Q&A with Kalyn Bowen, MIT Senior and first-generation college student

Steve Nelson

Kalyn Bowen, a first-generation college student who emigrated from Japan as a teen, is a computer science major with a love for learning languages. Bowen has recently interned with a company helping build apps for tutoring and teaching children with no English background how to code. She has also worked for non-profits helping support students from low-income backgrounds. She spent this past IAP (Independent Activities Period) in Israel, teaching computer science to Arab students enrolled in coding enrichment programs.  

Her goal after graduation is to take a gap year in Taiwan to learn Chinese, and eventually obtain a law degree so she can focus on international education reform.

What was the most difficult transition for you when you first came to MIT?

For me, it was the realization that everyone was at different levels coming into MIT in terms of academics. My freshman year, I took the most basic classes a freshman could take, and I really struggled through them. Meanwhile many of my friends had tested out of the classes I was taking. Though there were many times I wished I had as many opportunities as my classmates before coming to college and could solve the psets (MIT-lingo for problem sets) faster, the experience made me appreciate very early on in my MIT career the help that my professors, TAs, and classmates provided me. It also allowed me to realize how much I love helping others when I finished a problem early, providing me the opportunity to get involved in teaching activities within and outside of MIT throughout my four years.

What do you think is the most important factor to being successful in school?

Hard work and perseverance! I am nowhere near a perfect GPA, and I am the type of student that studies double or triple the average amount, and sometimes it’s still difficult for me to get the average score on an exam. Though I might not be the “smart” person in a class, I have realized that hard work and effort is actually noticed and rewarded. And to be honest, being a hard-working person gains you respect and recognition. As long as you are willing to put in time and ask for help, people around you notice your genuine efforts.

What advice do you have for first generation college students?  

You might compare yourself to other students. Maybe you compare yourself to others academically, or maybe financially. Some opportunities your friends had before college, you might not even know something like that existed. But it doesn’t matter now—you made it to college! I was actually reluctant to share my identity as a first-generation college student when I first arrived on campus. But now, I’m really proud about it. For us first-generation students to get here, we had to work harder; it was harder for us to discover opportunities, it was harder for us to collect information about the college application process (in most cases we went to a low-performing high school with underqualified counselors), and it was harder for us to adjust to all aspects of being on campus. If you’re more open about your identity, it’s easier for you to find others similar to you and for them to open up to you, and honestly talking to people from similar backgrounds has been great. After I became more open about sharing my identity, my non-first-gen friends also think that it’s pretty cool I’m first-gen!

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully graduated from law school and paying off student loans. Following that I want to combine my love for education and foreign languages in my future career. I see myself working on international education policies, serving students around the world :-) 

What is your favorite thing about being at MIT?

This is cliché, but the PEOPLE! I feel that I got really lucky with the friends I made at MIT. I’ve made friends from so many different events on and off campus. They have made me into a more appreciative, caring person, and everyone I’ve met at MIT helped me get closer to the person I want to be.