East Campus felt more like home to me than home ever did. I arrived in 1998, quiet and tired after a week of ROTC indoctrination, feeling out of place and lonely. I took one slip ‘n slide ride down plastic-lined 2nd West, and knew these were the people for me.
My hallmates bore me up over the next four years. I would come home exhausted from field training or Junior Lab, shuck my uniform, and melt into my friends. Our hall’s projects comprised pure problem-solving: scaling recipes for liquid-nitrogen ice cream, rewiring the hall lights, or installing speakers for an mp3 system in the shower. On my first date with my college boyfriend, an upperclassman guided us to the top of the Little Dome. My sophomore year, I lofted my bed and realized I was too short to get down safely. With the help of several friends, I borrowed the EC chop saw, cut a length of pipe, and mounted it with SpeedRail to the ceiling and the floor. I slid down this fire pole every morning for the next two years. My hallmates and I encouraged each other to try near-unimaginable things—like buying a Winnebago at a police auction, hot-wiring the ignition with alligator clips, and driving frosh around in it during rush. Through it all, I felt safe at East Campus; I felt like myself. And it was a welcome release from the pressures of military training and a grueling Course VIII major.
The friends I made at EC are still people to whom I feel close. They escorted me to Logan Airport when I went to Officer Candidates School, and two years later, sent me puzzle letters and math problems when I deployed to Iraq. We have traveled internationally to attend each other’s weddings. These days, we discuss startup life, tenure-track jobs, and the best time to have a family. But our friendships are rooted in those hall hacks.
I was also a more confident Marine officer because of the close community and projects we’d taken turns leading at MIT. East Campus life gave me empathy for my troops, who were housed in a barracks. I knew that letting them run their own lives on the weekends (one built a trebuchet out behind the supply warehouse) would lead to better performance during the week. These days, I work in Columbia University’s tech transfer office, where I speak regularly to undergrads about innovation. The bright, curious minds I meet would definitely benefit from the freedom I claimed as an undergrad. Tinkering and taking risks are inventors’ modes of play.
Technology-based, top-down rules only invite residents to thwart them. If cameras are installed in dorms, you’ll monitor the same brand of students who played the Smurfs’ theme song over the then-new EC fire alarm system fourteen years ago. Instead, trust these students to govern themselves. After graduation, you’ll need them to invent the newest things in your world—and simultaneously create appropriate policies to regulate those new inventions. Disbanding the EC community would murder the essence of MIT: the freedom to build, paint, and hack your way through college, and in the process learn more— and make better friends— than you ever thought possible. Isn’t that what MIT has stood for all along?