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.
But they were wrong. The other place in which I’ve found this kind of mixing of ideas is the east side. In the time I’ve lived here, my hall has been home to people of courses 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 18, 20, and 21, not to mention 19, living together, talking, sharing, and working on projects. Walking down the couple hundred feet that is hall, one might encounter people discussing everything from clouds to Stonehenge and concrete to Mersenne primes to how to build a 5-5-5 timer. I know the GIRs are supposed to give some breadth to our education, but I’ve learned about a wider array of topics from excited, passionate people in EC than I ever could from classes.
Not that life in EC holds no relevance for classes. I’ve received far better “advising” from my hallmates and GRTs than from the faculty member tasked with supporting me in this way. A group of people, upperclassmen, alumni, and GRTs, who know me, my skills, goals, and interests, and the things I struggle with, who have first-hand experience with classes, professors, UROPs, and assignments has been invaluable. If I’m wondering what to take, or how to succeed in a class, or find a UROP, there are people happy to respond who can give uniquely informed answers. People are always willing to help with a difficult pset, or give some advice on time-management, or talk about the balance that is thriving on Pass/No-Record. Our huge network of alumni provide examples of what it’s like to live in the real world, and talk to us about grad school, or entering the workforce.
One of my favorite things about East Campus is living in a place where, when people see a problem or a need, something missing, they react with “I can fix this”, “I can solve this”, “I can build this”. Being part of a community of people not just with ideas, but with the drive, ability, and confidence to make them happen. “Competent” is some of the highest praise once can receive here. My hall’s lounge is set up like a mini makerspace. We have a laser cutter, an electronics workbench, and a stockroom. A drill press and power tools. Soldering irons and oscilloscopes, screws, grinders and shop vacs and vices. On another hall is Toolcomm, EC’s huge student-maintained collection of tools, safety gear, and supplies. There’s a workshop in the basement with band and table saws, a cabinet for solvents, and space for ongoing projects. There’s always something being built, or fixed, or invented.
And the skills to do these things aren’t, by and large, acquired through classes. I’m a 6-2. Using power tools, prototyping, iterating through designs, troubleshooting, working within the constraints of a budget or limited materials, and so much more. I’ll never learn these things in a lecture, or by doing psets. In the words of Hack, Punt, Tool, a musical about hacking at MIT written largely by east side people (no, really, go listen to this soundtrack), “There is more to MIT than earning your degree. You can hide away all day with diffeq. But you’ll find that in the end, working with a friend, is the formula for loving what you do.” So much of my real, practical, hands-on experience, skills that I will use my entire life and career, comes from working on projects, both legitimate and less so, with the people I live with, learning from and with each other. MIT’s motto is mens et manus, mind and hand. Without East Campus, my education would be severely lacking the “hand” part.
I was an EC Rush (REX) chair this past year. Rush is my favorite time of the year. It is nothing short of magical. Residents come together and spend a week, excited, and enthusiastic, building in the courtyard and trying to show the freshmen why we love MIT and EC as much as we do. Everyone is happy to be together, happy to be working, and happy to be meeting frosh. As Rush chairs, we were tasked with organizing building projects and events, and just generally making sure Rush could happen and run smoothly. It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done while at MIT, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity. Rush is a fantastic display of EC residents’ creativity. We had projects and events ranging from yell-triggered laser tag to an Ikea furniture assembly challenge, and everything was awesome. This Rush was also the return of the EC roller coaster. By the East Side party the Sunday of REX, we had a working 140′ roller coaster and a giant fort, complete with music-responsive lights. Hundreds of students, and some administrators, rode the coaster. Visitors to the campus would walk by the courtyard during the construction process and after completion and gape, talk excitedly, post on social media, take photos and video. We were all over Twitter. Boston Magazine and other news outlets ran stories about it. People said, “this is the kind of thing MIT students can do!”
But what those visitors, and many students, don’t know is how close the coaster came to not being able to happen, time and time again. What’s invisible is the hours of meetings, mounds of red tape, and hundreds of emails that lay behind it. We were, as the Cambridge Fire Department lieutenant worded it, “a hot potato”. No one wanted to deal with us. No one wanted to shoulder the insurance liability of approving our plans, or figure out where we fit into the Department of Public Safety’s regulations surrounding amusement park rides. The coaster engineers underwent design revision after design revision, simulation after simulation, as the requirements kept being changed. Even so, at many points, we were told, “no, you can’t”, “no, we won’t”. The coaster, obviously, did happen, primarily due to the support of the awesome people who saw the value in what we were doing and the absurdity of the administrative challenges we were wading through to make it work. When I think back on this Rush, I remember the pride associated with the coaster’s completion, and how much I learned throughout the process. But I also remember the frustrated Skype meetings I had with the other Rush chairs, scattered between Cambridge, California, and Michigan, each time the coaster was threatened. I’m worried about the future. I’m worried that, really soon, this will no longer be the kind of thing MIT students can do. We are adults, and engineers in training. We can build our dreams. I am worried that the people who could encourage us to do so and aid us in the process will instead continue to throw up administrative barriers, out of doubt, or concern for liability. I don’t want to see this amazing part of being an MIT student, of being a resident of the East Side, lost forever, and I’m afraid that’s what’s happening.
The thing is, this is all hard to write about. I’ve had a hard time starting this post, because the degree to which East Campus has shaped who I am as a person, engineer, and student is so enormous that it’s difficult to express. I’m sure I’ll come up with a zillion other things to say as soon as I finally submit. It’s immensely challenging to communicate all that the East Side is for it’s residents to someone who hasn’t experienced it. And I think that’s part of the problem. The value of the East Side doesn’t easily translate into reports and numbers, ways to compare us to our peer institutions, or even other living groups at MIT. We’re messy, complicated, and hard to deal with. We’re used to self-governance, and have lots of long-standing traditions. We don’t fit into neat administrative boxes. We seem risky, without clear benefit. Difficult to control and understand. We break rules. Why are we anything other than a liability that should be neutralized in favor of more traditional living situations?
For us, it couldn’t be more clear. It’s easy to notice the sense of belonging I feel every day as I walk into the courtyard or down my hall, talk to my friends, or just generally go about my life. It’s easy to notice the overwhelming feeling of love that I experience when I think about this place, and these people, the feeling that is making my eyes tear and my face grin wide as I sit in lab reading the other posts on this site. It’s easy to reflect on what I’ve learned in my time here and notice the huge percentage that comes from my residence as opposed to classes or other formal academics. It’s still hard to write about these things. It’s still hard to find the words to explain just how it felt my freshman year to open my door to a crowd of friends waiting there to comfort me or celebrate with me when I found out whether or not I passed 8.01, or during Rush, Bad Ideas, or CPW to walk into the courtyard and see people from all halls working together to build something awesome. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to constantly be in the middle of the environment of hacker-mentality and creation, where people are working on all kinds of projects at all times, always willing to teach. It’s impossible to convey exactly what it’s like to finally belong, to be accepted, to have a home, where I am free to experiment, to fail, and to be myself. Impossible to convey just how essential EC has been, and continues to be, to my education.
But I, like everyone else who has posted here, am trying. Trying to describe my experience at MIT, and put into words what is unverbalizable. Because writing something is better than writing nothing, and any understanding that can come of this is worth it. So, if you can’t hear our words, hear our voices. Hear the freshmen and upperclassmen, the cruft, the GRTs, the parents, the professors, the residents of both east and west campus, those part of this community for a month and for twenty years, who have taken the time to write something here. Not for a class, not as an assignment, but in defense of, in support of, out of love for what, to us, makes MIT MIT. We care for a reason. Please hear us.