Grad lessons

I happened to come across my optimization class notes from grad school today. It was my toughest subject in the three semesters, it was the only course I ended with a B for, it was also the class I worked the hardest in (you had to).

It was taught by Prof. Andy Sun and was probably the best course I took, or maybe tied with Le Song’s Machine learning theory. His classes were known to be something else. They transported you to a different world of subspaces and Lagrangians and duals (most of them I remember coherently but might not be able to formulate, but it’s still the best I assimilated of anything). I’m already remembering nights spent on Mecaslin Street in my room, hunched under a desk lamp with my class notes and a textbook from the library.

I spent hours and hours on assignments and always ended up somewhere around the class average when the scores were out. I got used to it, I was already getting much out of it anyway. That’s what I thought at least, though the scores didn’t reflect that (that was new, but refreshing). I always sat in the second row, the first row was mostly folks who knew answers to questions (umm, more like could come up with respectable guesses, that was still admirable if you ask me).

Andy Sun was amazing. My favorite memory is walking with him after class one day to share how I was concerned about my grades. He was known to not emote in class save for chuckling at our horrible guesses (we didn’t mind), but he was surprisingly sweet. Before our final exam, he held an office hour – they were usually hosted by teaching assistants. We huddled around the table, he asked us the assumptions to theorems, walked us through a bunch of questions, as patient as he ever was. It was late fall, and it was dark by the time we got out and stepped into our green trolleys back to Mecaslin street. I remember being extremely emotional that his classes were coming to an end.

On our last day, he shared with us what his (name-drop alert) MIT professor told him – that it wasn’t so important that you are great at something. What’s important is that you always believe that you can do somethingbe something.

I feel like I had that feeling, and so well too, before and while in grad school. Not that I don’t anymore, but the can’s from then seem grounded in a protected, curated world of loving professors and familiar, engaging peers, and 10 storeyed structures built solely for housing generations of students. It’s been 1.5 years since I graduated, and when I saw these notes today I remembered a wholly different person from then. I was also younger and 15 lbs lighter.

I miss sitting in classes like Andy Sun’s, where you are simply blown away by the human mind.

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