a piece about a place

MIT won’t let you down if you don’t let each other down.

When Bexley was still a place, I would wander through the well-trodden, labyrinthian hall after a long day or week or month of working. The creaking below my feet—I could hear if someone was headed toward me or walking behind me. Swinging of kitchen doors. “Good evening, madam,” said a freshman I had not yet spoken to. When Bexley was still a place, sun rays and outside air always reached the circulation space, through the windows of rooms whose doors were always left open. Music from the courtyard travelled that way, too. A couple of 30 year-old alumni might have done it when they stopped by to visit and found out the building would be shut down indefinitely. I was one of the last to move out of Bexley Hall, and it was strange to see all of the doors shut and locked for the first time. I remember when Bexiles arrived in Senior House, as soon as they dropped their luggage in the room, would tinker with the door closer installed in almost every room there. It was a reflex.

When Bexley was still a place, sometimes I would wander to the other side of the building, to a friend’s room—if you were at MIT when I was, you could see this room from the student center or 77 Mass Ave in the dead of night; it was always lit in warm yellow, dressed in red and silhouettes of leaves. The room interfaced with the public in many ways: from teasing a group of MIT students with poor motor control at 4 AM on a Saturday to an EE side project used to anonymously “greet” the hustled pedestrians in daylight. Many rooms in Bexley took advantage of their windows to interact with the rest of MIT and passerbys. We were at the heart of campus. My first couple of years at MIT I often heard upperclassmen say that Bexley is a gateway to the East Side, conveniently situated on the West. Being at the center, and at the periphery/transition are indeed very special conditions, but sometimes it makes sense to me to see Bexley as being a dot on one side of Yin and Yang.

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I live in East Campus

People say that East Campus residents all look the same and do the same things, but this is at best an old, tired joke. I don’t really know how to use power tools, I’ve never dyed my hair, and I’ve never gone hacking (and among all EC residents, I am by no means a special snowflake in any of those respects). When I was a freshman and insecure about fitting in at my new home, I was worried that these things implied that I would be seriously alienated from EC, but I don’t worry about that anymore.

EC isn’t about sharing interests with a wide swath of the other residents. Empirically speaking, I think that the only real prerequisite for being part of the EC community is the ability to tolerate other people’s weirdness (in exchange for them tolerating your own); everything else is optional. I’ve heard plenty of people express the sentiment that EC is exclusionary toward us non-hardcore, boring folks (and I’ve thought this myself when feeling especially cynical), but again, I don’t think it’s true.

To the contrary, the times when I feel like a part of my living community are also the times when I feel the most like myself. Other EC residents have written beautifully about how much their friends and their hall mean to them, and how invaluable the EC community has been in their lives. I feel the same way, so I won’t go more into that here.

I’ll just add this: East Campus is both where I learned how to be true to myself, and where I learned how to change and grow. I think the balance between these two goals is crucial, and I think the environment of EC is great for finding this balance. When I encounter something unusual or outside of my comfort zone, I can decide whether or not to try it out; and if I try it out, I’m free to decide whether I like it or if it’s not for me. I’ve picked my own path through EC, but with 10 halls and hundreds of residents, there’s a path for everyone.

This is a rather rosy view of EC, and I’d be lying if I said that I’ve enjoyed every second of living here. All large, tight-knit communities produce conflict and unpleasantness, and EC is no exception. But, like most of us, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Worth every stair

When I came for CPW I was housed in Fenway and it was magical, and I came home that spring just bursting with visions of my new life. When I came for Rush I met people from EasT camPUS and fell in love with everything: the murals, the irreverence, the fire extinguisher wars, the cult of identity around all the things I had always loved but was weird for doing in my hometown. I can’t even articulate the relief I felt every day coming up to my fifth floor room (no elevator) and knowing that I was safe from classes and outsiders and judgement. Four in the morning under the blacklight glow of the dragon doing 18.02 with people who I am still best friends with 15 years later.

Fall of my freshman year I had an accident that meant that I couldn’t walk. After I got out of the ICU the admins offered to put me on the first floor in my same dorm and I refused, insisting on walking up every single one of the stairs to the fifth floor every day of the months while I healed. I have vivid memories of the whole hall helping me up the stairs: one person above me in case I pitched forward, one behind in case I slipped, one at my side to hold my cane and another moving ahead carrying the manual wheelchair. Nowhere in my life have I ever had such good friends as those I had at MIT on my hall, who took such good and true care of each other in unreasonably bad situations. It was a support group that would only be diluted with outside observation: assessment, judgement, surveillance. The freedom to care would be replaced by the fear of being watched.

