Free, As In Laundry

An email from MIT ResLife on April 19, 2013, the day after the death of Sean Collier:

We know today has been a long day. In efforts to continue to provide some community building residential life and dining will be opening all laundry machines for free from 7-10 this evening just a small way to let students gather together in social setting as we work thru [sic] this emotional day.”

Within fifteen minutes of the Boston Marathon bombings, students put together an editable spreadsheet to send around East Campus with the names of every resident and whether or not they had been accounted for since the incident. When Officer Collier was shot just a few minutes walk away from our home, I stayed up all night listening to police radio and watching local news with my hall. The following day, we as a dorm watched Disney movies in Talbot Lounge as “a small way to let students gather together in [a] social setting,” so no one had to be alone. Tributes to the MIT police force soon appeared on the Great Dome and the Stata police car (but who can say whether East Campus had a hand in either of these activities.)

ResLife & Dining gave us three hours of free washing machines.

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What Community Means

Here are a few things that Random Hall meant to me in the four years I lived there, with some appearances from other dorms as well. It’s hard for me to explain why this community has meant so much to me, and why it had to be the east side, but maybe at least these stories will illustrate how much it mattered.

I didn’t originally intend to get involved in any sort of leadership activities at MIT. But I joined some student groups that the friends I met in Random were involved in. Freshman spring, I found myself sending a carefully crafted email to an administrator, presenting the case for why she should accept her nomination for the annual Big Screw competition. Since then, I’ve done far more. Random turned me into someone I never dreamed I could possibly be, and I love it.

Halfway through my sophomore year, I was unhappy with my living situation and wanted a change. A spot opened up on the floor I’d been spending most of my time on, and several people who lived there immediately started encouraging me to move. The problem was that the spot was in a double, and I’d become attached to the privacy I had in my tiny single. I talked to a few older friends. Some thought I should stay, some thought I should go. None of them convinced me. A few days of waffling later, it was the night before the floor I wanted to move to was having a floor dinner. As a non-resident, I wasn’t invited, and as I sat around being sad about it in my treasured tiny single, I knew that I had my answer. I needed to be fully a part of the community I’d attached myself to, and that meant that I had to move. The next morning, I woke up to an email from a friend on that floor, inviting me to the dinner. I ran upstairs and threw my arms around her, then told her that I was going to move.

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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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I am not an “un”

An administrator once commented that having dorm cultures that diverge was counterproductive – people should be comfortable in any hall, after all.

That’s a noble thought, but it’s nearsighted and overly cautious. I didn’t come to MIT to be cautious.

I want: Three dorms where I can express myself in any way I can or want or need. A dorm where I can walk down the halls and say “I can’t join the group hug, I’ll get hair dye all over you” – then dive in anyway.   Or I want a dorm where I can spin a glowing staff around my neck by starlight, while my friends – family, at this point – dance to the beat. Or a dorm where nobody would even think to be afraid to live their own unique sexuality, where at the end of the day, you will always be accepted for who you strive to be. Three dorms (and maybe Bexley one day again) where the fringe, the nerds, the bookworms, the LARPers, the burners, the dancers, the hackers and climbers and painters and gamers can look around and say, “These are my people.” I want a dorm where I can spend four amazing years among people as weird and unique as me, a place where I can live without fear, without judgment.

I don’t want: Eleven dorms where I can be vaguely content. I’m not spending my tuition on contentment.

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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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East Campus is my bigger box

If people who knew me in high school had to guess which dorm I would live in here, I don’t think many of them would have guessed East Campus. I was, and still am to a significant extent, the goody-two-shoes, straight-A’s, straight-edge girl next door. Luckily, I found a few friends in high school who were not about that life, who tore down the walls of that box I lived in with power tools and punk rock and endless adventures in a pick up truck. They cared deeply about me, and dammit they were going to show it by dragging me away from my homework as if their lives depended on it.

East Campus reminded me of those friends.

Don’t get me wrong: I had AMAZING friends before, girls I’d grown up with from elementary school who made me feel loved, special, accepted, and important, who still keep all my secrets and would still drop everything to support me in a time of need.

But sometimes, amazing isn’t enough.

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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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Open Doors

I lived at East Campus many years ago. I am a Florey alum and proud to still wear the T-shirt on occasion. I loved the abundant creativity, acceptance of anything you were, family oriented feeling that exuded from every pore of those EC concrete walls…walls that were covered with layers of paint from previous residents. Purple, Green, Black, Neon Orange…colors that said who we were, who we are. There are many stories I could relate that describe the characteristics of EC that I hold most dear, but most of the other posts have stated those sentiments better than I could.

