On Sexism: Bursting the Bubble

Disclaimer: I refer to Olin students in the typical gender binary as “men” and “women”. This is not to exclude anyone in the transgender community. While I believe that gender cannot be split into the male-female categories, the binary is still how many people are perceived. “Men” and “women”, in this case, are useful labels to describe our social reality on the population level, even if they cannot capture the vast diversity of gender expression. If you have questions, please contact the editor.

One of my favorite games growing up was Skylanders. I collected every single Skylander in the first game and spent most of my time playing on my Xbox – I distinctly remember my favorite being Hex (my goth queen). So when McDonald’s came out with the Skylanders: Trap Team toy when I was ten, I was excited. I begged my mom to take me to McDonald’s to get a Trap Team toy; as usual, my mom fed my autism and drove me to McDonald’s after my dance practice.

We walked into the restaurant and asked the cashier for a boy’s Happy Meal. That cashier took one look at me in my leotard and pink skirt and said that they couldn’t give that to me. My mom asked why and they said (verbatim), “She’s a girl, so she gets the girl McDonald’s toy”. My mom asked, once again, for the boy’s Happy Meal toy, and they took our order. I got my Happy Meal and excitedly opened it to see… a Littlest Pet Shop toy. Not my boy Wallop or my dude Pain Yatta. A Littlest Pet Shop character. I didn’t even like The Littlest Pet Shop, not nearly as much as Skylanders. We couldn’t return it because we knew they would give us a hard time. So I went with my dad to a different McDonald’s the next day and actually got a Skylanders toy, probably because they didn’t care as much or maybe because they thought it was for my dad. Either way, still too much of a hassle for a plastic toy.

Looking back, I now realize how much McDonald’s – a place I went to often – completely influenced how I perceive gender, and it probably influenced a lot of other McDonald’s regulars too. I recognize a little bit too much how I have to be very careful about what I tell people what my interests are because no matter what I say, people will not expect it and react too strongly – either negatively or positively. Very recently, I had to explain to people how I enjoy watching sports – not necessarily to watch cute guys get sweaty but because I love the strategy and especially how excited everyone around me gets for a tiny ball being thrown around a field. Notice how I just explained my love for sports? I’ve done this more times than I can count. If a guy said the same thing he wouldn’t have to explain or defend himself – he would just say “I like watching sports” and everyone would think, “Yeah, that makes sense”. They wouldn’t question anything and he wouldn’t have to validate his statements.

Here at Olin, it’s a bit better than what I’m used to at home. I’ve met so many people who break the gender barrier in so many ways that I’ve felt like my authentic self for the first time in a long time. However, I have still faced a lot of experiences where I had to defend myself on things I love. In fact, many of my negative experiences at Olin have been because of my gender. Very often, I and other women at this school have been in situations where our opinion was not valued, immediately shut down by the “biggest man in the room”, and then experienced another man saying the same exact thing and being listened to without second thought. When we voice this, there’s a pretty good chance they will say something along the lines of, “No way, that’s not possible, not here at Olin.” At Olin where there is a severe lack of women in project teams because there is an excess amount of this sexist and discriminatory behavior. At Olin where Pi Day is taken more seriously than International Women’s Day. At Olin where if a girl shows some sort of femininity she’s taken for a Wellesley student because there’s no way an engineering student can hold any sort of “womanhood” about them but a liberal arts student can. It frustrates me when people who are aware of this say:

“This happens a lot in the industry. You just have to get used to it.”

But why do we have to sit here and listen to a man talk and talk and talk all he wants while we have to fight for our voice? Why can’t we, as an “innovative” campus with the motto “engineering for everyone”, teach people how to respect everyone in the room? Especially when it comes to teaming: no matter how many group projects you put Olin students in, teaming alone won’t teach people to not be misogynistic. They expect us to be the ones to tell the perpetrators that what they’re doing is wrong, but after doing it a thousand times to no avail it gets tiring. Not only that, but us speaking out poses a real threat that women face every single day. If we claim that the person across from us is acting misogynistic, we are deemed insane, crazy, or dramatic, so we stay silent and discretely warn other women who to watch out for in a teaming situation.

