Origins of the East Side

I don’t know if people here have already seen this or not, but I found this recently when cleaning out my archives.

 

When MIT moved to Cambridge, Bosworth was commissioned to draw plans for a dormitory unit of six houses, named Ware, Atkinson, Runkle, Holman, Nichols, and Craft. Built on Memorial Drive in 1916 this dormitory was designed in the classic tradition with Pompeian accents, and the group as a whole exhibited the light and gay elements of a Roman villa. But it was planned, as were all living quarters, for
practical student housing in accordance with the result of a study of dormitories at other colleges. Major contributions to this study were
made by A. Farwell Bemis, ’93, an eminent authority on housing problems and founder of the Bemis Foundation at MIT.

The dormitory group had six stories and a two-story loggia above the main building. From this loggia arches open into rooms described as
‘dens, attractive probably to students in architecture, small in comparison with the other rooms and for the moderate purse.’ The dormitory itself is L-shaped, a plan that allows sunlight to penetrate all sleeping rooms, for in designing this group sun and shadow where studied in relation to room arrangement.

In 1924, the second dormitory, designed by Bosworth as part of a quadrangle, was built north of Walker. While less elaborate than the
first, Bemis dormitory is a plain rectangular building planned to form the central section of the east wing of a quadrangle. Its walls of
cream-colored brick are broken by fluted pilasters and the doorways suggest classic dignity. As considerable study had been made of living requirements for students, the rooms provide maximum comfort and privacy without luxury. Four years later, a unit was connected to
either side of this dormitory — Goodale on the north and Walcott at the south — forming a continuous structure that completed the east
wing. In 1931, the architects, Coolidge and Carlson (Harry J. Carlson ’92) constructed the entire west wing — Wood, Hayden, and Munroe — of the intended quadrangle which still lacks the enclosing north and south units. This wing is almost identical in appearance with the east group of dormitories, except for the central unit which has a parapet along the roof adorned with Grecian urns.

 

Free to be me!

SH initially attracted me because it was the “oldest” housing on campus, part of the original pouring of the concrete, as it were.

What I found there liberated me from a shy (very) sheltered Asian girl from an Evangelical (actually, more rabid) Christian family into a thinking human being able to stand on her own.

I had many friends who had chosen Baker/NH/”the other side” of the campus who later regretted their choices as they didn’t know.  However, having settle into their chosen housing, inertia took over.

East side of the campus meant that I could walk back to my “home” and get away from the crushing pressure of the academia.  It meant, I could let loose and no one would judge my eclectic taste or “weirdness” (different values).  I meant that being free from judgement, I was free to express myself in ways I never thought possible.

This kind of freedom is something that needs to be treasured!  Not only did I get a first rate education while living there, the people who chose to live there became my close family with whom I still keep close contact after all these years (well, FB helps a bit with that).

I could never have taken that first hesitating step without the support of the upperclass women who told me, “everyone’s opinion counts here” and she meant it.  The fact that I still remember her and her words which had a huge impact on my life should be noted (Thank you, Tamar More!)

Choosing the East Side

I just wanted to share a memory of how I came to choose the East Side.

I wanted, or, thought I wanted, a normal, typical college experience. When I looked through the materials housing sent, I thought… Baker. Maybe Burton-Conner. I’d attended some pre-frosh events, and I liked the West Campus women I had met. I thought that was the place for me.

But. I was curious about this other side of campus I had not explored yet.

So, I asked to be placed in EC for rush week. In the spirit of being able to make an informed decision.

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The most valuable part of my MIT education

I had a typically degrading rush experience in the autumn of ’96.   Witnessing the male students aggressively recruited by fraternities, looking at the co-ed living options, immediately dismissing the boring sorority options, I felt let down. I was temporarily housed in MacGregor, and when I returned to my temporary room at night, the neighboring rooms were already doors closed lights out.   I remember the residents there giving me strange looks when I told them I was going to check out Bexley, East Campus and Senior House. It reminded me of the disgusted looks that the kids in high school shot at me for coming first in a math competition, or for wearing a ‘My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult’ t-shirt.

I got over to the east side later that day, and then I saw him: a guy dressed in leather, wearing a ‘Siouxsie and the Banshees’ tee. I actually followed him from a distance to see where he was headed – straight into the Senior House courtyard.

Senior House had been renovated that year, and the residents were on a crusade to retain their weirdness. Desperately trying to dissuade the freshman attracted to the elevator and air conditioning, they blasted punk rock from speakers in the courtyard. A group of kids sat relaxed on the cement bench, smoking a cigarette, watching another guy with long hair, pulled back into a ponytail, doing radial tire swinging.   The decision to put the dorm as my first choice was a no-brainer. The dorm had more first choices that year than ever before. I told my parents that I decided to live there so I could be close to the med center in case I had a bad asthma attack. I didn’t want them to worry.

