convince us to give money by including variations of: “Don’t forget the awesome memories you had at Williams. Please donate to support the experience of current students!” On the Williams website, it’s not hard to find testimonials of students saying that they have made a lot of friends and love the college. Many students have also told me this directly.
I wish I could fully agree.
It has now been a year and a half since I graduated from Williams. During our commencement, since the class size was small enough, the graduating students lined up to walk across the stage to get their diplomas. For some students, as their name was called, the audience roared with the sounds of their friends cheering and hollering, and Dean Sarah Bolton would have to smile and wait for the applause to die down before calling the next student.
When she called me, a blanket fell over the crowd. It was uncomfortably quiet as I approached President Adam Falk to receive my diploma.
To be fair, every now and then, I was able to find and talk to a few graduating students. I waved a bit, asked students about their post-graduation plans, and engaged in other polite conversations. I even managed to get in a few photos.
But deep down, I knew that I had failed on one of my two major goals before entering college. The first goal, which I achieved, was to do well academically and get in a good graduate school in the sciences. I did that, and while I never thought my field would be computer science, somehow I made it. It doesn’t hurt that computer science is a pretty hot field now.
My second goal was to make close friends.
Not acquaintances. Not one-and-done homework buddies. Not people with whom our communication would derive primarily from exchanging Facebook posts. Real, close friends, people who I could count on for the highest-priority social events.
I was concerned about making friends before entering Williams, since I had been unable to do that in high school. (Most people from the high school who I stay in touch with nowadays are those who I would have known even if I had not gone to my high school.) To be fair, I was reasonably friendly with students from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing classroom in my high school, but my attempts to extend this to hearing students did not succeed.
Despite a lack of social skills, my first semester at Williams actually exceeded my expectations. For one of the few times in my life, I was surrounded by brilliant, talented students my age who were also extremely eager to get to know each other. During the first few weeks, I couldn’t believe how many times people would come up to me, unprompted, to say hello, relieving me of the burden to start an awkward conversation. My goodness, where was this my entire life?
Unfortunately, as the months, semesters, and years went on at Williams, I gradually realized that I was missing out on close friendships. I would occasionally find homework collaborators, gym partners, and irregular eating groups.
But when it came to the “real” social events, I was out.
Like in most colleges, Friday and Saturday nights are prime social hours at Williams, the times when students stick with their closest friends to go out to eat, have a party, or to just hang out (hopefully doing nothing illegal, but never mind). I usually spent Friday and Saturday nights in the computer science laboratory or in my dorm room. It’s not that I was turning down party invitations – I didn’t get them.
When I wandered around campus during these times, I regularly walked by large groups of hollering students, some of them drunk. I’m not going to lie – I really, really wished I could have been part of some of those groups, enjoying myself in the company of friends (but without the drunk part). I dreamed about this, replaying hypothetical social situations in my mind and pretending that I was the popular person in the center of the crowd, leading the group to their destination.
Unfortunately, the reality was that during the few times I was lucky enough to be with a group of students late at night, I generally did not enjoy those experiences. The reason is obvious. When the other students talked, I was unable to understand what they were saying. If I were really popular, it might be possible to have students who act as personal translators, but that was not the case.
It didn’t help that I had what I would call a “friendship ranking” problem. I could form a ranking of the top ten Williams students with whom I was friendliest. But I don’t think any of them would have me at a comparable rank on their lists; I would probably be around ten spots lower. Thus, during the prime social hours, those high-ranking students would socialize with people on top of their hypothetical friendship list. It’s what a rational human being would do. And, admittedly, I didn’t have much courage to ask people to do things together. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to understand what they said, or that I would inconvenience them.
During my second year at Williams, I had a series of stressful and unpleasant experiences in groups and parties. I consistently ran into the problem of being unable to hear what students said in group situations. Starting in my junior year, I decided to cease attending parties, as I was tired of showing up to these events myself and watching people roar and laugh at something mysterious. For a while, simply ignoring these events worked. I sometimes had nagging thoughts that I really was missing out on lots of fun and friendship, but for a while, I could hold thoughts about isolation at bay.
The Fall 2013 semester was when my isolation truly began to hit home, and to make matters worse, it came during an incredibly stressful time, when I had to write graduate school applications and work on research. During the start of that semester, my isolation consumed me. I constantly thought about it when I was completing homework, sitting in class lectures, eating by myself, and doing other activities. I was unable to focus well, and I left the campus for a weekend to recharge.
During the winter break, since my family lives within driving distance from the college, I remained at home, with the occasional foray to campus if I had a thesis meeting. I soon faced the reality that, while I was home, I didn’t get texts or messages from other students, asking where I was. I felt that students didn’t care about me.
Fortunately, this experience had a reasonably positive ending. Being away from campus helped me mentally recover. My grades were fine, and I caught up on research in the following semester, Spring 2014. I also felt better once I had gotten into more graduate schools than I expected, since I could look forward to starting a new social life at my next school, forever thinking about how to upgrade from “acquaintance” to “close friend.”
Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about my Williams experience: positive for academics, but sometimes negative for social. After graduating, I had no desire to relive my constant concerns over isolation.