This is not to say that every single man at Olin acts in this way, but this is to say that there’s behavior at Olin just like this that goes unchecked. Olin imagines itself to be too progressive, too evolved, too sophisticated a place for sexism to persist and as a result becomes blind to the subtle flavors that still exist. We cannot act as if sexism died with the feminist movement, because then the small things that happen now can grow into larger issues later on for gender minorities everywhere. Maybe if we finally stopped ignoring what’s going on, we might actually see some progress in our community and actually make it for everyone.

The Damnedest Mango 

you always cut the mango wrong

      without peeling off the skin

      slicing it square from the top

you always cut the mango wrong

      getting your knife stuck in the seed

      pulling your knife out of the seed

      cutting your palm with the knife

you always cut the mango wrong

      never telling me how much it hurt

      instead telling me

      how “they don’t grow mangos like they do back home”

you always cut the mango wrong

      watching your blood seep through the mango 

      lamenting and pleading 

      “But kanna, please, I’m trying my best” (meanwhile, the yellow fruit turns vermillion)

you always cut the mango wrong

      trying to cut apricot instead

      like everyone else

      just to please me

you always cut the mango wrong–

El Mango Condenado

siempre cortas el mango mal

sin pelar la piel

cortándolo cuadrado desde arriba

siempre cortas el mango mal

atascando tu cuchillo en la semilla

sacando tu cuchillo de la semilla

cortándote la palma con el cuchillo

siempre cortas el mango mal

nunca diciéndome cuánto te duele

en lugar de eso, diciéndome

cómo “no cultivan mangos como lo hacen en casa”

siempre cortas el mango mal

viendo tu sangre filtrarse a través del mango

lamentándote y suplicando

“Pero kanna, por favor, estoy haciendo lo mejor que puedo” (mientras tanto, la fruta amarilla se vuelve bermeja)

siempre cortas el mango mal

intentando cortar albaricoque en su lugar

como todos los demás

solo para complacerme

siempre cortas el mango mal—

Not a Privilege But a Right

After we put up posters calling out Skydio for sending drones to the Israeli military1, one common response from the supposed adults at this institution was that criticizing other students’ personal career choices was privileged and therefore wrong (never mind the fact that we were not criticizing individual career choices—we very narrowly called out one company’s involvement with a state currently engaged in genocide). 

I am very aware that a given student’s ability to take an “ethical” job is deeply entangled in class privilege. College is expensive as hell—it shouldn’t be, but it is. Many of us graduate with significant debt and therefore heightened incentives to pursue the lucrative jobs offered by military contractors. 

Those of us with class privilege do indeed have the freedom not to pursue weapons manufacturer jobs, while for some of us, career choice is not much of a choice at all. And class privilege is not a subject that is easy to reckon with. (I also believe administrators and PGP know this and use personal choice as a bad-faith justification for allowing military contractor recruitment.)

But what does it mean that at Olin, an institution that quite frequently touts itself as second-best in the country for undergraduate engineering, that until very recently proudly described itself as elite2, where for almost every moment of our four years here we optimize ourselves in pursuit of a job with a starting salary that lets Olin boast that it is “first among all private four-year colleges for highest earnings”—what does it mean that at this institution, we throw up our hands and say that “oh well, people do what they need to earn a living”? If students in this bubble of incredible privilege must justify taking jobs at weapons manufacturers due to a void of opportunity, what choice does the rest of the world have?

I mentioned previously that we must shift the focus of anti-militarist dissent from the individual to the institutional because individualization of responsibility prevents us from recognizing the ways that Olin, the institution, is complicit. This is still the case. Our institution must cut ties with weapons manufacturers (particularly those that are currently profiting from the genocide in Gaza), and our president should not hold a position on the Department of Defense Innovation Board.

But we also shouldn’t pretend that “system change over individual action” exempts us from all moral responsibility. How interesting and saddening that we would “haha no ethical employment under capitalism amirite?” our way into justifying weapons manufacturer recruitment at a wealthy institution in one of the wealthiest areas of the wealthiest country in the world.

No one has the right to kill people or the planet for a living, and no one should have to. It is not a privilege but a right to demand that the work that we do does not help our government terrorize and oppress mostly nonwhite populations abroad in the name of “democracy”3.

Abolitionists say that our work must be twofold: to take power back from deathmaking institutions, but also to dream of new and better horizons beyond what we think possible. I think we dream far too small if we convince ourselves that destroying life in the name of making a living is the world that we have to live in.