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An optimal home, anytime

MIT provides more opportunities than students can possibly take advantage of in their time here as undergraduates. Some people choose to take 7 classes, others push themselves in research aiming for a publication, and still others get involved with campus activities or are varsity athletes. Similarly, some spend a lot of time on these “out-of-dorm” commitments, but other students choose to spend a lot of their time around the dorm.

Those who live in East Side dorms are no different. In particular, at Senior House, I’m one of those people that takes a full load of classes and is also very passionate about research. As a result, I’m often super busy and primarily asleep in my dorm. But even for me, it is so important that when I do hang out, or work on psets late into the night, I feel comfortable with the people around me.

As a pre-frosh at CPW, I stayed in Burton-Connor and was hosted by a Course 6 sophomore, who showed me around BC and even brought me to a meeting with her UROP supervisor. All the people I met in BC were cool and I had a lot in common with them. But I had always heard from MIT admissions that each dorm was different and there was an optimal place for each student. Even though I thought this sounded a bit corny, I was determined to explore other dorms, and make a well-informed decision. After the bouncy-ball drop and a magnificent tour of a painted fun haus, I knew that Senior House was the place for me. It wasn’t that BC was bad, but that SH was better for me.

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Creativity in my dorm had a huge effect on my future work

I could go on for hours about this (and sometimes do…). The fact that Senior House extolled creativity and weirdness during my time there (1975-1980) had long-lasting effects on my work. It gave me the confidence to say to prospective employers “I don’t know how to do that, but I learn fast and I know how to find out about it”. It helped me relate better with the weird engineers with whom I was going to work, and helped put them at ease with me. It reminded me that adulthood, while being very different than collegehood, could still have lots of valuable fun.

The begrudging, eye-rolling permissiveness of the MIT administration towards East Campus and Senior house during that period helped create a healthy atmosphere of growth for a lot of people. Yes, it’s easier to be authoritarian and enforce “safety” in students, but that creates a different kind of adult, one whom is less likely to be a creative researcher or leader. Putting more effort into patience (and even humor) pays off quickly as the students graduate.

It is common for me to come across alums who lived in other dorms who say, in one way or another, “I was afraid to switch to Senior House, but now I kinda wish I had”. That in and of itself speaks to the long-term benefits of letting the east side stay weird.

Minimizing Judgmentalness Of My Surroundings

The rest of the world is judgmental about 20 different ways in which I am a weirdo.  I went to MIT so that only 15 of those ways would be deemed weird by my classmates, who would celebrate the 5 ways the outside world finds us all weird.  When I found the East side of campus, I met people who only judged me for being weird in 5 ways and celebrated the 15 ways that the rest of the world is judgmental about and the 10 ways that the West side of campus still judged us for.  When I found Senior House, I met people who only thought I was weird in one or two ways and celebrated: not just the ways that the rest of the world judged all MIT undergrads and not just the ways that West Campus were judgmental about the residents of the East-side of campus and not just the ways that Senior House residents were thought to be weird by the rest of the East-side….but also celebrated the one or two ways that Senior House residents themselves thought I was weird.  It was an amazingly powerful and rare experience to have, for the first time in my life, all my different flavors of weirdness celebrated, without having to suppress aspects of myself to be truly socially accepted.  What I needed and wanted from MIT in general and found living at Senior House in particular was a place where both the start and end points of my college emotional development would be “normal,” where the journey and end point would not be distorted by social norms that I did not personally value.

Defining Home

I remember that when I first visited MIT and stayed with a fellow gymnast in EC, she was genuinely insulted a bit that I said it ‘wasn’t weird enough’ for me.

I can understand. I was asked to describe myself in only three words this year, and what came out was “I’m totally normal.” This from a circus performer, of course, so take that with a grain of salt.

But in most of the ways that people measure, I was normal. Quiet, studious, not a partier or a wave-maker, I was (and still am in most cases) someone who is happy to be on the sidelines of the action rather than in the center.

And yet, Senior House spoke to me as soon as I stepped in the courtyard during rush. I knew I was home.

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Sport Death

Not gonna lie, just the rumors of Senior Haus scared me away when I first came to campus. I didn’t even set foot inside until sophomore year.

