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Beyond labels: Becoming an MIT neuroscientist | TEDx EF Academy New York

Beyond labels: Becoming an MIT neuroscientist | TEDx EF Academy New York

In February 2021,  EF Academy New York held a TEDx conference on campus to talk about issues around the theme of ‘Thinking through perspectives.’ Alumna Anna I. gave this speech about what it takes to succeed. 

I am a scientist at MIT.

As soon as I said those words, you might have formed a particular image in your mind. You’ve pictured someone who is smart, passionate about science, maybe a bit socially awkward. You might be a little surprised that I’m a girl, not a guy. But most importantly, you have now attached to me this label “she has what it takes to be at MIT”.

What I want to show you today is that the labels people assign to successful individuals are incomplete and, frankly, misleading.

“She has what it takes to be at MIT”. What does this even mean?

Well, for most people, it means that I have some kind of talent, an innate ability to master difficult academic subjects. My talent and hard work have swept me up and brought me where I wanted to be – in this case, to MIT.

And, in principle, this is how things should work. In a perfectly meritocratic society — a society that evaluates individuals based on their talents and skills — your abilities will determine which path in life you’ll be able to take.

Unfortunately, our society is far from meritocratic. There are thousands of people around the world who deserve to be at MIT but aren’t. So the label “she has what it takes” includes much more than just talent or hard work.

Let’s take a look at my story.

At the age of 17, I came to the United States to study at EF Academy, a boarding school for international students. I was able to make this transition because I was motivated to get the best education I could and because my English was good enough. But that’s not all.

One key reason why I ended up at EF Academy is because they gave me a scholarship. Without this money, I would not have been able to afford the program – and the rest of my life would have been completely different. Another key reason is because my parents were super supportive and able to cover the rest of the expenses. If my family was against me going abroad or if they didn’t have the means to help me, there would have been no EF Academy for me.

During college admissions, the circumstances of my birth started to work against me instead of in my favor. My family could not pay the exorbitant tuition fees charged by US colleges, and, because I’m international, I did not qualify for financial support. Even schools that claimed to provide “need-blind” admissions for international students had a very limited budget to do so. As a result, the admission rate at top schools for students like me was ten times lower than for Americans. Many schools turned me down because they did not have money for me. One of the top US colleges accepted me but refused to provide any aid. It was devastating.

I was starting to pack my bags to go back to Russia, but I got lucky. University of Miami gave me a scholarship, one of the few, few merit-based awards available to international students. I moved down to Florida, signed up to be a neuroscience major, and started working in a lab that studied the human brain. My research experiences and a US diploma allowed me to be a competitive applicant for MIT’s PhD program in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and here I am.

It turns out that being successful is much more than talent and hard work. Your ability to achieve your goals depends on a whole host of external factors. Is your family supportive? Do you have enough money to pay for your education? If not, are you lucky enough to find money elsewhere?

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more factors behind my success that I take for granted. I am from Russia, a country known for its scientists, so I have plenty of role models to follow. I am a woman in the 21st century and therefore face far fewer barriers than women even a few decades ago. I am not disabled and therefore I can live independently away from family. So many pieces had to fall in place for me to get the education I want — and so many people fail to achieve their dreams because they’re missing just one piece.

So today, I want you to look at your life and identify the factors that make it easier or harder for you to succeed — your financial status, your family, your citizenship, your luck in the past. And at the very least, I want you to be grateful and cognizant of the opportunities you have.

But what’s more, I want us all to think together of how to increase opportunity for everyone, regardless of background. I want us to create more scholarships. I want us to become role models for others. I want us to break down barriers to education for as many people as possible. In short, I want us to create a new world, in which talent and hard work will actually be enough to succeed.

By Anna Ivanova
TEDx EF Academy New York