1If you somehow missed it, Skydio is abetting a genocide by sending drones to the Israeli military. We put up many rounds of posters pointing out this fact; these posters were swiftly removed because our administration conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. See linktr.ee/skydioweseeyou for more details.

2And has hopefully realized the very obvious contradiction in having the motto “Engineering for Everyone” as a school with a 1 in 5 acceptance rate that largely enrolls private school students, no longer provides need-based financial aid to international students, and will take 87 years to educate the same number of engineers that Arizona State does in one year.

3You may have noticed I do not use the common euphemism for weapons manufacturers. That is because defense is possibly the least accurate term for what the U.S. military does.

Engineering for (Literal) Impact

More than fifty years ago, Vietnam War student protests resulted in many universities severing
their relationships with the military-industrial complex. Many universities separated themselves
from on-campus labs that conducted substantial weapons manufacturing-related research,
including Stanford (Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International), Cornell (Cornell
Aeronautical Laboratory, now Calspan), and MIT (MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, now Draper
The ongoing genocide in Palestine has prompted universities across the country—including
nearby MIT, BU, Tufts, Northeastern, Harvard, UMass Amherst, and Brandeis—to reckon with
institutional complicity with those enabling Israel’s war crimes. I would hope that we do the
The following excerpted Frankly Speaking article was published in April 2016. Since then, Olin
has rebranded around a Strategic Plan that explicitly names equity and justice as core
institutional values (“Engineering for Everyone” and “Engineering for Impact”).
And yet Olin’s current military and weapons manufacturer ties include SCOPE and research
projects, recruitment through career fairs and newsletters, endowment investments, and our
president’s position on the Department of Defense Innovation Board.
I republish this article excerpt as neither a critique nor absolvement of individual careers, as
incessant focus on individual responsibility prevents broader structural analysis of the ways
universities perpetuate US militarism. Instead, it is a call to recognize how Olin funnels students
into what Bue Rübner Hansen calls “batshit jobs”, or jobs that are inherently deathmaking.
As Hansen writes, “to call this work mad does not mean that workers are crazy to make a living,
but rather to point out that a crazy contradiction arises when making a living is also a part of
unmaking life on many scales […]. Some workers could leave their jobs fairly easily, and others
are deeply dependent on the next paycheck. These workers have an interest in habitable
environments, but are caught in a maddening contradiction, asked by their employers to destroy
the conditions of life in order to make a living. We are habituated to think of this as normal, even
rational, but it’s time to say openly that it is madness, and to start from there.”
Letter to the Olin Community (2016)
At the most recent Town Meeting I asked President Miller if he thought there was a contradiction
between our talk of teaching students how to have a positive impact on the world and our
participation in systems of violence. I specifically brought up our collaboration with military
contractors in project work, but also that I think we would find violence in more than just the
military-industrial complex if we took a critical look. He did not answer my question, but said that
he thought it is a conversation that our community should have. I would like to use this forum to
continue that conversation and express some thoughts that I have about values and purpose.
I want to be clear about a few things. I do not intend this article as an attack on any member of
the Olin community, either explicitly or implicitly. While I have very conflicted feelings about this
institution, and certainly some criticism of individual actions, I feel a lot love for the people who
are part of this place and have found my relationships here as both a student and an instructor
to be very meaningful. I also want to be clear that this is not an article about the presence of
militarism on campus. I have my own set of values, and I am happy to discuss them, but I am
not going to make the argument that my values should be your values, or that they should be
our community’s values. My argument is that we, as an institution, should decide on and publicly
declare meaningful values and act to embody them.
Our “core institutional values” are all self-centered and neither stake out our position nor offer us
guidance in our engagement with the world. At a recent meeting a faculty member declared that
“Olin’s brand is that students build cool stuff.” The quote above the library, that “Engineers
envision what has never been, and do whatever it takes to make it happen,” is apolitical and
amoral about both ends and means, accepting any vision of “what has never been” and any
tactics used to get there. This is problematic: we could all think of examples of people trying to
realize “what has never been” that we would find abhorrent. Why not qualify that statement with
values that speak to how we want the world to be?
I see a few potential reasons for our lack of commitment to values that speak about how to act
in the world. The first reason is that it is difficult. Such a commitment would compel us to
navigate gray areas, be deeply self-critical, and make hard compromises. It would hold back our
“bias towards action” and likely lead us to restraint, a concept that goes against the instincts of