However, when I decided to move there on a whim and a desire to live in a dorm that had a sense of community, I found the most accepting, supportive, and resilient people I have ever met. These are people who would drop their pset at 3 am to let you rant about why something was absolutely terrible or knock on your door to make sure you were awake for an exam if you had been up late studying. Everyone kept it real and I felt like I was closer to the people I lived with in the 1.5 years I spent in Senior Haus than people I’ve known my entire life. I may not have had a lot in common with some people I became friends with, but they challenged my beliefs, spoke passionately about things they cared about, and didn’t judge me for my personality quirks or my academic and mental health struggles. I doubt I’d be as comfortable with myself as I am now if I hadn’t lived in Senior Haus, and I definitely doubt that I would have survived MIT without the friends I made there.

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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A lifelong community

There are many things I could say, many things I wish I had time to say, but one of the most powerful things about being a part of East Campus and Senior House when I was an undergraduate is that it turned out to be a community that I didn’t leave behind when I graduated.

Many times friends have commented to me that they can’t begin to fathom how it’s possible to still be so intertwined with people I knew from my alma mater. And just this year, as I was preparing to head to Steer Roast, a close friend blurted out with great incomprehension that, even though she had loved her undergraduate experience and had made a handful of great friends there, it would never even cross her mind to go back for a school reunion. I knew what she meant, but I could only say that it doesn’t feel like a school reunion, it’s more like going to see family – a family that keeps growing, and keeps surprising you, and that makes you feel grounded, not just at that moment of reunion but the whole year around.

I can say confidently now that all the memorable bits that happened while I was an undergrad were just the tip of the iceberg. After graduating I worked for a while with BU and Harvard students and various alums from other schools, and the closest thing I could find in their experiences that matched mine were fraternities and the crazy networking that comes from being a Harvard alum. In that sense, Senior House has been the most open, free-for-all, genderless, fraternity-like experience I’ve ever run across. Since graduating I’ve met people who were at SH in the 70s and 80s who immediately took me in, made me feel welcome, introduced me to their old SH friends and connections, and went out of their way to help me get a leg up in my life. Along the way, I’ve tried to do the same – not from any sense of obligation, but from a genuine feeling of connection through shared culture. These kinds of interactions have been a big part of my life since leaving MIT.

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the place my parents warned me about…

i remember freshman fall, when I first got to campus my parents said “daughter, don’t move to EC, they built a roller coaster (and it doesn’t look safe so don’t go on it), they die their hair and some people didn’t have clothes on, let alone shoes. it’s weird and i think they’re allowed to have cats and even smoke in their rooms *gasp*”. as an agreeable kid who was content with my assigned dorm, i obeyed.

during my first semester, i became friends with one haus resident… and soon, half of my friend group lived someplace on the east side. i loved my floor on west campus and wouldn’t trade that experience for anything but senior haus and East Campus were definitely my second homes.

after attending my first 5E party, i realized my parents were right. everyone was weird and i LOVED it. then i attended my first roast… and fell in love again, press repeat until my last roast this spring. i would go to east campus and stay late chatting with people i never met, making new friends and before i realized, every single time, we would see the sunrise. i never had to worry about what i was wearing to east campus or how my hair looked or if my socks matched. if i wanted a beer, i just had to ask and if i wanted to smoke, someone was there with a pack.

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This is why I’m here.

In high school I was pretty stubborn about going to some average, pretty-good-but-nothing-special college. It was a win-win plan: the security of knowing I’d  be accepted/be able to afford it, not too intense of a workload, and not feeling like the dumbest person there. The plan instantly changed the moment I stepped into Bexley Hall for the first time.

I had come to visit a friend during my junior year of high school, and he happened to live in Bexley. When I first saw it, I couldn’t understand how it was even a college dorm. Every minute, there was another surprise. You can paint the walls? Cats?! My experience in Bexley made me want to explore more of MIT, and my attraction to the East Side culture completely overrode my desire to settle for a “pretty-good-but-nothing-special” school.

I think it seemed understandable to my friends and teachers that I wanted so badly to go to MIT, but many of them could not understand why, if I was rejected, “you’ll probably get into Harvard/Princeton/Yale anyway, it’s okay” wouldn’t do. The reason I am here has nothing to do with the prestige, and while I’m certainly grateful for the opportunities and quality of education I’m receiving, that’s not what made me fall in love.

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Let Upperclassmen Be In the Dorms During Rush

I am a former Senior House resident, from 2007-2011, and I find it baffling that upperclassmen move in day is after REX. It makes no sense. The value (to me) in MIT’s residential system is that you can choose to live with people with whom you share common interests and you can be apart of a longstanding culture or a community instead of a generic freshmen dorm where you would get some random roommate like in most colleges.

