Life in the cement bunker

Growing with and through MIT

Over the course of four years at MIT, I’ve come to realize the meaning of IHTFP. I distinctly remember the senses of anguish: the smell of a blown op-amp at 2AM, feeling powerless when MIT cut eight varsity sports, the taste of another Red Bull while trying to finish that computational biology project, and listening to the collective groan of freshmen getting back their physics exams. The visions of paradise are even more vivid: watching our professor race to erase multivariable calculus equations in 10-250 before the boards could reset, observing a unanimous vote of the faculty to approve an experiment that could bring together the fall career fair and the September student holiday, and seeing it start to snow right before my first crew regatta. During the weeks since class ended, I’ve found myself thinking about how unique some of these experiences are to MIT and identifying the common thread behind them: our community and its insistence on the freedom to explore.

Other universities certainly have distinct traditions and culture. Cornell has Dragon Day. Students at Duke literally camp out for basketball tickets. So what defines MIT? If Ivy League schools are “ivory towers,” then MIT is a cement bunker. We trade mahogany walls for slate lab benches and vibrant, red brick buildings for a nuclear power plant and wind tunnel. Life inside of this bunker is tough but rewarding and it has fostered a unique community that leads us to call this place home. Today, the Class of 2010 emerges from that bunker (some of us only briefly before returning to graduate school) to reflect on our time here and the moments that define our MIT experience. As we were trying to manage the torrents of problems sets and labs, sometimes it seemed that we were just like every other overworked college student. However, within this bunker we have constructed a remarkable environment with freedoms found in few other places.

After a rocky freshman transition to MIT, I came back from summer break early to paint my dorm room in Burton Conner. It might not seem like a big deal to many people, but the ability to paint your room (or your hall) provides you with the ability to create your own environment away from the classroom. Walking past student murals, one inspired by Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory,” another by an inside joke from late night psetting, you can’t help but feel an attachment to a building where the best form of thermostat during the winter is your window. This freedom contributes to the ability of living group cultures to spring up organically. Other colleges might have specialty living groups for freshman or students that desire foreign language immersion, but some of MIT’s strongest communities have just emerged, unplanned. There are very few ways that I think you can misstep during your time at MIT, but not getting to know at least one person from every living group is definitely one. I’ve learned an incredible amount from people that have entirely different goals and outlooks on life.

That same freedom is found in the academic program as well. An MIT education is like an infinite tasting menu. There are no credit limits. There is no special approval required to take classes in other disciplines. You can take a class for ten weeks before deciding if you want to see it through to the end. This is an environment where a biologist can dabble in quantum physics and a management major can explore the engineering behind solar technology. Last semester I spent every Thursday exploring policy analysis, learning the techniques behind computational photography, debating global business strategy cases, and investigating the roots of power and negotiation. At the same time, I had more than one friend that delved deeper into a specific field, taking three classes in circuit design. A similar exploratory flavor exists in research at MIT. My freshman year, I became interested in synthetic biology, found a mentor, and was working in a lab in a matter of weeks.

This culture of exploration permeates all sides of the campus. Athletics at MIT is similar to many programs at other universities. It attracts incredible athletes. It fields competitive teams. It provides a much needed break from class work. But I think you would be hard pressed to find another place where coaches openly admit that they expect a team to be your second priority. In my brief stints rowing crew and playing lacrosse, both coaches demanded to be put second behind academics. The understanding that academics comes first in all spheres of MIT creates a freedom to pursue extracurricular activities. The shared understanding of our community generates trust and respect among its members. One striking example of this is the relationship that students maintain with the MIT Police. Students seek the assistance of the MIT Police in governing social events, an action unheard of on most other campuses.

Although this freedom provides students with an unprecedented environment for intellectual curiosity, it also comes with the inherent dangers of liability. Other schools limit students for their own protection: unit caps and meal plans are both examples of colleges making sure that students aren’t overwhelming themselves with classes and ensuring that they eat three meals a day. As MIT’s prominence continues to grow, our community is going to attract more attention along with increased pressure to align our practices with those of other universities. This pressure will come in many forms. Some of our traditions, such as hacking, are going to be seen as too risky for MIT to ignore. During budget cuts, some cultural aspects might be viewed as inefficiencies we can no longer afford. For example, the Institute-wide Budget Task Force Report recommends a reevaluation of the current add/drop system. Others, like mural painting, might just be seen as an inconvenience in the renovation of dormitories (although it seems to be safe for now).

Just like all living things, MIT’s culture is destined to evolve. In 2011, the Institute will celebrate its 150th anniversary. At the same time our reduced endowment is going to drive significant changes to the daily life at MIT; we will weather the financial crisis, but all of us are responsible for making sure that MIT survives with its identity intact. For us personally, as we grow up, we need to make sure we don’t forget who we are and where we came from.

Michael Bennie is a member of the Class of 2010 and the former President of the Undergraduate Association.