Artificial Intelligence

Why I became a TechTrekker


My senior spring in high school, I decided to defer my MIT enrollment by a year. I had always planned to take a gap year, but after receiving the silver tube in the mail and seeing all my college-bound friends plan out their classes and dorm decor, I got cold feet. Every time I mentioned my plans, I was met with questions like “But what about school?” and “MIT is cool with this?”

Yeah. MIT totally is. Postponing your MIT start date is as simple as clicking a checkbox. 

group jumps into the air with snowy mountains in the background
Sofia Pronina (right) was among those who hiked to the Katla Glacier during this year’s TechTrek to Iceland.

COURTESY PHOTO

Now, having finished my first year of classes, I’m really grateful that I stuck with my decision to delay MIT, as I realized that having a full year of unstructured time is a gift. I could let my creative juices run. Pick up hobbies for fun. Do cool things like work at an AI startup and teach myself how to create latte art. My favorite part of the year, however, was backpacking across Europe. I traveled through Austria, Slovakia, Russia, Spain, France, the UK, Greece, Italy, Germany, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. 

Moreover, despite my fear that I’d be losing a valuable year, traveling turned out to be the most productive thing I could have done with my time. I got to explore different cultures, meet new people from all over the world, and gain unique perspectives that I couldn’t have gotten otherwise. My travels throughout Europe allowed me to leave my comfort zone and expand my understanding of the greater human experience. 

“In Iceland there’s less focus on hustle culture, and this relaxed approach to work-life balance ends up fostering creativity. This was a wild revelation to a bunch of MIT students.”

When I became a full-time student last fall, I realized that StartLabs, the premier undergraduate entrepreneurship club on campus, gives MIT undergrads a similar opportunity to expand their horizons and experience new things. I immediately signed up. At StartLabs, we host fireside chats and ideathons throughout the year. But our flagship event is our annual TechTrek over spring break. In previous years, StartLabs has gone on TechTrek trips to Germany, Switzerland, and Israel. On these fully funded trips, StartLabs members have visited and collaborated with industry leaders, incubators, startups, and academic institutions. They take these treks both to connect with the global startup sphere and to build closer relationships within the club itself.

Most important, however, the process of organizing the TechTrek is itself an expedited introduction to entrepreneurship. The trip is entirely planned by StartLabs members; we figure out travel logistics, find sponsors, and then discover ways to optimize our funding. 

two students soaking in a hot spring in Iceland

COURTESY PHOTO

In organizing this year’s trip to Iceland, we had to learn how to delegate roles to all the planners and how to maintain morale when making this trip a reality seemed to be an impossible task. We woke up extra early to take 6 a.m. calls with Icelandic founders and sponsors. We came up with options for different levels of sponsorship, used pattern recognition to deduce the email addresses of hundreds of potential contacts at organizations we wanted to visit, and all got scrappy with utilizing our LinkedIn connections.

And as any good entrepreneur must, we had to learn how to be lean and maximize our resources. To stretch our food budget, we planned all our incubator and company visits around lunchtime in hopes of getting fed, played human Tetris as we fit 16 people into a six-person Airbnb, and emailed grocery stores to get their nearly expired foods for a discount. We even made a deal with the local bus company to give us free tickets in exchange for a story post on our Instagram account.