engineering and of our culture. A declaration of values would necessitate conversations about
whether our institution’s actions realize those values, and these are not easy conversations.
Resistance to these difficult conversations can find validation in the assumption that technology
is neutral, that engineers create tools and don’t have to concern themselves with how those
tools get used. Technologies are not neutral. Technologies reflect the goals of their creators,
have effects on the world that are not neutrally distributed, and re-arrange power structures in
society. We cannot hide behind the idea that technologies are neutral and that their effects,
whether positive or negative, are the sole responsibility of the user.
The second reason lies deeper. It is often implicit, as it is in that quote above the library. It is the
assumption that engineering cannot help but make the world a better place. It is a deep faith in
technological invention and innovation. This faith is problematic; it is ignorant of the lopsided
effects that engineering has, both within humanity and between humanity and the non-human
world (see the surveillance state, drone strikes, climate change, etc.). It also displaces the social
in favor of the technical, and we ought to consider the possibility that what the world needs is
not the stuff of science fiction but of “social fiction.”
There is a third possible reason, and that is that we do not care about figuring out how to leave
the world a better place than we found it. From my experiences here, the conversations I’ve
had, the wonderful and beautiful work that I’ve seen students, faculty, and staff pursue, I don’t
think this is true. I am sure that there are people here that truly don’t care, but I do not see
evidence of this as a general truth.
So I am not trying to claim that we are a community of sociopaths. My argument is more along
the lines that Olin is institutionally sociopathic. Many members of our community want to figure
out how to do good in the world and yet we have an institution that offers little support and is
content with evaluating its success by the starting salaries of its graduates.
I think that if we’re serious about leading a revolution in engineering education, a sense of
purpose around why and how we practice engineering is important. And I strongly believe that
we should codify that purpose. As practicing engineers, and indeed as some of the most
privileged people on the planet (the average Olin starting salary puts one in the top 1% of
income earners in the world), we have incredible power. Using that power for good is not easy. I
think it is quite difficult to leave things better than we found them when we’re explicitly trying
very hard at it, and impossible when we’re not. I am arguing that we should go for it, and we
should go for it explicitly.
What do you think? What do you think the purpose of Olin College is, or should be? What would
you like to see in the list of core institutional values? My idea of amending the core institutional
values is just that, an idea. It is a potential first step, with a lot of hard work to follow.
If this is near and dear to you, get organized. Host discussions, draft proposals, try and build a
consensus among the student body. Look for faculty support, but understand that the lack of
tenure at Olin makes it difficult for faculty to speak critically about the institution. Bring ideas to
the administration and to the Board of Trustees, and expect resistance. Recognize that there is
a lot of comfort with the status quo. But also recognize that this is your college and that you
have power to transform it.
I also want to point out here that I think the scholarship is fundamentally tied into this (fun fact,
the scholarship is the only founding precept that the Board of Trustees has been willing to
revise, even before the grossly misguided commitments to capitalism and no tenure for faculty).
When I graduated from Olin I had no debt and a lot of freedom to take risks, and I know that this
is a freedom that many students do not have. An unequivocal commitment by Olin College to
direct engineering education towards bettering the world would demand a commitment to
students graduating without debt as well as strong support of students taking risks, both during
and after Olin.
For additional context on the history of military contractors at Olin, see these Frankly Speakings:
● Is Our Empowerment Zero-Sum? (2011)
● The Meaning of Empowerment (2011)
● A Few Thoughts (2011)
See also:
● Abrams, R. M. (1989). The U.S. Military and Higher Education: A Brief History. The
ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 502(1), 15-28.
● Smart, B. (2016). Military-industrial complexities, university research and neoliberal
economy. Journal of Sociology, 52(3), 455-481.
● Wilson, D. A. (1989). Consequential Controversies. The ANNALS of the American
Academy of Political and Social Science, 502(1), 40-57.
● Tufts: Students, community members protest military industrial recruitment at career fair The Tufts Daily
● UMass Amherst: Update on UMass Dissenters protest efforts against Raytheon and
subsidiary company – Massachusetts Daily Collegian
● Boston University: Students protest Engineering Career Fair for inviting companies that
‘cause harm’ – The Daily Free Press
● Harvard: O’Sullivan: Resign Out of Shame, Not Pressure | Opinion | The Harvard
● Northeastern: Activists, students protest Raytheon at NU career fair – The Huntington

Opinion: Why We Need To Talk About Bathrooms

In 8th grade, a quiet girl in my P.E. class felt uncomfortable changing in front of others and would hide in a bathroom stall to put on her gym clothes. When she got teased for this, several of us joined her in taking our clothes to stalls to change so she wouldn’t feel alone.

