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.