The thought of coming to MIT was one of dreams to me, even more so being an international student from Libya. This was my dream however; I had always imagined myself coming to MIT and learning to become a principled thinker making an impact on the world with hands and mind. Just ten months ago, that dream felt like an insurmountable mountain with no clear way up, however today, I am writing this blog post after finishing up my first summer semester as an LGO student. I wanted to write and reflect about my experience making it to where I am now. I will touch on how I first came to the US as an international student, my first experience learning about LGO, how I went on to apply to MIT and my experience so far now that I’m three months into being a graduate student.
I was born and raised in Benghazi, Libya and I consider Benghazi to be my home. I grew up in the 90’s when Libya was politically and economically isolated from the world under the socialist dictatorship of the time. Nonetheless, I was extremely fortunate to have had the best possible education given the circumstances. My parents instilled upon my siblings and I the importance of learning English (along with Arabic) at a young age and expanded my learning horizons by getting us all the book and interactive games they could in both English and Arabic. I then even went on to take Spanish, French and Italian language classes as well! In the evenings after school, most of time was spent in the various extracurricular activities that I was a part of from all the sports I hopped on and off from to all the volunteer and community work that I got to do and most importantly to my 13 years as a Libyan Boy Scout. It was truly through scouting that I came to develop my leadership, social and personal skills. In those long sun-drenched summer days along the Mediterranean coast of Libya when we were pitching up tents for our summer Jamborees did I learn how to work in a team, lead by example, and value the importance of friends.
Just as I graduated from high school and was planning out my gap year, as if fate meant it to be, the Arab Spring rolled in and all my plans for the future were scrapped as I was on the front lines of attempting to bring change to my beloved country. Nonetheless, I always maintained that desire to continue my education and so by the end of 2011, I embarked on a journey that took me from the American University of Sharjah to Michigan State University to study electrical engineering. It was during those years when I was away from my family, friends and people I came to know growing up, did I find home with my fellow international students across campus. I developed relationships that crossed cultural lines and taught me the value of the global connected world. As I was approaching graduation, growth and career opportunities back home were non-existent and so I decided to take a job working as an electrical engineer with Black & Veatch designing electrical systems within power plants. By then, I had experimented with an internship and was involved with the Solar Car Racing team at MSU, so I knew that my passion was in the energy/power worlds and so I embraced my new job as the perfect place to learn and grow my passion for the industry and prepare me for my next career move.
Being the constant learner that I am, I was never satisfied with the introductory knowledge I was taught during my undergraduate years and I had always intended to continue on to graduate school. I had my eyes set on doing my masters in some form of engineering at some point but never knew when the right time or place was. Until I stumbled onto a few programs of interest at the 2015 Purdue Graduate School Fair where I picked up brochures and collected business cards. I felt rejuvenated by the prospect of being a student again and learned so much more from meeting admissions representatives in person than I ever did scrolling through websites. A couple years into working with Black & Veatch, I felt like I was falling into a stagnant routine and I was getting too comfortable in my job. And so, I decided to apply to graduate school. I knew I wanted to study electrical engineering with a focus on sustainable power generation and I knew I wanted to go to the best universities that I could, but not much beyond that. And thus commenced my graduate school research adventure sometime around the fall of 2017.
One of the brochures I had picked up from the Purdue Graduate School Fair was from LGO and so I looked more into the program and was intrigued. I knew I always had entrepreneurial and business development aspirations but never considered doing an MBA. LGO sounded to me like the perfect combination with the added benefit of being at MIT – a place I had previously attempting to apply to as an undergraduate but never managed to put an application together. On the LGO events page, I learned about Preview Day and instantly booked a spot. I knew I could be flexible at work but I made sure to communicate with my supervisors my intentions of going to graduate school early and hence my upcoming travels. To my surprise, my supervisor welcomed it and encouraged me to pursue graduate school, albeit as a second option to staying in the company. Preview day was a blast! I came out of it convinced that LGO was the perfect fit for me and learned all about MIT and Sloan from the current students, alumni, admissions staff and faculty. Moreover, hearing stories of prior students’ experiences made me a little bit more confident in that there might be a possibility of making it in.
From there I got straight to working on my application. Thanksgiving break was a welcomed time off to dive deep into essay draft editing and hunting down of reference letters from my supervisors and peers. Looking back at it now, I think I enjoyed the process. There were many times when I thought I was embarking on a hopeless challenge and that I should just give up on applying. I surely disliked writing about myself and found it hard to focus. However, I learned a lot from it all the writing. Through reflecting on my life, I honed down further on my personal career aspirations and became even more convinced of why I wanted to pursue this path. To my recent surprise, I wasn’t alone in thinking this way; I learned from my LGO peers that many of them went through that same process and everyone comes to MIT with the famed imposter syndrome. Hence, my words of wisdom are: trust in yourself, your skills and talents and let it be shown in the application; your essays will speak for themselves if you are true about your ambitions.
A couple months later at work, as I turned my phone back on after presenting a major plan to my project clients for the first time, I was surprised to find an invitation for an interview for LGO. Could this really be happening? From there, I nailed my interview and waited anxiously for a couple more months before I got that phone call from Thomas Roemer, LGO’s Executive Director welcoming me to the Class of 2020 and so began the roller-coaster of ride that was my spring and summer.
With classes starting swiftly in June, I wanted to use the transition opportunity as an escape from the comfortable life I got used to in the US and to travel. I made the most out of this career-changing transition period and booked a one-way flight ticket to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico where I was committed to helping the people of the island in their recovery from Hurricane Maria. I ended up staying in Puerto Rico for a month volunteering my time with Solar Libre driving through the narrow mountain dirt roads installing solar power systems for farms, schools and community centers. It was a thrilling experience that got me recharged and ready for my time at LGO and to becoming a community-focused, entrepreneurial, leader within the energy industry.
I could write a whole other blog post about the three months since our first day of classes on June 4th. I am still in awe of how much I learned, how much fun I had, and above all, the amazing 47 other individuals that I now get to call my friends: the LGO Class of 2020. The summer semester comes at you fast. You are immediately thrown into small summer team that you grow and get to know on a personal level. With no background in operations, optimization or even statistics, I still had a great learning experience from our classes without being too overwhelmed. However, LGO is special in that we also go on plant treks and, for example, see how Amazon’s fulfillment center robots are being assembled and brought into life as well as having events with partner companies where we got to learn about what they did and its importance. Finally, I can’t talk about the summer, without mentioning the countless hours I spent sailing in the Charles River and the amazing resource that is the MIT Sailing Pavilion.
Looking back at it now, I have no doubt that 2018 was the best year of my life so far. However, in reflecting, I want to retell the story of how none of what I got to do this year was even possible in my mind only a year ago, but I trusted the process and trusted where my ambitions would take me. We can never know what the future holds for us, but the steps we take today will shape our day tomorrow and I can’t wait for what’s ahead of me in the rest of these two years at LGO.
By Ali Alrayes, LGO Class of 2020