Swim or else
Stephanie Yeh, a senior at MIT, was all smiles
after completing four laps required for the test
Time to sink or graduate
At MIT, other schools, swim test is last barrier
By Douglas Belkin, Globe Staff | May 8, 2006
Seven days before the test, Stephanie Yeh stood in her sorority house and cried.
An electrical engineering and computer science major, she was set to graduate near the top of her MIT class next month and start a six-figure job as a Wall Street analyst.
Just one test, terrifying to her, remained. She, like scores of undergraduates at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been putting it off for nearly four years. But Yeh and the others have to pass this exam to graduate.
She had to swim 100 yards, four lengths of a pool, without stopping.
The problem: Yeh never learned how to swim.
And for students who are scared of the water?
''This is a great opportunity for them to get over it," Moore said.
For the procrastinators, there were plenty of warnings. About half of the 1,000-member freshmen class usually takes the test by their second week in Cambridge. Typically, about two dozen do not pass. ''It's their first test at MIT, and they fail," said Ben McElhiney, MIT's assistant aquatic director. ''And these are kids who aren't used to failing anything."
From that point the students have a choice: Take the exam or enroll in a beginning swim class to fulfill the requirement.
Lifeguards at the pool say many students who struggle with the test are from Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries where they have had little access to oceans or pools or swimming lessons. Among them: senior Mahreen Khan, whose father had not let her swim in public pools in her native Bangladesh because he said they were dirty.
On April 21, Khan jumped in the MIT pool for her test, squealed because the water was cold, and splashed through her first of four lengths of the pool. Halfway across the second, she began struggling to lift her arms out of the water, and then she got scared.
''I started thinking, 'It's too deep here, I can't just stand up,' and I panicked," said Khan, who had never swum four lengths without stopping. She tried to grab onto the lane line, missed, and started to go under. A lifeguard jumped in and grabbed her.
On test day, she jumped in the deep end, scrunched up her face and began kicking and moving her arms like a windmill. It was not pretty, but she was moving. The first length went well. By length two, a tiring Yeh switched to breast stroke, then to crawl, her arms barely moving over her head.
For the fourth, she rolled onto her back and finished. She touched the edge of the pool breathing heavily and grinning broadly. ''The hardest test I've ever taken at MIT," she said. Was it worth it? ''Not really," Yeh said. She has no plans to swim again.
Now, I'll be honest, I can't swim well, but I did take classes.
She should never watch the Military Channel's documentary on pararescue school, where the instructors try to drown you. Or anything about rescue swimmers.
But to say I don't find this amusing would be a lie, and here's why: these kids are facing doing something they don't want to do, and I bet that hasn't really been part of their lives. It will be, though. And the fact that they can do it is a good thing. No bullshitting their way out of it, no sucking up or off professors, just doing it.
posted by Steve @ 7:21:00 AM