Why I’ll Never Go To MIT

It’s not because I can’t do algebra. It’s because I can’t swim.

Seven days before the test, Stephanie Yeh stood in her sorority house and cried.

An electrical engineering and computer science major, she was set to graduate near the top of her MIT class next month and start a six-figure job as a Wall Street analyst.

Just one test, terrifying to her, remained. She, like scores of undergraduates at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been putting it off for nearly four years. But Yeh and the others have to pass this exam to graduate.

She had to swim 100 yards, four lengths of a pool, without stopping.

The problem: Yeh never learned how to swim.

… Hundreds of college seniors nationwide are similarly in deep. At Cornell, Dartmouth, and Columbia, where swim proficiency also is required, it is time to sink or swim. For students like Yeh, who has aced virtually every exam in her 22 years, it is time to face demons under the surface.

You gotta be freakin’ kidding me. I mean, on one hand we force someone who’s never going to be an engineer to take algebra or fail. On the other hand we force someone who is going to be an engineer (but probably never a lifeguard) to swim or fail. Is there a point at which having requirements just for the sake of having them stops making sense?

And, yes, I never learned to swim.

In fact, I can’t even tread water. I stay out of water that’s over my head. The “deep end,” or anywhere else where I can’t touch the bottom and have my head above the surface, is off limits.

It’s not that I didn’t take lessons. I did. I wasn’t given much choice. (I think my folks never learned to swim, and wanted to me sure we did.) I had to go to summer camp and I took lessons there. I took lessons at the YMCA at least two summers in a row. I’m not sure, but I think that since I was made to take lessons, I rebelled on some psychological level by not learning how to swim. I can manage a few yards swimming backwards, using a weird stroke I made up myself at some point.

That’s beside the point, though, because there are a host of other reasons I’ll never find myself enrolled at MIT or any of the other schools that have some swimming requirement in order to graduate. But to require it of someone who’s managed to (a) get into MIT, (b) stay at MT, and (c) qualify in every other aspect for graduation seems to border on insanity to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that someone who manages to get into MIT and get within spitting distance of graduating can probably manage to get themselves through a swimming class. But I don’t get the reason for making it a requirement for graduation, other than that someone arbitrarily decided after WWII (when the such requirements started springing up) that swimming — as one phys. ed. instructor put it — “‘a critical survival skill that everyone should have.”

I guess that means every engineer too. The funny thing is that it sounds like the kids at MIT are smart enough to learn just enough to get them across the pool four times and get a diploma. But it doesn’t look like that means they actually learn how to swim well enough to save their lives if necessary.

On test day, she jumped in the deep end, scrunched up her face and began kicking and moving her arms like a windmill. It was not pretty, but she was moving. The first length went well. By length two, a tiring Yeh switched to breast stroke, then to crawl, her arms barely moving over her head.

For the fourth, she rolled onto her back and finished. She touched the edge of the pool breathing heavily and grinning broadly. ”The hardest test I’ve ever taken at MIT,” she said. Was it worth it? ”Not really,” Yeh said. She has no plans to swim again.

Can’t say that I blame her. She gets her diploma, but (if you ask me) MIT and schools like it are “all wet” for having this requirement.

I guess it’s a good thing Parker is learning to swim. Just in case.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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9 Responses to Why I’ll Never Go To MIT

  1. Nio says:

    I can understand the need to learn to swim. I too think it is an important surivial skill. And I can understand where you’re coming from, that this is an arbitary requirement that serves no *academic* or *educational* purpose. But it’s not like this girl, and others like her, didn’t know this exam was coming. She had four years to learn to swim to prepare for this particular exam. And she waited until the last minute and now she’s panicking.

    Feel bad for her? Nope. Not an ounce.

  2. ChgoRed says:

    Passing a swimming test was one of the requirements for high school graduation in my school district. And even though I almost never swim, and didn’t even know how before I got to high school, I’m glad I have some idea of how to do it. If I ever get in a situation where I *need* to know how to swim, I could at least flail around enough to keep myself alive.

  3. Chris T. says:

    Whoa, I went to high school with Stephanie. Although when I started the Academy, you had to pass a swim test to graduate, so I wonder if they changed that when she came through. (She was two classes behind me.)

  4. Nyeelah says:

    I agree with Neo You knew it was coming should have prepared. I have no use for chemistry nor biology (don’t even think I can spell them) but I was forced to take these classes. Welcome to the real world sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

  5. Justin says:

    I took lots of lessons when I was a kid, but neither me, my brother, nor my dad can swim. When I went to RPI, there was a “swim by graduation” requirement. Fortunately, after my freshman year, they got rid of it.

  6. Bart says:

    I never learned to swim formally — but I could dog paddle for 4 laps, lol!

  7. My High School implemented swimming as a graduation requirement while I was there (actually not applying to my class, I was “grandfathered” out of it — but I’d have passed anyway, as swim class was my scheme for getting out of ‘normal’ gym classes), and we were all surprised that it _wasn’t_ a requirement beforehand. But then, in Alaska, when there are lakes everywhere and there are more towns that you have to fly to (over water) than you can drive to, knowing how to swim is kind of a no-brainer.

    While I’ll agree that having a swimming requirement for MIT graduation seems less necessary than it would in, say, Alaska or Hawaii, I must join in with some of the above commentors in professing no sympathy for this girl (and the other students in her position). She’s known about this _for four years_ now. If she’s unable to graduate because she ignored or put this off for four years…well, that’s nobody’s fault but hers.

  8. Tim Who? says:

    I can swim but I’m a poor swimmer, 4 laps would be tough for me. I had to take a swim test in the Navy (duh) and I passed but it took everything I had. The one thing I did learn was how to remove my pants underwater and tie them off at the ankles then scoop the pants through the air and fill the pant legs with air allowing you to ride the pants like a life vest. Trust me it works.

    I’m not sure swimming should be a requirement, but some small swimming skill should be known by all. I’m not saying you should swim miles but lets say your car goes off the road and into a lake, you’re going to drown because you can’t make it 15 feet back to shore? Or some jackass pushes off a pier. Or you slip off. The shore is but 25 feet away. That’s the kind of swimming everyone should know and its that survival skill that MIT is requiring. Four laps is what 100ft 150ft? That’s just enough to save your life in most water accidents and something everyone should know.

    T, I suspect your inability to swim has more to do with fear than swimming. My Mother had a odd fear of getting her face wet and strangely so do I. My hubby was shocked the first time I stepped out of the shower and my face way dry. To tell the truth I have trouble even with a wet washcloth on my face. But I have learned that if it gets wet I will survive. I still DON’T LIKE IT ONE BIT. But deep inside I know if push comes to shove I can swim underwater 50ft. If I fall into the water I WILL swim to shore.

    I say go back to the pool and drag your fear kicking and screaming behind you and learn to swim if only one trip side to side in the pool. (in the shallow end)

    Please PLEASE think of Parker. If he fell in water you should be prepared to dive (jump) in and save him. Who cares if you can swim across a lake thats one thing but saving yourself or your child is a skill that every parent should know. (right there with First aid and CPR)

  9. Terrance says:

    Yes, it has occured to me that an adult swimming class might be in order. Maybe even sometime this summer.

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