Rising to expectations

I was a Burchard Humanities Scholar my junior year at MIT, meaning once a month I got to attend a sit-down dinner with the other undergrad scholars and some SHASS professors. It was nice to spend an occasional evening talking to folks I didn’t usually see, and eating catered food. One of the professors also served on some sort of student life committee, and towards the end of that year – upon making small talk with me and discovering I lived in EC – said “see, wouldn’t it be nice if you could do this every night in your own dining hall?” I was so surprised at the question I choked on my drink (much to my embarrassment), but eventually managed to sputter out an emphatic “NO!”

How could I prefer an antiseptic dining hall with strangers, instead of family dinner cooked and consumed collectively – in the kitchen we painted and maintained – with the hallmates who would become my closest, lifelong friends?

How could I prefer the forced homogeneity and structure my friends at other universities despised at their schools, instead of being able to make myself dinner in the middle of the night when I got home from lab?

How could I prefer the overpriced and unappealing dining hall food I experienced when visiting friends in west campus, instead of learning to plan meals, budget for food, and cook for myself? (Skills that served me well when I became a public school teacher after graduating!)

The issue of dining is just one small piece of what made EC such a wonderful home, but I think it exemplifies the value of trusting students to be the independent, intelligent humans they are capable of being. One of the first lessons I learned when I became a teacher after graduating is that students will rise to the level of expectations you set for them. When I expected my middle schoolers to be scientists, they rose to the occasion. When I expected them to be the “bad kids” so many others saw them as, they lived up to that too. As MIT students, we were trusted to feed ourselves and build roller coasters and paint our walls – and we held each other accountable to maintaining that trust with the administration. I can’t help but think that if treated like we couldn’t be trusted to so much as enter the building without being under surveillance, we would have behaved accordingly.

Speaking of my students – every year that I taught, I brought my class from the South Bronx to MIT for a day. Many of them had never been out of the city, let alone to a place like MIT. It was my friends from EC who donated the money to pay for the trip, and donated their time to host my students on lab tours and talk with them about college and engineering. I ended each year’s visit with a tour of EC, followed by a barbecue in the courtyard and making liquid nitrogen ice cream – all made possible by my EC friends. I’m sure my students would have been thrilled wherever we went on campus, but EC was always the part that they loved more than anything else – it was the place they saw students who looked like them. It was the place they saw people having fun, and joyously creating things from motorized couches to ceiling frescoes together. It was the place where they could see themselves in a few years, the place where they wanted to be in a few years – every year many of them would ask me why I ever left. EC is an integral part of what makes MIT special, and different from any other tech school. It’s what I think of when someone asks me how MIT was and I exclaim that I loved it. My first class of students will be entering college next year – I hope those who end up at the Institute, and all future MIT students, have the same opportunity to live in a unique, welcoming, and joyful community that I did in EC.

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