REX is a chance to explore different dorms and figure out where you might want to live. Even if you don’t choose a dorm you visited, you might meet cool people there and hang out there sometimes, and it gives you a chance to learn different aspects of MIT that you wouldn’t get from a website or a brochure. It also has free food. What is there not to love?

However, I find it a glaring flaw that the upperclassmen move in after this process. If they aren’t a REX chair or a desk worker or qualify for some other exemption, they are excluded from the process, which makes it harder for the freshmen to get a genuine perspective on what the dorms are like and it makes it harder for the upperclassmen to welcome the freshmen to MIT, and as an upperclassmen, that was one my favorite things about school starting again: making food for people or telling embarrassing stories about our hall mates. I think these things should be encouraged.

When I was a freshman, I did an FPOP and when I came to my dorm for the first time, I found it creepy. There was barely anyone in my suite. I thought I lived in a ghost dorm where people never come out of their rooms only to later find out my temporary suite mates hadn’t been allowed to move in yet, so the rooms were just empty. I enjoyed my FPOP. It was fun, but it would have been nicer to come home to a suite with people in it.

I have no first hand knowledge as to why the upperclassmen move in later, but I have heard (from a friend who debated this with an administrator) that it is because upperclassmen are weird, they will scare the freshmen’s parents, and those parents won’t leave their kids at MIT. I think this is ridiculous. If the MIT administration finds its own student weird and scary, then I wonder why they want to work here. Assuming they don’t and their opinion is merely paternalistic, I think their opinion is unfounded.

Every year, about 1000 freshmen come to MIT. Most of them are weird. It’s one of the reasons why MIT is awesome. I would find it odd that a parent with a weird kid was alarmed or concerned that their child is going to go to school with other weird kids. For many of them, MIT might be the first school where their weirdness is appreciated and parents might feel relieved that their kid finally fits in somewhere.

Furthermore, moving into a (relatively) empty dorm is creepy. When I was a junior, I had one freshman move into my hall and she contemplated moving out of the building because she didn’t think anyone hung out at Senior House because she didn’t see anyone during the day. Many of the upperclassmen who did qualify for early move ins were at work so when she came with her parents, they saw no one. This was not a good welcome, and I know that MIT students can and want to do better. They just need the opportunity to do so.

Ultimately, I found Senior House to be awesome, but it could be more awesome if upperclassmen were allowed to move in earlier.

Senior Haus will always be my home

I haven’t been back in years, but the Haus will always feel like home to me.  I haven’t been following all the changes at MIT, but it doesn’t sound good.  I don’t really understand why the Institute would focus any energy on dismantling the one thing that was always good there for me – the culture on the East side of campus. It’s not just about hair dye and strange parties and murals, but those things are important. Learning that you can truly do anything you can think of is the whole point of MIT, and many of the things the East side holds so dear are just expressions of this belief.

Just two nights ago, I was talking to my husband (also a Haus alum) about how we were so fortunate to have lived in a dorm that was so safe. I think we had just seen yet another terrible story of rape or abuse on a college campus. And it struck me that I NEVER EVER had to fear that kind of thing when I was living in Senior Haus. Because it was my family, and family looks out for each other. And I don’t believe it would have been a family if the whole culture of the place hadn’t existed. The feeling of family was a result of about 150 people from all over the country choosing to live together, not despite but because of all of our different experiences and expressions of ourselves. We got to choose that place (do they get to choose anymore?) and be whatever and whoever and do whatever we wanted, and I can’t imagine my life without that experience. I can’t imagine college, especially MIT where every day in class and lab just beats you down, without the support I had from my Haus family. I feel really sad to think that I might have been one of the last generations to feel that.

Erin, Senior House, Class of ’99

Queer Affirmation

As a freshman and sophomore at Senior House, it meant a world to me to live in a dorm that was friendly to queer people. From the minute I got there with my parents for orientation, I felt no impulse to hide or closet myself. In fact, I felt that the upperclassmen and especially the Housemaster and all the GRTs appreciated me for who I was. Although I’ve since moved off-campus, I care that Senior House remains a gay-positive space. I feel that so many wonderful conversations I was able to have with housemates about sexuality and identity could only have taken place on the east side, where we have a love for individual quirks but also try to treat each other as part of the same family.

Why I chose to live on the east side of town

Greetings.

 

I thought I would take a few moments to register a possibly dated view of my decision-making process (in 1984) regarding choice of living space and why I to this day regard that choice as a good one.

I arrived during Rush Week of 1984 and stayed at Random Hall for Rush week.  I avoided the “Greek System” and toured East Campus, Bexley, Senior House, Baker House, Next House, and Burton/Conner.