But then, the Fall 2015 semester happened.
Hopefully, after some more time passes, I can relax and judge the Fall 2015 semester with a clearer mind, like how American presidents are often evaluated more favorably far beyond their presidency, as compared to immediately after their last term.
The Fall 2015 semester, however, currently holds the edge in the title of “worst semester ever”. The culprit, if you haven’t figured it out already: isolation.
Almost all of my negative experiences, almost all of my sources of stress and depression, just like at Williams, can be traced back to that one single, simple concept.
My “isolation thoughts” reappeared in summer 2015, an ominous sign of things to come. During that summer, I was alone in my lab room, which has six desks but (at that time) had only three students, including me. But the other two had internships at Google and Microsoft.
I can remember three times when I was not, strictly speaking, alone there: when one of the two students took a break from his internship to give me a much-needed “hello” while we had lunch (that day was great), when a random Master’s student came to install his computers in the room (but he never showed up again and I saw someone else move his computers later), and when two students from another research group installed a research computer in the lab (but their real office is in a different building).
Aside from those three cases, I can’t think of another time when I spoke with anyone else near my desk that summer. It should say a lot that I vividly remember these minor interactions (and what we talked about), because deep, memorable interactions are hard to get.
As hinted in an earlier post, the isolation I was experiencing in the summer gradually consumed me and hindered my ability to do work and to study. During the weeks before, during, and after my prelims (i.e., late August), I went through several days that I would call “lost days.” Here’s the definition: a “lost day” is one when I show up to my office at the usual time, stay there for eight to ten hours, but do not make any progress at all on work, because my mind is consumed with thoughts on isolation.
Here’s an example. Suppose I show up in the morning with the goal of understanding a dense, technical paper that might help me with my research. I read a paragraph, but then have a thought appear in my head: that there was a recently-published paper co-authored by three Berkeley graduate students that was all the rage in research meetings. Then I get disappointed that somehow these students got together and were able to – presumably – bounce ideas off of each other and collaborate in creating a high-quality paper. I think: Why can’t I have that experience? A minute later, I shake this thought off of my head and realize that I have to read the paper in front of me. Since I am distracted, I have start back at the paragraph I just “read.” Unfortunately, after re-reading that paragraph, another thought explodes in my mind. This time it’s about something different, perhaps I remember seeing three other graduate students eating lunch together. I think about this, frustrated that I don’t have a consistent eating partner, and then snap out of it again to try and get back to reading. Of course, I have to start from the beginning of that same paragraph, and so on …
These feedback loops were devastating, robbing me of any hope of making progress during those lost days. I tried to escape this by walking around campus, going to cafes, and so forth, but these were only temporary remedies.
If only I could make it to the prelims, I thought, then things would get better. Passing the prelims would give me confidence that I needed to regain my research productivity. The start of the semester meant that there would be more people around. Things would go better.
Despite an impressive performance on the prelims, my experience was not an improvement. If anything, I felt more isolated compared to how I felt in the summer. I was bombarded with signs that students were less isolated than me. I saw students in the same research group stick with each other, working together or hanging out. The fall also brought a new wave of accepted research papers, many of them involving groups of two or more graduate students and postdocs. It was hard to avoid knowing about these papers, especially if those papers were related to my area. Looking at these groups of students, either together socially or together in a publication, made me feel frustrated. I longed to be part of those groups. I wanted to break out of my cycle of isolation. I wanted to feel happy looking at other people, not disappointed.
My mood did not recover from the summer. I would feel disappointed while sitting in class lectures, knowing that I was different from the other students. I repeatedly got angry at myself during (and after) lectures when I was unable to follow the sign language well enough to sufficiently understand what lecturers were saying. I tried to reassure myself, knowing that I would spend nights and weekends reading webpages and textbooks to catch up on the lecture material, but somehow that didn’t make me feel better.
I would also feel isolated whenever I heard, read, or thought about “diversity in computer science.” This was usually mentioned in the contexts of getting more women, Blacks, and Hispanics in computer science. I fully agree that we need more of them in computer science, but I also don’t want us to assume that every Caucasian and Asian male automatically feels included.
Eventually, as the semester progressed with more thoughts on isolation and a few more “lost days,” I finally tried to tell people explicitly that I needed help to combat isolation; this semester was just taking too much of a toll on me. I don’t want to place the blame on anyone in particular; in fact, I don’t think there is any individual to blame. I believe this because one thing that hurt me was failing to make it obvious when I first arrived in Berkeley that (a) I was deaf, and (b) I needed help finding real collaborators.
While I feel like things can move at such a glacial pace, at least there are people here trying to help me out. I’m extremely grateful to the ones who have not completely disregarded me, and have given me the opportunity to – as of today – have much more collaboration than ever before. A new era begins now. I can’t waste this opportunity.
So will my story have a happy ending? We shall see.
By now, it should be clear that 2015 was not the greatest year for me. It started off reasonably well, but fell off a cliff at some point during late summer and early fall.
Happy New Year everyone – I’m looking forward to 2016!