GUEST COLUMN Two sides to every campus

Don’t let unhappy MIT students fall through the cracks

Editor’s Note: The following was sent as an open letter to Chancellor Eric Grimson and Alan E. Siegel, MIT’s chief of mental health services.

I was very disturbed to read about the recent suicides at MIT. Surprisingly, I found myself angry upon reading that the bodies were not found for a few days (in the case of Nicolas E. Del Castillo ’14) and for almost a week (in the case of Satto Tonegawa ’15). Why did it take so long for these bodies to be found?

In the Nov. 9 issue of The Boston Globe, I grew incensed upon reading Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 describe MIT as “not a hypercompetitive, cold place … students tell me they are delighted by how friendly it is now.”

I’m sure, Chancellor Grimson, that you certainly have heard from undergraduates who are “delighted” by MIT. I am writing to provide a voice for people who are not in the least delighted by MIT — who in fact find it to be frigidly cold, are repressed beyond belief, overworked, stressed, and feel incredibly alone.

It is precisely people like me whose voices are not heard. There are potentially students who are too depressed to reach out, to go seek out Chancellor Grimson to tell him “how we feel.” To generalize MIT as a “friendly” place where students are “delighted” is only to further perpetuate ideas that will lead to the continuation of (what in my mind is) a cold, unsupportive community, and one that provides an environment that is ripe for more students to slip through the cracks.

Just to be clear, I do not believe that the community is intentionally unsupportive. I think that most everyone at MIT is busy with research or other work, and it can be very hard to find time even to sleep, much less to reach out to another person. And I don’t want to be the one to generalize MIT as “all bad” — there are certainly people who care and even a small number that reach out — but I think as a whole, it could be greatly improved. I went through MIT feeling like hardly any of the professors or staff members cared about how I was doing as an undergraduate (a very select few did, and I am very grateful). I often ate lunch alone, thought about transferring constantly, and got so depressed that I had to take a semester off from school.

Yes, part of my solitude has to do with my own personality. But because of the nature of the student that MIT attracts — intense, driven, hard-working — I believe there is a (perhaps large) subset of students at MIT that is particularly ripe for feeling inadequate and alone.

And I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. A grad student that I recently spoke to compared MIT to being in a deep dark pit, where you are screaming and no one can hear you.

A classmate of mine had a perfect 5.0 grade point average, and still thought that none of his professors knew his name.

A friend once called me to say that he/she felt so alone and was walking towards a bridge and felt like he/she couldn’t do anything about it.

It is my hope that members of the MIT community will continue to reach out to each other as Allan E. Miramonti ’13 (Undergraduate Association President) says they have been doing and that the MIT administration will do what it can to foster a sense of community among all its members, even the ones who appear to be antisocial. Everyone in the MIT community is busy — but it can really change someone’s day to not feel so alone. I also strongly hope that students will reach out to Student Support Services or MIT Mental Health if they are having issues, and that mental health services will become less stigmatized. Both Student Support Services and MIT Mental Health are good resources.

I hope that the administration will also consider substantive changes to its freshman advising program and its “GRT residential system.” It is my opinion that many MIT professors are very focused on their own research, and some don’t have a firm understanding of undergraduate life at MIT. It would be great if the administration could find professors and staff that actually care about the well-being of their students. And if, as I suspect, there are not enough professors/staff members who actually care, I think that would be very telling of undergraduate academic life at MIT. I hope that the administration will encourage their faculty to care more about undergraduate life.

Further, I think that the “GRT residential system” should be adjusted. I don’t think my own freshman year GRTs even knew my name — they saw it as a path to free room and board. I think that graduate students should be replaced by a combination of graduate students and upperclassmen who both care about students and understand (or strongly wish to understand) MIT undergraduate life.

There are good things about the social life at MIT — I agree with Chancellor Grimson that students aren’t competitive, and many MIT students are kind people who are interested in learning. But I hope the administration will increase efforts to foster a sense of campus-wide community.