 

I chose Senior House, and the decision was a good one. There is no question that adverse events happen on the East Side as well as the West Side and off campus- the Runkle fire happened on my third or fourth night there; I knew the young man who fell or jumped to his death a few years later.  These sorts of events are scattered across the campus and are not in any way unique to  Senior House or any other residence hall.

I found Senior House (and the east side of campus) a uniquely tolerant environment.  Gay, straight, republican, democrat, libertarian, christian, jewish, muslim, black. white: there was and I hope still is an environment of open tolerance. I can think offhand of six or so people just in my first two years who transferred to Senior House from fraternities, sororities, or other dorms because they found themselves living in openly hostile environments due to race and sexual orientation and had to move. For two years I managed room assignments in Senior House and thus was briefed on all transfers into the dorm.  The desire to form a community of tolerance manifests in many ways.   The grey walls and yellow lights I remember from visiting Burton-Connor contrast with colorful murals.  Cafeteria eating at Baker contrasted with kitchens where students could cook vegan or gluten-free meals.   Izod shirts and Sperry topsiders on the west side contrasted with purple hair and tie-dye on the East side.

I hope that an oasis of individual liberty and freedom exists still on campus, even if it looks like The Island of Misfit Toys to visitors.  Murals and tie-dye and green hair are the lighthouses that signal the entrance to a safe harbor for victims of prejudice on campus.

 

thank you for your attention.

Long live seniorhaus

When I applied to MIT, I knew I wanted to live on the east side. That’s where all the weird, creative kids were working on crazy projects at 2am. Those were my people. Those were the people who helped out with the latest thermo-hell-problem, who helped me take apart an old TV so that we could turn it into an oscilloscope, who left fresh homemade waffles on my desk when I came back from turning in a pset after a grueling all-nighter, who kept in touch over the summer when one of my immediate family was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

To this day, my parents talk about “the MIT Sorting Hat” (aka the REX housing survey) and how lucky I was to have found my community in Senior House. It isn’t lost on them that I spent four years being part of a family who helped carry me through some of my best and worst moments, or that along the way I grew into a more compassionate, accepting, self-assured person. How lucky indeed.

MIT taught me how to be a better engineer. Senior House taught me how to be a better person.

East Campus is a community

The best thing about my four years of living in Senior Haus (and spending a lot of time across the street at East Campus) was the community. The East Side was how I found pset buddies, how I found friends, how I found older mentors who could advise me on navigating the ‘tvte, how I found food coops, how I found people for random adventures around Boston. Living on the East Side really allowed me to create connections with people in ways I don’t think would have happened had I lived in a “traditional” dorm with depressingly white walls and set mealtimes in a dining hall with cliques and drama about who is sitting with who. The kitchens really allowed for a more organically-grown community, with residents coming together over projects they were passionate about (rather than artificially over food made by some faceless underpaid line cook), and using cooking for others as a way to show caring for one another. Steer Roast is marked on my calendar every year for the foreseeable future. I graduated three years ago and I still miss living on the East Side.

MIT’s unique academic rigor is enabled by an undergraduate residential system which is idiosyncratic to MIT, and that is good.

I was asked by some of our students to contribute my point of view to the essays being assembled in this collection. The issue at hand is so much more important to MIT’s success than most of my academic and administrative colleagues seem to understand that I feel compelled to comply with this request. In fact, I would have liked to have spent an extended effort on this essay, collecting my thoughts into a brief but compelling argument of only a few paragraphs in length. Alas, time is against me. With apologies, I have made no attempt to be brief.

I want to add my voice to that of the other writers in this collection in expressing my conviction that MIT’s undergraduate residential system is one of the core elements that contributes to our success as a school. However, I must also express agreement with those writers who point out that the residential system only contributes positively to MIT when it is operating according to certain values — like personal choice, a sense of ownership by the residents, and academic community governance — which our students seem to intuitively understand, but which are being eroded by a series of policy changes that appear to be attempting to bring MIT’s idiosyncratic system more in line with what would be more broadly recognized as modern best practices in the field of student life administration. I have no doubt that this gradual elimination of the natural support system which enabled MIT’s highly demanding academic culture in years past, together with the more recent attempts to replace it with a more managed and controllable system, are the principal causes for the escalation of student stress in unhealthy directions that we have all observed in recent years, and which has been extensively discussed in the news media both inside and out of MIT. To enable their success under the rigors of our academics, we need our students to feel like their living group at MIT is their home, not a temporary shelter owned by an organization hostile to their interests. When we take action to undermine that sense of the home, we insert new sources of stress into the community which carry no educational merit.

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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.

!=

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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