In 9th grade, I overheard some girls in the locker room whispering about how a tomboyish girl was “probably a lesbian” and “watching [them] change” into their running clothes. I myself proceeded to change alone in a bathroom for the next four sports seasons.

In 10th grade, I walked into a bathroom before school started to find a girl straightening her hair, her friend beside her putting on mascara. Both of them were preparing themselves in this quasi public-private space.

In 11th grade, I threw up in a bathroom at a school I didn’t know, before sitting to take the SAT.

In 12th grade, I escaped to a bathroom to take a breath after my ex confronted me at lunch, demanding an ultimatum from me: love him or never see him again. I chose the latter but alas was not granted that privilege.

In my first year of college, I hid in a bathroom after spotting a nameless guy who had kissed me so aggressively at a party that my lips were in pain the next day. I had thought I would never see him again after running away that night.

In my second year, I stood in the shower, looking at the bruises on my fists from the frustration I took out on the gym heavy bag with my unwrapped hands, realized I wasn’t okay, and I then returned to seeing a therapist.

In my third year, I quietly retreated to a bathroom stall after getting a text saying a close family member had had a sudden plummet in health. I struggled to see clearly as I read the message, telling of how he no longer showed the signature snarky sense of humour I had known so well growing up.

Why am I sharing these personal moments from my own life? Why are they all centered around bathrooms? Likely as a surprise to no one reading this article, I want to make a point.

If you can connect with any of these emotions I’ve experienced as a cisgender woman (a woman assigned female at birth), then you can connect with the same emotions a transgender person (someone whose gender identity does not align with their assigned gender at birth) may have experienced in their lifetime; they too have felt scared, ashamed, and lost at times, but also safe, proud, and connected at others.

The key difference, in this case, is that I have never been made to feel unwelcome in a bathroom. Bathrooms have always been a safe place to escape to when life became a little too intense.

This issue has become a hot topic in the ongoing battle over gender-identity rights.

A recent legal case in the spotlight involves Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student in Virginia, who was denied access to the boy’s bathroom by his school, largely due to strong backlash from several students, parents, and local community members.

The narrative of trans people being “sexual predators” or otherwise causing harm in bathrooms is statistically invalidated; they are much more likely to be on the receiving end of aggression and violence.

In fact, about 70% of trans people have reported being denied entrance, assaulted, or harassed while trying to use a restroom, according to a 2013 Williams Institute report.

Tell me why a trans person should ever be made to feel unsafe? Tell me how they are looking for anything beyond decency, respect, and the ability to use the damn bathroom in peace? I wish this wasn’t something we had to fight for, and I wish they could just exist without it becoming part of a political narrative that, above all, seeks to reduce their humanity.
But the reality is that this is not a universal wish, and in many ways, transgender and gender non-conforming people have to fight for some of the most basic rights that most people will take for granted.

Now, maybe you find this an ill-fitting audience. Why would Olin, a seemingly progressive and accepting campus, need to talk about these issues? My opinion is that it is simply not enough to tolerate and passively accept.
We need to have a dialogue on these issues and make it known that we care and are here to support those who are being silenced. Note that this doesn’t mean interrogating the trans and gender non-conforming people in your life, but instead looking for ways you can support them.

Massachusetts Question 3 on the November ballot, which questioned whether laws banning discrimination in public spaces based on gender identity should be upheld (you may have heard of the “Yes on 3” campaign which sought to protect transgender rights), passed with just over a two-thirds “Yes” vote.

This is a sigh of relief, and a win for transgender and gender non-conforming people everywhere, but also a great concern that it was even called into question.

As a community, these are the kinds of issues that we need to be vocal about to show people that we will be here to support them no matter what happens. Stay informed about what’s going on in the world, especially with respect to executive declarations that specifically target minority groups and seek to incite fear.