It seems that safety is at the heart of the argument for sanitizing the East Side and removing its personality. Well, I am the mother of 2 children who could potentially grow up to attend MIT. If one of my children asked me where on campus, I would want them to live, this is what would be running through my head before I gave my answer.

At East Campus, I never locked my door and frequently left it standing wide open. Was I afraid someone would steal my stuff or barge in and hurt me? Never! In fact, once when I was very sick, another student from my hall who wasn’t really someone I would have considered a good friend knew I wasn’t feeling well and insisted I leave my door open so folks could look in on me and make sure I was ok.

In living groups other than those on the East Side, I would be afraid my child could remain anonymous enough that no one would notice if she were not well (physically or emotionally). Would I really want to send my child off to the pressure cooker of MIT to be alone in a generic living group, with hospital white walls and fluorescent lighting where everyone kept their doors firmly closed and “safe”?  No, I would want her to live in a place where her crazy ideas would be accepted and others would join in to help her make them reality. I would want her to live in a place where spontaneous sessions of some horrendously complicated board game happened with regularity with large percentages of her neighbors. I would want her to live in a place where she could decorate her own room as she saw fit, using her own power tools and imagination. I would want her to live in a place that would nurture her creative spirit and give her the chance to learn how to be her. I would want her to live in a place where no one was really allowed to be a ghost, where everyone was drawn out of their hiding places to participate in college life and feel like a part of something special. I would want her to find a family away from home.

So, where would I send my little girl to live at MIT? I’d want her to live on the East Side, the safest place on campus.

When lightning strikes.

“You want to move to that dorm?”

That’s what my parents asked me when I told them I was considering moving from Simmons to East Campus through REX my freshman year. They had been given a tour of EC during CPW and hadn’t really gotten it. To be honest, I don’t think I had gotten it at that point, but something told me that whatever “it” was, it was something I was going to need. That would definitely come to be true in the year to come, where I’d hit some of my lowest lows, and I honestly believe that had I not moved to EC, I would never have found my way out of them.

Because nowhere else do I think I could have found a family like I have here.

I found a family that noticed my door had been closed for two days since I was sick and came to check on me. And upon finding me sniffling and gushing mucus quickly mobilized to produce chicken soup and tissues and tea and company. I’d known these people for two weeks at that point, but I was one of their own and we look out for each other. That even when I would wake up in the middle of the night spooked and feeling alone, all I had to do was open my door and I would find some little enclave of people to find shelter with until I felt like sleeping again (and in hindsight, I do not think it was mere coincidence that they were often just outside my door, if only because sometimes I am now a part of that enclave).

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Why is my room dirty?

I have sawdust still lying in the corners from when I constructed a cantilevered loft in my room, had two people hang off a corner, watched one person swing on a beam, and simulated placing 2000 lbs. on it to determine yield strength.

I’m not done with my 2.001 homework. We’re learning about stress-strain.

I’m fixing a broken monitor I found last week and it’s resting on the floor.

I took apart a drill I found to see why the motor smokes when I press the trigger. It’s in pieces. At least I put them in a box.

I’m not done with my 6.007 homework.

I live next to EC’s tool closet. I help maintain EC’s tool closet. I put together a hacksaw last night and its replacement blades are on my floor.

I have hacksaw blades because I’m going to make my own motorized ripstik this semester, and stacked hacksaw blades make a great torsion rod.

If I have time this semester.

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Madness in any direction, at any hour

If you ask any MIT student what they love about MIT, chances are you’re going to get the same answer—“it’s the people”. It’s clichéd, but it’s true; and this is the same answer I have for why I love East Campus.

I wasn’t able to come to my CPW, so moving into my temp room was the first time I stepped foot into EC. The door to my room had no key (I had to ask the housemaster to let me in) and was decorated with poorly peeled off stickers. Next to it was a “borrowed” construction sign; the stick figure construction man on the sign had a penis and puddle of pee drawn in with Sharpie. My mother was dubious. I was delighted. It was the coolest place I’d ever been.

East Campus was just so dynamic. People were making and doing such incredible things, and they were doing them in ways that were unconventional, informal, and often outside the rules merely by virtue of the rules not having been designed to handle them. East Campus is full of hackers and rule-breakers, counter-culture people and people who choose to ignore social conventions.

