Discovering Tradition, Creating Culture, and Finding Home
Even before arriving on campus for Orientation, I knew that MIT was literally steeped in tradition. Whether I was listening to upperclassmen tell stories during Campus Preview Weekend, perusing blog entries on the Admissions Web site, or simply reading about MIT in the panoply of books and magazines that happened to mention the ’Tute, every reference to our little corner of Cambridge was decidedly positive.
Most of the emphasis was put on the amazing research opportunities, the incredibly brilliant and creative and passionate and [insert-adjective-here] students who went to MIT, and the interesting hacks that fascinated people across campus. Little or no mention was made of the problem sets, the tests, the late-night study sessions that occasionally turned into all-nighters — and to be honest, that was probably for the best. Because even though I was told of IHTFP’s many definitions, I don’t think anyone could have adequately explained what that all-purpose acronym would come to mean to me over the next four months, let alone the next four years.
I think my perspective started to shift when I walked into 10-250 for my first 18.02 lecture and was promptly handed my first MIT problem set. They expected me to do work here? “Okay,” thought my froshling self, “I can handle work.” After all, I had gotten through high school without too much trouble — how much harder could college be? Then the exact same thing happened in each of my other three classes. Not as easy as high school, after all.
That is just one example of the many realizations, both minor and major, that I accumulated throughout my first days and weeks at MIT. In the past five months, I have experienced not just the smaller, private dramas that make up our daily lives, but also the larger story of what it means for all of us to learn and live at this place we like to call the Institvte.
While in many ways my expectations for my first semester at MIT were not only met but exceeded, I nonetheless discovered that not everything here is perfect — that the version of MIT so highly exalted in hacker lore and glossy admissions brochures is not necessarily equivalent to the MIT of daily life. Sometimes, sodium drops don’t go as planned; airport employees panic and confuse LEDs with bombs; ice cream stores fail to pay their taxes. Administrators fail to involve students on campus-changing decisions, while faculty members allow themselves to become divided. Mistakes are made; apologies and corrections are not always offered, even when they should be.
And that begs the question: why not? I do not believe I am alone in saying that, over the past semester, MIT’s administration has lost the trust of much of the student body. Across campus, students have made it manifestly clear that they remain unsatisfied with the way the administration reacted to Star A. Simpson’s incident at Logan Airport. At the same time, skepticism and confusion regarding the recently announced plans for the new Ashdown House continue to grow unabated. As we move into a new semester and a new year, these issues will not simply disappear — if anything, they seem likely to grow even more important.
And yet, in spite of the negativity that has too frequently engulfed campus over the past few months, I nonetheless find myself calling this place home. Now I think I know why the literature, the admissions blogs, and even the stories told by upperclassmen can’t fully capture the MIT experience: because the definition of what it means to be an MIT student is constantly shifting. Despite our bedrock of shared tradition, MIT’s culture is incredibly fluid and dynamic, as each class of students subtly yet irrevocably helps to change and influence the Institute for generations to come.
Now, in less than three months, another class of anxious, excited, relatively innocent freshmen will be admitted to MIT. As we start to make preparations for yet another Campus Preview Weekend, I can’t help but wonder: what stories will we tell?