Think about the topics that you’re prioritizing in your everyday conversations and how interpersonal interactions can be just as, if not more, important than group projects and technical assignments. I am by no means doing enough and am writing this not just to the Olin community but to myself as well.

I really hope Olin can overcome its aversion to political discussions in order to take action and show support for people that may otherwise feel disenfranchised by the world around them.

P.S. I chose to publish this anonymously so discussion will be focused on the issue itself and not sidetracked by my own experiences. I am well aware that this is not my own issue and I was originally tentative to speak up about something that I have not personally experienced.

However, I believe this is a case where conversation about how we can do better as a community is necessary, and I want to use this opportunity to bring it up.

I hope this can be taken as an appeal to each of us as part of the Olin community to make a space for honest and well-intentioned discussion, so we can better support the global community by starting with our own.

Accommodations Weren’t Enough

It’s time to introduce you to the chaos that is my mere existence. Yes, folks, I’m talking about my unbelievably awful medical history.

First, some background. Here are some things I have been diagnosed with:

Chronic psychophysiological insomnia

Tendonitis of the arms, wrists, hands, knees, and feet

Bursitis of the hips

Raynaud’s disease without gangrene

Chronic migraines


Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Major depressive disorder (with one episode)

Bipolar disorder (with major manic episode)

And I like to add Fibromyalgia to the list, because a rheumatologist actually confirmed it, but didn’t write down (which super screwed me over when I ended up in a psych ward). Here’s what he said:

“Sounds like you have chronic, unexplained pain in your whole body. Well, your test results are all clean, so some people might call that Fibromyalgia.”

Notice the implication that he wouldn’t call that Fibromyalgia, for some reason.

My further evidence is this quote from an email I received from a Harvard clinical study on Fibro, which is currently the only way a broke ignorant college student can get access to innovative healthcare:

“From what you told me it seems like you will be a great candidate, I have had many other participants who don’t have an actual diagnosis, so that will not exclude you.”

Which was good enough for me, especially considering this untestable, incurable disease is diagnosed entirely on self-reporting of pain. Which I definitely have.

So, anyway, I’ve clearly got some major medical problems, but that list doesn’t really tell you anything. Here are some of the everyday effects of all my illnesses:

Extreme fatigue (insomnia, Fibromyalgia, migraines)

Difficulty concentrating (insomnia, migraines)

Pain (all of the above)

Hopelessness and irritability (pain, depression, bipolar)

Nasty belly cramps (IBS, womanhood)

Shame (IBS, everything else)

Light, sound, smell, taste, touch sensitivity (migraines, Fibromyalgia)

Loss of appetite (IBS, migraine, the physical act of eating hurts from Fibromyalgia)

Being freezing all the time (Raynaud’s, which means poor circulation)

Hot flashes (same thing, I can’t regulate my temperature from Raynaud’s)

Crying (pain)

Extremely painful muscle stiffness in the morning (Fibromyalgia)

Lots and lots of other unpredictable problems

Inability to recover (insomnia, everything else)

Basically, I wake up every morning feeling like I spent the night tied to active railroad tracks, and it only gets worse from there. And the best part is, it’s pretty much all (currently) incurable.

Sure, there are some kinds of okay treatments for some of these things, but it’s all in the works, and they’re meant for people who only have one of these problems. For example, Tylenol and NSAIDs can sometimes help my soft tissue pain, but it upsets my IBS which causes more pain, especially when combined with caffeine which I take for migraines, but that makes Raynaud’s worse (and believe me, you probably underestimate how painful it is to not be a nice, neutral temperature), and that’s all really stressful which makes my psychological things worse, which makes everything else worse, and whoopie now it’s a downward spiral.

And don’t forget! I was in college.

I thought I’d do something nice for myself, and secure some accommodations. What I didn’t realize is that those are designed for people who have nice, manageable problems. They’re meant to help you be more normal, by giving you slight advantages like being able to move to another room when your environment is too overwhelming, or get extra time on a test. It works all right at most schools, and if it doesn’t, you can at least keep yourself under the radar.

But I wanted something better for myself. I wanted something like me— unusual. Hard to believe. I wanted to go to a tiny, innovative engineering school called Olin College of Engineering, where everything is projects, and experiments, and teamwork, and fun. I loved it.