To this day when I meet an alum I make it a point to find out quickly where they lived. I define my body and my life by those I surrounded myself with intentionally, not by those I happened to be placed with in my major or in an affinity group or club.

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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I Didn’t Live There

I can’t get through Bexley’s tribute video “We Lived Here – You Didn’t” without tearing up a bit.

My first tour of MIT was not of any new fancy shiny dorms. It was through Bexley – with its dark lighting, painted slogans and scruffy atmosphere. My Bexley friend, playing as tour guide, told the story of “2.361 – Friction and Lubrication”. My friends were put off by the grunge, but I was intrigued. Later, as a prefrosh coming to MIT, when I heard the news about Bexley being shut down, I was stunned. The news came just before finals. The same tour guide who had led me through was having to help her friends who had become physically ill with the news.

You’re right. I didn’t live there. But the love for that community, the ability to do stupid things, to turn your living space into your own – it’s so apparent in the video and  in interactions with Bexiles that it screams out, crying desperately to be heard.

And then you tell me that “Any new building we construct will soon develop a culture of its own“? Pointing to Maseeh and Simmons as paragons of this ideal? Please.

I refer you to what the New York Times had to say about Simmons: “Someday — when the designer chairs are all busted and tampons protrude from the wooden panels in the ceilings — this is going to be one hell of a dorm.”. We don’t need to wait for that dream. It already exists – in EC, Senior Haus, Bexley and Random. You tore down one. Don’t destroy the others.

Tarapulin: a shoobleglorp higlfup

I started writing about my feelings for East Campus and my hall more than a week ago. I have a huge amount that I want to say and more emotions to share than I have words to cover. But I’ve been reminded that my post isn’t useful to others if I never finish it, so for now, I’m making myself write. The product might be imperfect and incomplete, but there is no way I can roll some of the most complex and wonderful years of my life into a neat package of essay, so I accept that.

My current task: write as much as I can before my laptop battery dies. (I could, of course, plug in my computer, but where then lies the challenge?)

The problem with that task: how?

How do I build a wide enough web of words to express the degree to which I love this place? It was here that I learned what it means to fall in love. What I’m referring to here is not romantic love; I mean the extent to which I have found a second family here. I grew up happily in a family I love dearly, but to find another and be old enough to feel and watch it happening has been incredible. There are multiple people on my hall I have told that I would be happy spending my life living within 100 ft of, and I’m not kidding. Though my years of school before college were a mixed bag socially, there were definitely good times. Deciding to come to MIT was an incredibly difficult decision for me partly because I was leaving everyone I knew behind. There were people in high school who were my friends and with whom I liked spending time. (Now there are people in my life who are my friends, whom I live with, whom I spend time with and study with and joke and around with and punch out of affection; in short, whom I love.)

One of the things that I realized before coming to MIT was that as great as my friends were, they got royally bored in hardware stores. This isn’t a big deal; I didn’t usually hang out with my friends in hardware stores. But hardware stores are awesome, and the people I live with now also think that they are awesome. This sounds like a silly example, but in the May after my senior year of high school, shortly after I’d accepted my spot at MIT, I went to a hardware store with my friends, and that is when I convinced myself that moving was going to give me a chance to meet people even more awesome than I knew then—people who thought that hardware stores were cool. And so when halfway through my freshman year I found myself walking around in a hardware store with others from my hall and they were as enthralled as I, I knew that I had made the correct choices in life. I knew that I was coming to MIT because the people here are amazing, but I really didn’t know how much so. I don’t think my imagination had space to handle it.

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My Feelings Through Admissions Blog Posts

I’m an MIT Admissions Blogger. I write a lot about East Campus, and I write a lot about Tetazoo. I’d like to post about my feelings about EC and Tetazoo with lots of links to my blog posts, some pictures, and a lot of words.

One of my first blog posts ever as a new frosh at MIT was title “Cats!!” and the first line of the post is:

“East Campus is the best home I could have ever asked for.”

I said that after only living in East Campus for less than four weeks, and I still feel that way two years later.