I am glad that MIT is “[re-examining] campus efforts.” There are students who just do not feel well enough to reach out for help, and it is my hope that more efforts will be made to hear these students’ voices. As long as undergraduate residential life stays the way it is, there will be students like myself who find the MIT community to be cold, and we shouldn’t continue to be in shock when students kill themselves.

Stephen Tsai graduated in 2011 majoring in Course 17.

\'13 over 6 years ago

Thank you, Stephen, for stating out loud in concrete terms precisely that which bothers everybody here and which only prolonged self-deception can partly mask.

Anonymous over 6 years ago

Yes, thank you, Stephen.

Anonymous over 6 years ago

I very much agree. Only thing I had in common with my freshman adviser was the sport I played, my GRT at Next knew my name, not my face, and upperclassman mentorship was practically non existent. There should be systems set in place to make it easy for those things not to happen instead of saying oh, it's their fault for making themselves secluded. I could write a whole column on this myself, which I will save for another day perhaps.

Anonymous over 6 years ago

Thanks, Stephen. It is essential for the MIT administration to hear the opinions and feelings of the silent majority. And you certainly voiced them very well.

The only thing I would like to add is that MIT should increase the capacity of MIT Mental Health and Counseling Services and create incentives for lonely and depressed students as well as the regular ones to get counseling (I don't know, maybe give them free food or Tech Cash credit). This will most likely diminish the suicides at MIT.

I was a social person but I still struggled greatly as an undergrad at MIT, and benefited a lot from Mental Health Services. At the beginning, I was very reluctant to get mental health support because of the bad perceptions in society. My mentor and instructors urged me so I gave it a try and then I was glad that I tried it. With the support of Mental Health staff and antidepressants, I was able to graduate in 4 years and get a good job in industry.

To all current MIT students reading this: If you ever find yourself in a downward spiral, please use your last bit of energy to walk MIT Medical. They won't make you regret it.

P.K.Garg over 6 years ago

Thank you for this debate. Similar debate was about the conditions of residents in 80's and some positive results came out and benefited next generations of physicians.

These is no doubt that the suggestion came out in Steven Tsai's letter can only help. More ideas should be expressed.

My suggestion based on my own experience with organizations fostering care and bonding leads me to say that almost daily contact with undergraduate in the form of a contact - chain will help. Example will be two freshmen could be contacted by one assigned ( self chosen ) Sophomore, and so on.

Weakly meeting to monthly meeting of each level will generate more effective ways to " keep in touch' , have a friend, trust in somebody, etc

Anonymous over 6 years ago

My daughter is a freshman at MIT, and so far, I can say that her experience certainy mirrors what Mr. Tsai describes. My wife and I have visited several times on the weekend. Our daughter's dorm is more reminiscent of a morgue than a normal college dormitory. The doors to each room are shut, no one is visiting, no one makes eye contact in the hall or the elevator, and the GRTs are never around. My daughter has reached the point where she leaves campus on the weekend to visit friends at other colleges. Drs. Essigmann and Dr. Hall, housemasters at Simmons, should be ashamed of their woeful inability to foster any sense of community. I realize now that most of the "community spirit" and activities showcased at CPW weekend were a complete sham.

Matt Putnam \'09 over 6 years ago

I would like to weigh in and say that my experience, and all of the experiences of others that I'm personally familiar with, are the opposite of what Anonymous #6 and others are reporting. I lived in Baker all 4 years, and spent significant time in New House, EC, and Random as well, and the communities there are all great. Clearly there's a problem at Simmons (and I think that's already pretty well known), but please don't project that onto other dorms and living groups.

I would also like to point out that your dorm is not the only place to have social interaction. MIT has an incredible number of clubs and activities given its size, so there's really no excuse for not connecting to other students.

Furthermore, claims that professors and the administration don't care about the students' well-being are utterly absurd. I encourage you to compare MIT to any other college, especially a public university, in this regard. You will find that MIT spends far more resources per capita on student welfare than the average. As just one example, you do not find award-winning professors holding office hours and tutoring introductory students one-on-one at many other colleges.

This is not a systemic problem. It may be a local problem (as in the case of Simmons), but it is ultimately up to the students to utilize the massive amounts of resources available to them.