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'What's this call, this sperit?' An' I says, 'It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust, sometimes…'Maybe,' I figgered, 'maybe it's all men an' all women we love;

maybe that's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of.' Now I sat there thinkin' it, an’ all of a suddent—I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.

~Jim Casy, Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Like the ex-reverend Casy in the Grapes of Wrath, I have wandered in my resolve from time to time and ultimately come up with some major changes in who I am as a student and a person—through the study of existentialism, searching through the college admissions and decision process, and many other factors such as religion, politics, and life in general. In general, to a fair degree, my changes in this year parallel the maturation of “Tom, Jr.” in the Grapes of Wrath.

When I look back on last year, it's probably a lot like Tom would have felt looking back on his four years in prison. Junior year was a very stressful time. As I wrote of Tom in my summer assignment, to survive the work of junior year I was “fairly pragmatic, adopting a philosophy of ‘just puttin' one foot in front a the other.’” Under an assault of work from every class, matched only by my load from AP English this year, it is relatively amazing that I survived at all, let alone in tact.

In this process, I had to take a fairly egocentric view. Though I don't think I ever was completely disconnected from my fellow man, I hit a point of steep competition. I sacrificed a significant portion of my happiness last spring to the altar of online AP Spanish. After long, drawn out calculations, I had discovered the point I needed—with an A in AP Spanish I would be (and was) valedictorian for the entirety of Senior Year. As shall occur, I knew I wouldn't be valedictorian come the end of this year and graduation, but I was valedictorian when college applications went out. This incident is highly illustrative of the person I was. I had pretty much one concern—fulfilling a dream, getting into MIT.

To achieve this, I continued working in intemperance all through last year. “At 1:00am on a November night, a man sat alone in an Ingolstadt apartment, consumed in passion, poring over the work before him. Two years of work were finally completed, and the experiment was a success!” Though this passage comes from an essay I wrote about Victor Frankenstein, a simple transfer of location could make this description fit me when my early college applications were finally all submitted. One hopes, however, that I did not create a monster.

Despite the continued hope and anxiety over college decisions, I think that starting this year, I had already started to come out of my shell and take a less egocentric view of my educational success. I believe several factors were involved. First, over the summer I continued to research and read about the ideals of MIT and its admissions process. I realized that, all told, having the highest grades as opposed to the second highest grades didn't make much of a difference. What MIT valued was caring and intellectual risk taking. Luckily I had a summer involving both. Between my Eagle project and working at NASA for my research project, I had already started relearning lessons about the reward of helping others. Further, I had learned for the first time ideas about the gratification of working on real, original research.

In September, however, I still had a lot to learn or relearn about being not egocentric. In September, I had difficulty writing an essay for MIT that I didn't think was too egocentric. Perhaps studying existentialism had a healing effect on my thought process in this regard, making me realize that I disagreed with the fundamental idea that we were really completely separate. Personally, I think things do hold some inherent meaning.

Interestingly, it was on the bus ride home from a Theater Conference that I wrote what would become my final essay for MIT. I think that competing as part of a cast helped snap me out of my little wave of egocentrism. The essay itself contains several very group-oriented sentiments. For example, I state that “Both learning and living ultimately need a purpose to define them. This purpose is ‘loving,’ not only in personal relationships but by caring for and helping people in general. I was raised in a very caring environment that stressed ‘giving back.'” I further discussed empathy as it specifically related to theater “Acting roles from an enchanted otter to an East German baseball player, I've come see theater as more than entertainment, a way for actor and audience to assume new perspectives and explore complexities of the world in an emotional rather than scientific light.”

Once I was admitted to MIT, I also eased back significantly on the force I put on myself to achieve academically. Granted, I still held myself to high standards, but, for example, I totally abandoned any plans to finagle valedictorian-ship. I realized that I had made the accomplishment I cared about. Further, I began preparing myself mentally for the type of learning I will be doing at MIT—hands on, collaborative. Things I've studied independently this year have been more forward-focused (e.g. proofs, matrix theory). Further, I have prepared for collaboration with MIT, by keeping in close contact with several of my future classmates and co-administering the MIT 2012 facebook group. While this work is not academic, it is still collaborative with my peers and sets up the good will and rapport I will use in the future.

Meanwhile, outside the academic and college preparation realm, I was also seeking community. For example, I attended the Norfolk Unitarian Church several times during this year. I really liked the community ideals that the organization of the Universalist Unitarian Association represents —providing fellowship and supporting coexistence among people of varying backgrounds. Though ultimately I stopped attending because of logistics, I enjoyed the time I spent there and think I may further pursue UUA affiliation in the future.

Politics too, took a strange shift. At some point, I got drawn into the campaign behind Barack Obama. I have seen his campaign bring together disparate groups of people in a unified fashion. This has helped to strengthen my sense of a greater community. Ultimately after all these experiences, I feel much more like the Tom Joad of the end of the Grapes of Wrath who has adopted Reverend Casy's philosophy on the oneness of human existence and the need for greater organization.