When my family first visited me in EC, my brother told me the building looked like a tenement. My mother promptly responded, “She’s here for the culture!” It’s that simple. A place that is tolerant and accepting, a place that has people that feel like home, makes everything worth it. And part of it is the freedom to express yourself and enjoy the expression of others. There’s a sort of unparalleled openness of discussion, and a fantastic mix of uncensored people who facilitate these sorts of conversation. Nobody is ostracized by being “that one person” who defies the “accepted” norms, because definitions of normal don’t apply on the East Side.
I love recognizing the faces of everyone in the lounge as I walk past, and I love introducing new people to our hall, which isn’t really as scary as you might be led to believe. I love walking out of my door to see the smiling bears on the Grateful Dead mural across from my room, and I love the rainbow and red lights that make waking up a little easier on the eyes. I love the sense of history and tradition that permeates from the very walls themselves, and I love that we’ve created so many stories of our own by just living our lives here. And I’ve gotten so used to the smell of the place that I’m inclined to believe that stockholm syndrome that has developed this far could be classified as love as well.
This summer, I spent three months with exclusively non-MIT students for the first time in several years. And all of them expressed admiration for the sheer amount of experiences I could share about my dorm, about the breadth of things we’d experimented with and the uniqueness of my college life. For the first time, I realized that so many of the great things that I took for granted about the people and place that I lived with were not the regular, sterile dorm life in other universities. The three AM conversations and random baking endeavors, running barefoot through the snow and consoling friends over hot tea, and the bright colored hair and verbal memes I’ve acquired would never have been possible if MIT was like every other college dorm system, where dorms are uniform and regulated to eradicate personality, and most people move off campus because there’s nothing keeping them there.
At MIT, on the other hand, and perhaps on the East Side in particular, everyone is distinct and proud, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t need the support of those closest to us. It’s a two way street; we chose to live here because this is where we know we feel most comfortable and will thrive, and the communities chose to have us as well because we’ll all have richer lives this way. And that means we need to preserve communities where people are allowed to be comfortable in their own skin, and encouraged to explore by people who have been there and have done that. I’ve lived all four years in the same hall, watched our seniors graduate and nurtured each class of incoming freshmen, and this place feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived.
But it doesn’t feel like home when you need to face a security camera to enter your own door, or when you can’t bring over a new friend because they aren’t on your guest list. It’s distinctly uncomfortable when you get interrogated about your presence in a place that you pay to live in, and it’s nothing short of insulting when the security guard at the front desk won’t let your parents into the dorm, while you are accompanying them. And because we’re a place where people have such strong connections that they want to come back and visit even when they’ve graduated, we have a strong alumni presence, something that has started to decline significantly since they seem to be no longer welcome in a place that they called home, when trying to visit people that they know who still live here. When there’s security cameras, identification activated locks, and alarmed doors, it starts to feel less like a home and more like a surveillance state prison. Various security upgrades only serve to alienate us further from those in our community, and inconvenience those of us who actually live here and have to operate daily around these checkpoints and navigate convoluted systems of entry permissions.
While we’re definitely drinking from the firehose and often operating under the influence of caffeine or lack of sleep, we’re still more or less functional human beings. And we’re members of what society defines as adults. We seek out social circles and have our own responsibilities to various student groups and also to ourselves. But learning is an ongoing process, now and for the rest of our lives. We spend only so much time in classes; the rest of our learning must be accomplished by ourselves, among people with whom we feel safe and people who we trust. And it’s the wonderful organic culture of the East Side that facilitates this learning while offering guidance and cautionary tales from others that serve as advice, not as admonishment. We look out for each other, and we care enough about everyone we live with, not just our friends, that we try and make sure they have the resources and environment for them to safely grow and achieve. And I think that’s a lot more than some other schools’ dormitory systems can say. It’s vital that the East Side can continue to flourish in terms of culture, without the fetters of increased stricture.