And despite what happened next, that school is my heart. It’s real small, and everyone (students, faculty, staff) is doing their damnedest to make it awesome. Everyone there works unbelievably hard, but sometimes, there’s just too much work to do, and someone has to suffer for it. This time, that person was me.

The flexibility of experimental, team-based classes was both a blessing and a curse. It meant I could take days off when I needed to, and work when I wanted to, and it would usually be fine. But it also meant I was held far more accountable for my actions than most college students- my peers, friends, and professors were putting faith in me that I would abide by our Honor Code, and do the best I could, always. So, sure, the students (which used to include me) might have a hard time getting to class on time, or at all, but damn do they work hard to deliver on that promise. If you’ve ever met an Oliner, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

What this school grants its students is this: Autonomy. From the school’s perspective, this is because if you give people the resources, teach them the skills, and see what they want to accomplish, the results are astounding. I love how fantastic that is in its own right, but from my perspective, it’s also the only way I can survive.

See, my disabilities don’t fit into pretty accommodating boxes. They’re messy, overwhelming, interactive, and fluctuate constantly (often even in span of just a few minutes). You may have heard how hard it is for anyone with a disability to explain it to someone else, and it’s about a million times harder for someone like me. It’s almost impossible for me to understand and predict my body, much less explain it to someone else. It takes a huge toll on how I can interact with people, so I end up just pretending everything’s fine because it’s just way too tiring to bring another person to an accurate understanding. And I look fine, don’t I?

So when the disabilities counselor asked what accommodations I needed, I came up blank. It was just too hard to come up with an accurate prediction.

Sometimes I need to leave the room, or run around the room to get my circulation going, or disappear for a few days, or nap for 10 minutes, or blindfold myself, or change clothes, or eat, or go to the bathroom, or whatever, and there’s a pretty solid chance I won’t know until it’s happening. Because, guys, I’m in excruciating pain all the time— Pain isn’t an indicator for me anymore. I have very little warning when my body needs something.

The problem is, the whole point of accommodations is to help normalize me into the system. But I have never been, and never will be, normal. I wanted to be, but my body can’t do it. I have to live a lifestyle that’s very very different from the norm because it’s fixing problems that the norm has never even considered. And the really shitty part of that is, what’s accommodating for me isn’t always going to be accommodating for you, and there’s a lot more of you. So when it comes down to it, I don’t even really get a say in the matter.

So, predictably I guess, the whole college thing failed miserably, because I fell into a downward spiral that I couldn’t get out of, and my school understandably attributed it to mania rather than the hoard of other medical problems that I couldn’t really explain, and I ended up in a psych ward. I had a bad time. I’m writing a book about it.

But how did I even make it through the first two years?

Yeah, I’m riddled with awful medical problems that make each other worse. Yeah, no one can help me. But I’m a goddamn human being, so I adapt, and I figure out how to turn my problems into my strengths. For example:

Problem: I can’t work for two weeks because my body is in excruciating pain.

Solution: Use my tendency for mania from bipolar disorder to make up the work.

Problem: I’m experiencing sensory overload from my environment, and I can’t focus, and I’m starting to panic.

Solution: Use my techniques to control my circulation to slow my heartbeat, which will help me be calm, and I can use my engineering skills to think of a better solution.

Problem: I’m in way too much pain to do this.

Solution: I will be in pain anyway (Fibromyalgia). Do it anyway. I’ve experienced enough pain so far that my pain tolerance is exceptional if I can figure out how to focus (caffeine).

And those are just some examples. After twenty years of living like this without perspective on what “normal” is (because guess what runs in the family!), that’s just what I learned to do. Figure out who or what I am, and make it work. I think that, at least, is a pretty standard human experience.

To that end, I’ve found a way to change my story from “despite everything” to “because of everything,” and even though I’ve suffered more than any person should from merely existing, I intend to make good on my internal promise to make this worth it. I’m going to make this world a place where someone like me can exist peacefully (and you’ll probably all benefit in the process).

So good luck, my friends, and keep on chugging. If I can do it, you most certainly can.



P.S. There’s like a lot more I want to say, but as I said before, it’s really hard to communicate my struggle. So just stay tuned, if you’re curious. Oh and, if you’ve gone through something similar and want a buddy, I gotchu fam. Stay strong.