Before I go any further, let me clear up a misapprehension I may have inadvertently led you to entertain right now: you do not need to break the rules to live in East Campus. Nor, in fact, do you need to be a great mural artist or a brilliant inventor or a talented fire-spinner or any number of other things that are stereotypically associated with EC. Not to live here, and not to become deeply involved with the community. This isn’t the sort of place that tolerates competitiveness in the usual sense. For one thing, outside of the community, there isn’t anything worth being competitive for: would you like this falling-apart room or this other, slightly larger, falling-apart room?

Instead, I discovered very quickly that East Campus, while prone to the pettiness and social stratification that plagues any large group living situation, is very good at making space for all types of people. I’m hesitant to compare it to a family, since that comparison implies affection bred through deep familiarity, which obviously isn’t correct. It’s also not correct to imply that everyone likes everyone else that they know in EC, when they consider them as individual people. But what you do get is a shared sense that together, you are part of something so special, something so much more amazing than anything you can accomplish on your own.

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I don’t even live here.

I am a senior, and I do not live in East Campus.

I do not live in any of the dorms on the east side of campus.

 

So why am I here writing a wall of text in defense of the east side?  What does West Campus care about the east except for how badly we lose at Water War?  I cannot speak for everyone, but I know I am not the only one who feels that the east side is an enormous part of what makes MIT unique – what makes it home.  Ask anyone, MIT affiliate or otherwise, what they think makes the MIT student experience special.  Ask them what they remember most about their time here or out of things they’ve seen from the outside.  A car on the dome, a rollercoaster for orientation, crazy students building their own furniture or robots or whatever else they can think of.  Motorized shopping carts.  Liquid nitrogen ice cream.  A hundred thousand bouncy balls cascading from the sky.  Now ask someone at MIT where they think those things typically come from, and time and time again the answer (correct or not) is East Campus.

It is not that other dorms simply don’t attract this kind of ingenuity and initiative.  Those people exist.  They are my friends and classmates and neighbors.  I’ve seen Next House build an 18-foot trebuchet and deploy it alongside a huge duck from Simmons and wheeled fortifications from Burton-Conner at water war.  It’s not for lack of trying, but the reason that the east stands out is the community.  Of course every dorm, when allowed to develop on its own, has a community, but what exists there is something special.  It is a network spanning back decades and encompassing every course.  Need help?  Doesn’t matter what the problem is, just ask and someone will know someone who knows someone who has an answer.  It’s amazing.  This is why I spend nearly as much time at East Campus as I do in my own dorm: it’s a messy, chaotic incubator for the sort of brilliant insanity that has come to be the Institute’s calling card.  It’s a huge group of disparate people who look out for each other in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.  All this, embedded in and growing out of a set of some of the oldest, admittedly jankiest buildings at MIT.

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A Sunny Place for Shady People

One of my favorite TV shows is a cartoon on the Disney Channel called Gravity Falls. It’s quirky and hilarious and manages to buck a lot of dumb TV tropes and clichés. Now, I’m not saying Gravity Falls is East Campus – all I’m saying is I’m not not saying it. After all, nobody has ever seen Gravity Falls and East Campus in the same room together.

There’s a scene from Gravity Falls that has always resonated strongly with me. Mabel, one the show’s main characters, is at a party when she meets two other girls, Candy and Grenda. Grenda has a pet iguana on her shoulder and Candy is using four forks taped to her fingers to eat from a bowl of popcorn. In a close-up shot, Mabel whispers, “I’ve found my people!”

I’m a junior now living in East Campus, and I think I’ve had this same moment two to three times a day, every day, for the past two years. The people that live in East Campus are fantastic, because the East Campus community draws fantastic people in. East Campus draws in people who don’t always fit, people who want a place to live that they can safely call home.

Communities that are strong the way that East Campus is strong aren’t common at other schools. My friends at back in my hometown don’t live in the same place for four years – they move off to apartments after freshman year, or move to fraternities or sororities, or move year to year between sterile, whitewashed dorm rooms in different buildings. Communities like East Campus are common at MIT, though, for some very important reasons:

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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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I credit East Campus with half of my MIT education

“You can’t do that!”

“You’re not allowed to do that.”

“That’s not safe.”

I hate these phrases with a passion.

I’ve learned to ignore people when they say these things. Even so, when you hear them often, it becomes disheartening.

Why can’t I do it? Do the laws of nature prohibit it? Certainly not. Does my own technical expertise not suffice? Well that can be fixed. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

Who is disallowing me from doing it? Are there rules or regulations that prohibit it? Let’s analyze the motivation for these rules, and decide why they exist. If they are well-grounded and applicable, we should revisit the design. If they are indeed arbitrary, let’s continue. Sometimes keeping things secret from the rule-makers just adds to the challenge.

