The East Side is a residential culture of trust and self-determination the enabling of which is critical to MIT’s educational mission

When I first arrived at MIT not all that long ago in historical terms, I was simply blown away by what I saw at East Campus and Senior House. I found it remarkable what a rich residential culture existed and the way in which it was all organized and created organically by the students themselves. Students were in charge of everything! From huge events like Steer Roast, Dorm Rush and Spring Picnic, to fundamental house management functions (desk, room assignments, dispute adjudication via judcomms), to even retail food service (student-run Pritchett Cafeteria). I remember wondering (and then having the history explained to me) how MIT had gotten so lucky as to have developed a self-sustaining residential organizational system that returned so much from so little overhead in institutional effort. It wasn’t until later, after I lived in Senior House, that I realized that part of this equation was precisely the limitation of top-down external input that allowed the residents the freedom to own and take responsibility for the emergence of their preferred environment.

I must mention here that I was hardly a newcomer to the university system and the co-residential environment; I would not have been so impressed with just any institution. I had already studied at two universities before MIT, lived in two very different student dormitory residences, and been familiar with the operations and cultures of many more, including representing one as a delegate to a national conference on university residences. The East Side of MIT, and Senior House in particular, quite simply took the concept of an academic residential learning environment to an entirely new level, and I knew immediately that I wanted to live there. And once I did live there, I finally felt, after years of experiencing similar but not equal residences, that I had found home. A place where people like me, highly motivated to explore and resistant to being pigeonholed or spoon-fed, could thrive.

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Mens et manus, motherf***ers.

Many of these posts share a common theme of a sense of home and family. This is true for me as well. MIT, East Campus, my hall, is the first place that has ever felt like home. My classmates, dormmates, hallmates, are the truest family I have known. But it’s more than that. East Campus is my home. But it is also my classroom. My workshop. My laboratory. The place where I’ve learned to bring an idea from conception to design to completion, to manage a team, and to be an effective minion. Where my friends and I have tried to defeat the safety features on a laptop battery to power a robot, build a remote triggering system out of a wireless doorbell, convert our wall into a electronics prototyping board, and experience Minecraft in real life. The place where the freedom to modify our space, paint our walls, build our furniture, wire our lights and our music players and our soda machines leads to more practical experience than any lab class. A safe environment in which to push our limits and grow, both personally and technically.

My hallmates are my family and best friends. But they are also my colleagues. My teachers and advisors. My co-conspirators. The people with whom I make, hack, dream, innovate, learn. The people who, my freshman Rush, before I formally lived in EC, taught me how to solder surface-mount parts, helped me extract my long, un-tied-back hair from a power drill (oops), and showed me what it’s like to feel comfortable in a community. The people who showed me what “saute” means, how to email a professor for help, how to prepare for an interview, and how to best respond to a blackout (rock climbing with headlamps), uncountably many skills and pieces of knowledge. The people with whom I invent and build, and the people who will form my professional network in the future when I’m looking for a job, or starting a company.

The summer after my junior year of high school, I visited the Media Lab as part of a class trip. Upon return, we were asked to write a reflection on our experience. I wrote about how cool it was to see a place where people with all kinds of backgrounds, fields of specialty, and interests work side by side on projects of immensely varying scope. How I could see how the flow of ideas between people and disciplines created a uniquely creative space. Biologists work next to computer scientists work next to artists, and the product is much greater than anything possible when disciplines are siloed. I was cautioned that the Media Lab was unique, that I would be unlikely to find such an environment anywhere else, that I shouldn’t let it set my expectations for what my life as a student and engineer would be.

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In this space, with these people, I grew up

I am trying to find the right words to explain why East Campus was integral to my growth as an individual.

Maybe it was the fact that I needed to learn to cook for myself, and learn how to eat healthily through some trial and error (I was 18, I could bounce back pretty fast from any ‘errors’).

Maybe it was interacting with the blend of zany people I have only ever found in East Campus , and realizing that I likewise didn’t need to define myself by the expectations of others.

Maybe it was the build culture of my hall, and the chance to learn how to use power tools every Rush for the fun of it.

Maybe it was the support of my friends when I was crying from the stress of MIT, and the freshman year roommate who always knew that I just needed a hug and someone to sit with me until the feeling passed, even at 4 am.

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MIT is not MIT without the East Side

When I was applying to MIT, I had this notion of it being a place for people who weren’t only super smart, but also really creative – people who build roller coasters, put interesting things on rooftops, make robots and crazy machines to do their bidding, push the boundaries of the definition of ‘vehicle’, and so on.  When I visited during CPW, I learned that the heart of this unique culture was at the East Side dorms, so I knew that this was where I would want to live.

Others have already said plenty about the wonderful community of the East Side dorms, so I’ll just add this:  MIT is a tough place.  It’s not all roller coasters and liquid nitrogen ice cream all the time.  MIT will crush your spirit and deprive you of sleep.  If it hadn’t been for the community I had on my hall, the community that was looking out for me and being there with me through the ups and downs, I very likely would not have stayed.

