KAIST sucks. Now that I’m facing graduation, I want to reflect on my undergraduate life in KAIST and that is the first thing that comes to mind. There’s so many problems for fall semester enterers that I have been a victim of, and I cannot fathom how difficult it must be for international students. But this article is not a rant about KAIST; that has been done time and again. I want to think about how it transformed me as a person.
KAIST made me give up my high school dreams of pursuing an academic career in physics. I entered the school with a firm determination to major in physics, a determination that caused me to take classes without taking the prerequisite courses. I had no choice if I wanted to stay on track, since the courses were only offered once a year. I had listened to the misguided advice to take Electromagnetism, a class based entirely on vector calculus, without taking vector calculus. I tried to take the vector calculus class the same semester, but the school in all its empathy set the one and only class of the spring semester on the same time slot as the other physics mandatory class. I took both physics classes and did terribly in both.
Now, I know what people are going to tell me: it’s my fault. It’s not the school’s responsibility to cater to every case. Also, it was my responsibility to catch myself up on materials. It was also my responsibility to know which classes are suitable for me and which aren’t. It’s true: had I been the passionate physics student as I claimed myself to be I would have proactively solved all the problems, but I wasn’t. All of these were confirmed by a professor from whom I sought out advice in desperation, who indeed told me, “It’s unfortunate, but it’s your responsibility.” It was true, but it was not helpful.
So for the next semesters I’ve immersed myself in my incompetency and the guilt that followed. This continued until I gave the data structures class a try, after enjoying CS101. After midterms I realized how big of a mistake I made, and wanted to drop, but didn’t have enough classes to drop. It was only at the last programming assignment when I had a eureka moment. With only two hours left, I finally got to the last and most difficult part of the assignment. Somehow, I intuitively created a working implementation and managed to finish it. It was something I haven’t felt in years: being able to work my way through a problem and helping someone (and being complimented on it).
I am not a religious man, so I can only label this discovery as serendipity. The year I made such a transition to Computer Science was the same year the world seemed to make a similar one. AlphaGo beat Sedol Lee and the concept of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” became popularized. I now find myself temporally in a transitional period where the world is changing and spatially in an institute that is aggressively preparing students for such changes.
I remember the total sense of defeat in senior year as I received rejection letter after rejection letter. I remember the numbingly bleak months from my first semesters in KAIST as I tried to escape the hopeless reality I was in. I remember the awkward and pitifully ineffective conversations I’ve tried to make with people that I wanted to be friends with. I remember the nights lying still in bed until sunrise plagued with insomnia from paranoid and existential thoughts. All these things I remember and think about regularly, but I still cannot definitively say what they all meant. Was I being punished for my wrongdoings, or was I too insistent on being just? Were they signs that I wasn’t trying hard enough, or maybe too hard? Were they valuable pills prescribed by adulthood that made me wiser, or placebos that gave me no more wisdom than what I would have earned anyway?
All I can say is that now, somehow, I am happy. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for my own future. There’s still so much that’s uncertain, but I find the open-endedness of my situation to be strangely soothing. There are times when it feels like a situation can’t get any worse, but it somehow does. Similarly, sometimes things, being fickle as they are, just inexplicably get better. My undergraduate experience, all things considered, has made me feel generally prepared for the future — and if that’s not the point of education, I don’t know what is.