What do you mean by “safe?” Would you like me to to reference some relevant published literature on its safety? And justify our deviations from it and their ramifications? What makes you, whose understanding of this consists of a cursory glance, qualified to judge the safety of our meticulously researched setup?

If I listened every time I was told not to do something, it would have halved MIT’s contribution to my education.

That’s right, easily half of my knowledge gained at MIT was due to studying, researching, experimenting, and executing activities that were unnecessary, uncalled for, disallowed, or illegal.

You will probably think this is absurd and blatantly false, or that I should have spent more time on my schoolwork. Well, I graduated in four years with a degree in Course 6-2 and a minor in Course 2. I consider this to be an acceptable course load. But as I work at my job now, I find that about half of the knowledge that I call upon comes from my formal education, and half of it from hacks, personal projects, and the results of spontaneous 3AM experiments performed while at home in East Campus.

“How will we do that?”

“Can we make this safer?”

“Can I help?”

These are the kind of phrases you hear at East Campus. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re surrounded by open-minded people.

Acceptance

I don’t want this post being connected directly to me and my name, because it is intensely personal, so please forgive my uncreative pseudonym.

I do not feel like I am exaggerating when I say that East Campus and the culture of acceptance and family I have found here have literally saved my life. I have been dealing with severe depression and anxiety for most of my life, and I have in the past attempted to kill myself, because I was in that much emotional pain, but that was until I came here. My hallmates are closer than my family and even though they might sometimes joke about terrible things, whenever I need them to help me with my own terrible thoughts, they are always there for me.

My friends have stayed up late, delayed p-sets, been late to meetings, all to make sure that I am alright. I have slept in my GRT’s room to prevent my own self-harm practices. I have cried, feeling empty and broken, in my friends’ arms. My friends have walked with me to 7-11 in the middle of the night, because I felt like I was suffocating, because even though they don’t always understand, they always care, and this is the first time I’ve ever felt that kind of love and respect.

That support is what allows me to get up in the morning and keep going to classes, even when I feel like just curling up in my bed and sleeping all day. It’s also what has allowed me to come to terms with my own sexuality and gender, two unchangeable facts about myself that I didn’t want to deal with, because the anxiety that sprang forward whenever I considered them was debilitating. The friends I have made here tear down the wall between me and myself, and no matter what I find there, they’re always there to hold me when I need or just talk if it’s one of the days when people touching me feels like claws digging through my skin.

I don’t think I will ever be able to thank them out loud, but even if I could, I could never ever thank them even half as much as they deserve. East Campus, despite it’s loud, intimidating appearance, is the best home I could never have expected to find.

What makes our dorms great made MIT great

You may or may not know the history behind MIT’s Building 20 – depending on your age, you may have even worked in it at one point. It was torn down when I was three, so I can’t directly relate to it. But when I heard the story of this ugly temporary building, and how much it did for the US in World War 2, and of all of the amazing things and people that happened inside it, I was moved. And when I walk through the building 32D lobby, I generally stop to look at all of the plaques adorning the walls as a monument to that “Magical Incubator”. Reading the things that those who worked in building 20 have to say reminds me of what I think MIT can and should be, and of all the things I love about my home.

(For context: I’m a course 8 sophomore in East Campus.)

1. Passion

“[Because the doors were always open,] as you wandered down the corridors, you saw what was going on in the rooms … In that process, you learned of many wondrous things in addition to your own work.” –Professor Walter E. Morrow

“Sessions typically began around 11 PM and lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning. They would typically sit at a conference table, while we graduate students would sit in the background and listen in.” –Professor Alan V. Oppenheim

“It was always a fairly wonderful mix of people concerned with different disciplines. We got along fairly well together, so that you could always pop over next door and talk with somebody who had nothing to do with what you were doing. Simply because everybody had a passion for doing what they were doing.” –Professor Jerome Y. Lettvin

I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned more in East Campus than in any academic building. Simply by being in lounges, listening to conversations, getting in arguments and turning to Wikipedia, I’ve learned about topics as diverse as the Riemann-Stieltjes integral, computer security, rope hauling systems, and the Freedom of Information Act, none of which would have ever come up in my physics classes. My recent interest in signal processing and speech recognition is partly spurred by Course 8’s flexible major option, but also by the excitement of a friend of mine who’s worked in those areas and geeked out about them in East Campus.

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