I didn’t really fully appreciate what a unique place East Campus was until after I left.  I am currently attending graduate school, and when I started, I thought I should live in one of the grad dorms so that I could live in a community like the one I had at EC.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Everyone stayed in their rooms with the doors shut.  When I propped open my door with a large stack of books (they were spring-loaded to slam shut automatically) I just got some weird looks from people passing by in the hallways.  The hallways were monitored with security cameras and painted an institutional white – not exactly a welcoming environment to sit around and hang out together.  

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Residential Life Elevates MIT

When I reminisce about my undergraduate education, I think about East Campus.  Most of my best friends are from East Campus. Through my East Campus community, I went from someone who had never been west of Chicago or slept in a tent to someone who has traveled over 20,000 miles in the past three years, and spent a cumulative 3 months living out of a car.  East Campus has given me opportunities to try my hand at painting, circuit design, fort and roller coaster building, sailing, mechanical design, and computer programming.  After running 2 60+ person Thanksgivings at East Campus, I will NEVER fear holiday entertaining.  And there are few people who are better at making enormous quantities of ice cream than my hallmates and I.

East Campus taught me to explore, and to take risks of all sorts–and through these risks, East Campus taught me to not fear failure, but to take a deep breath and a step back, and to try again.  When I was struggling, as we all do at some points–difficulties associated with being on the crew team, relationship problems, frustrations and fears about my future–I turned to East Campus for sympathy, advice, support, and occasionally, tough love.  I do not know where I would have turned without East Campus. Through my East Campus community, I grew from a timid person who always assumed she was wrong and unintelligent into a person who can hear all sides of an issue, but who is also much more confident in her own abilities and judgement–a confidence necessary to succeed as a woman in science and engineering, and a confidence that allowed me to deviate sharply from my mechanical engineering degree to pursue a Ph.D. in geosciences. I am certain that I, personally, would not have developed this confidence outside of East Campus, and I shudder to imagine my future without it.

In getting to know other bright young scientists from other institutions, and their histories, I have realized that what makes MIT the best technical university (not one of the best, but THE best), is our community of faculty, staff, and students.  Our student body is truly unique because our residential system encourages creativity, diversity, and true community in all of the living communities, not just the East Side.  The more our residential system is homogenized, the more homogeneous we as a community will become, and we will quickly lose what makes us special, what makes us MIT.  MIT’s residential system fosters independence, creativity, and a willingness to take risks.  Without it, I fear the brilliant and dynamic inventors, designers, and innovators MIT  is known for will be a thing of the past.

Why I came to MIT

Ever since I started thinking about college, I’d wanted to go to MIT. It was the best engineering school in the country and I wanted to be an engineer, so MIT seemed like the perfect fit. In high school I started to learn about the culture of the school. I watched videos of students building and riding crazy contraptions and read stories of the cool hacks that had been pulled over the years. At the time, I had no idea that this culture that I loved and so much identified with had its home on the East Side. After being admitted, I tried to learn as much about the dorms as possible. I found myself drawn to East Campus because of its incredibly unique culture. Where else did students paint beautiful murals on the walls, build forts and rides, and rappel down the stairwells? When I was temped in EC for CPW, I met some of the students who were doing all of this amazing stuff. At first, I was nervous approaching them, because they seemed so much cooler than I. But once I actually got to know these people, I realized that they were incredibly warm, welcoming, and genuine. I left CPW feeling great about MIT and fantastic about East Campus, but I hadn’t yet committed. MIT was awesome, but I had an offer from another school that was almost too good to be true. I finally made my decision when I thought back to my times at EC. Yes, I would get a great education at both schools, but only at MIT could I be a part of the East Campus community.

I’ve only been here a month, but EC already feels like home. My hall, Tetazoo, is not just where my bed is. It’s where my closest friends are: both my freshman peers and my upperclassmen mentors. It is the site of movies, smoothies, pancakes, screaming, dancing, and laughing.

I never knew how much I could learn in such a short period of time, not from my classes, but from my hall. I’ve learned how to get to the supermarket, how to use the campus printers, how to cook stuffed peppers, how to use a sledgehammer, and how to make my own harness out of webbing. Aside from these practical skills, I’ve gained insight into what classes to take and how to manage my time. I’ve found out about clubs and opportunities that I wouldn’t have known about had my older hallmates not clued me in.

Although MIT has a myriad of support services, if I ever had a problem, those on my hall, especially the GRTs and the MedLink would be the first people I’d turn to. They are so valuable because they know me well and because I can trust them to act in my best interests.

I suck at conclusions. See above post!

My connections to East Campus are my connections to MIT

East Campus was very hard for me to explain to my high school friends. Compared to my best friend who went to Mount Holyoke, I had way more freedom and responsibility. I could eat when and what I wanted, as long as I was willing to shop and cook for myself. It was very fair. Obviously, I occasionally made the wrong choices (it turns out you can’t really live off of ice cream for dinner), but I seemed to grow up faster than people I knew who didn’t even have the chance to make mistakes.