We have some of the coolest traditions that happen each year, and we go on some pretty great adventures. There’s caving and quarrying and camping and more camping.  We have faculty dinners, where we show our favorite members of the MIT community how much they mean to us by feeding them glorious quantities of food. We have our finals week traditions, which also showcase how awesome our community is as we cook food and cookies for each other and provide incredible moral support during the most stressful times of year.

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Bexley – the best and worst part of my time at MIT

For the last year and a half since Bexley closed I have been relatively unable to compile my thoughts into something coherent enough to be shared.  This is my attempt, bear with me.  It’s not all rainbows and butterflies.

I think I am somewhat on my own when I say that I hated CPW.  I found very few students who had similar experiences to mine in high school.  I came to MIT knowing I wanted to be a HASS major, and without the connection of loving math/science/insert STEM subject here I really struggled to identify with other MIT students.  Then I encountered some residents from Bexley Hall and for the first and only time that weekend, I had fun.  My running tour was the highlight of my CPW, and I believe that experience is what finally made me comfortable enough to pick MIT.

When I got to campus, Bexley challenged me every single day, just like the Institvte did.  Bexley was the worst and best part of my day all wrapped into one.  It gave me identity, it gave me family, but it also could be mean at times.  The same biting sarcasm that made me smile on Monday could be really hard to handle later in the week when my head was already reeling from my schoolwork.  Did I love Bexley?  Unconditionally.  Did it make me cry?  At least once a month.

It’s hard to describe why Bexley is so special to me, but I think a lot of it boils down to not feeling alone.  I was picking between MIT and art school, and so being surrounded by engineers is something I really struggle with.  Bexley was a place where I could actually go home and discuss things I cared about like film or photography.  It was like having all the people that had the most in common with me wrapped up in a tiny burrito of awesomeness.  We played Smash Bros., painted walls, and ran around in ridiculous costumes in the name of dodge-ball.  Most of my most fun memories are in fact because of Bexley.  It upsets me when people say it shouldn’t matter that the dorm is gone if we were all really friends, because these people don’t understand what it’s like to dance the jitterbug to a jam/funk band in the Bexment while surrounded by your hall-mates.  It’s magical.  They don’t understand that walking into the lounge just to see who’s there can then turn into the most meaningful conversations and jam sessions where you end up singing songs about beavers having sex underwater.  These are not experiences that can be replicated when my family is spread across Boston and Cambridge.

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Steer Roast

I think this is a beautiful visual of my community –> http://vimeo.com/95919532

(all video credits to Andrei Ivanov of Senior Haus)

 

The Senior Haus residents, alumni and friends of the haus came together to make Roast happen. We created the art, hired the bands, cooked the food…I mean to say that I can look at that video, see myself and my friends and my work and say ‘I am part of this place, and I love it’.  A community isn’t a group of people who live together. It is created when those people interact, when they work together and build cool things and go off on adventures.  It happens in the mundane daily collisions of minds, and it lives on every year when some of us leave and others are welcomed in.

At Roast, I met an alumnus who graduated MIT back in the seventies, decades before I was born, who remembered this tradition and came back to visit the house. A group of us sat around in the lounge as he shared tales of back in the day. At some point, after I graduate and pass on into the Real World, I’d like to come back too. I want Roast to live on.

It’s like Disney World for nerds

I probably have a novel’s worth of opinions about this, so instead of going into details I will just give a few feelings I have.

I did not have many friends in high school, resulting in (or possibly caused by) a decent amount of social anxiety. As soon as I stepped foot on MIT’s campus though, I felt at home. If I had to pick a happiest moment of my life in fact, it would be realizing there was this awesome place where I would fit in and feel comfortable being myself. As a junior, I still often have these amazing moments where I realize there isn’t any place I would rather be. My hall is a super tight-knit community where I always know I’ll have friends, and I feel a connection to everyone in East Campus at large.

I’d be lying if I said I was friends with everyone here, as we are human after all. I haven’t had the chance to get to know many, and there are a few I’ve had some arguments with. But the bottom line is I love everyone here. That sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it’s true. We share something special that a lot of people outside MIT (or possibly outside of the East Side) have trouble understanding. We share a home, which is not how students at most schools view their dorms. We also have a lot in common. We chose to attend MIT, and even further, chose to live in East Campus. That means a lot, and I think it has helped many people over the years. The work at MIT can be incredibly stressful, as can life in general, but I’ll always have this large support network. A support network that I truly feel cares about me, rather than some forced support network which may have good intentions but can’t really care about me as an individual.

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