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.
The next four years at MIT had a lot of ups and downs; I fell out of love with chemistry and decided to not pursue a PhD. I took writing and literature classes instead, I managed the radio station, I became involved with the house government. I baked apple pies from scratch for the entire dorm once too.
Senior House was a place where you could just be. For me it was the artistic spirit of the dorm that attracted me and sustained my spirit when the science stuff wasn’t going so great. We were lovers and makers of music: harpists, pianists, gamelan players (people with actual talent), and me on my guitar. We had the girl that was winning all the poetry competitions; we had the guy who started up a newspaper. And man, we had painters and fresh blank new walls to paint. We had athletes – bodybuilders, crew stars. I haven’t even gotten to what the rest of most of the testimonials mention – the technical wizards – building flame throwers and crazy wearable computers. The cultural diversity! The diversity of sexual orientation, gender identities! It was amazing.
It wasn’t all perfect, and sometimes different groups in the fairly small dorm rubbed up some friction, but generally we got through it with the support of GRTs who ‘got it’ and an awesome headmaster.
The diversity of that dorm experience, the live and let live attitude, the way we learned to all live together, that is the MIT experience that I draw most heavily on now in my career as a physician. Never mind the Chemistry BSc, I can talk with almost any patient, from any cultural background and be non-judgmental and curious about their experience. When fully gothed-out teenager ends up to the ED when I’m there – I can empathize, at least a little. I’m proud of the fact that gay teenagers feel comfortable talking to me about their lives.
The really wonderful careers that the Senior House residents of my era have had continue to inspire me to be bold with my career. Maybe next I will write that book I’ve always wanted to.
I’m sure I would have been fine if I had ended up at any other dorm, with randomly selected housemates, but it would not have been nearly as fun or inspiring, and I wouldn’t be who I am today and I would hate to think that my wonderful friends would not have become the leaders, artists, performers, teachers, scientists, physicians, and innovators that they are today too. It is vital that future MIT students, kids who are used to being different from their peers, have the opportunity to experience the ‘other’.