In EC, I was exposed to so many different subcultures, hobbies and opinions. That’s probably true of many dorms, but EC is special because of its persistent culture. Older students and alums would sometimes tell stories about what life was like “back in the day”, and it gave me a sense that there was this larger society to which I was connected. This feeling of connection and sense of a bigger picture eased some of the psychological burdens of academic stress. It’s not easy to feel this deep a connection to MIT as a whole–it’s just too big–but I feel very connected to MIT nevertheless because of my enduring connections to the East Side social world, which I still have now.

This is not to say that life was perfect. It never is with real people. I was growing up, and so were the people around me. But I like to think that I learned how to handle myself in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in a more sterile environment. There is something very flat about dorms that don’t have a culture that persists from year to year, and that flatness can make a dorm seem less like home and more like an assignment. That was my experience in a grad dorm (not at MIT). Sure, I met some interesting people and made some friends at the time. I worked on psets with other residents in my classes, and I learned how to roll sushi from someone who shared the same kitchen as me. I even experienced the drama of a love triangle. But these experiences felt like they were divorced from the dorm itself, like the dorm was just coincidentally where they happened. There was a lot of turnover year to year, as you’d expect in a grad dorm, which made it hard to really connect to the living group as a whole and to the university. It was just some place I stayed for a year.

The first story I remember hearing about MIT when I was in high school was about the hacks on the Great Dome. That’s when I knew that I’d find people like me if I came here, and I did :)

!=

Well yeah, of course!  I had an awesome time at MIT.  I liked it so much I… spent my sophomore spring through junior fall co-authoring a musical about it.

I’m an alum now, and I often think of how damn lucky I was to have gotten a chance to live the “MIT undergraduate experience,” as it’s called.

What made my undergrad experience excellent (unshockingly) was the people I got to live with and around, and the place I got to live.  I spent all four of my undergrad years in Senior Haus, in the same room, actually.  It felt like home to me — yeah, I still remember my first time walking into the courtyard, seeing the leaves, bright green in contrast with the slate building and earth tones of the tree… I don’t mean to be sappy about it, but that’s a very very strong memory for me.

I’m glad I had the chance to choose to live at Senior Haus as an undergrad, because, well, it was a good fit for me.  I liked to keep my door open and talk to people as they passed.  I liked the occasional barbecues, people just talking at desk, the hall GRT’s cats sitting on my psets (you know, because that was the most important thing in the room and they had to assert their dominance… but you gotta love ’em ’cause they’re so darn cute…).  I liked… a lot of stuff, you get the point.

MIT’s dorms in general feel more like home than most other college dorms because of the history that gets built by people choosing to live together, rather than being assigned.  It’s a value that’s hard to advertise or quantify, but it’s a very real value.

When I was a campus tour guide, one of the most frequent questions I was asked was: “What is your least favorite thing about MIT,” and, always, my answer was this: MIT does a lot of things that are wonderful, yet unconventional, and, unfortunately, the direction the school’s been trending is to eliminate anything unconventional in favor of something more… unremarkable and common.

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In Defense of Senior House

Prior to coming to MIT for the summer of 2007 for the Interphase program, I spent the first 18 years of my life living in the same house in the same town with the same friends and the same experiences. I had left my home state precisely twice, and then for less than a week each time. I barely even remembered the experience. The prospect of transplanting my life to a new state 2,000 miles from home for at least four years, living with people I didn’t know, facing the necessity of making new friends for the first time in my life, and having the added pressure of needed to succeed at a school like MIT almost gave me panic attacks. I was terrified for the start of term, especially after the Interphase program taught me that my high school had not prepared me at all for the strenuous academics at MIT.

I had chosen a temporary dormitory solely based on the fact that a man I knew from my home town was a senior in that dormitory. I wanted to be close to someone I knew to ease the transition a little. Soon, I experienced concern about my choice. During Interphase, I met several students who lived in what would become my temporary dormitory and found that other than being superficially similar to them (we were from similar regions of the US, had similar racial backgrounds) I had very little in common with them. I realized that if I were given the choice, I wouldn’t hang out with them. They weren’t the kind of people I sought out for my friends and as such, I worried incessantly about my dormitory decision.

However, I had the good fortune of having a TA during my time in Interphase who lived in Senior House. He and I became good friends and he encouraged me to take a look at all of the dorms during what was then called REX, informing me that if I was unhappy in my temporary dormitory I may be able to move into another one. He emphasized that to properly succeed at MIT, one must feel that their dormitory is a safe haven and not just some building that they were forced to sleep in. He explained further that there was no one-size-fits-all dormitory and that every student feels most comfortable in a particular place and that the incoming freshman must find their niche before they can really be happy. After moving into my room in my temporary dormitory and realizing that I absolutely loathed everything about it, I resolved to find someplace better. At the beginning of REX, I visited all of the dormitories and found a home in Senior House.

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