Opinion guest column

The importance of CityDays

Different thoughts from different student leaders on the impact of CityDays

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this column gave the incorrect class year to Cory D. Hernandez. He is a member of the Class of 2014, not 2013.


CityDays has been part of orientation for 20 years. Having CityDays as an official activity of orientation conveys to incoming freshmen an ethic of service at MIT. Every year, 40–45 community organizations are served by 600–900 MIT student CityDays participants. The number of upperclassmen volunteer group leaders has doubled in the past two years to almost 200. This large-scale event is one of the highest-profile opportunities for MIT to publicize its commitment to volunteerism in the local community.

Our survey data of CityDays participants shows that 51 percent think CityDays is more important than other orientation activities, and 21 percent say it is the most important activity. Eighty-five percent of participants express a desire in volunteering with their CityDays agency again.

CityDays works well because it’s offered to the whole freshman class, it’s an enjoyable program in a week of serious topics, and it affords a hands-on learning experience with exposure to issues of diversity and chances to gain a stronger understanding of community. One of MIT orientation’s goals is to introduce students to Boston and Cambridge. What other orientation programs get students into the local community and learning about its issues, offerings, and people at this level?

If CityDays were cut and offered at another time, it would not be nearly as well-attended because time would likely not be set aside by the Institute and other commitments will have begun, and thus student participation numbers would be lower. Costs would be substantially more, less upperclassmen leaders would be available to serve as group leaders, and it would be viewed as a Public Service Center (PSC) event, not an MIT event.

Kristi Gundrum Kebinger, community volunteer administrator, Public Service Center

Personal story

CityDays has affected me on a very personal level. I was given the opportunity to coordinate CityDays during the summer after my freshman year and, retrospectively, taking this positions was one of the best decisions I have made. What began as solely a summer job truly became so much more; this experience illuminated the vast needs and possibilities existing in our community, and in doing so has definitively influenced my time at MIT and plans for the future. This position not only deepened my penchant for public service and helped me to develop invaluable leadership skills, but was also the beginning of some of the most important and treasured relationships that I have formed at the Institute and beyond. Over the past four years, many of these relationships have been essential in the numerous opportunities that I have had within our community and throughout the world to learn, work, and attempt to implement some sort of positive change. Through coordinating CityDays and subsequent work at the Public Service Center, I have been consistently reminded of our responsibility as MIT students to use the knowledge, skills, and motivation that we possess to make a positive difference in the world. Though this responsibility that we, as MIT students, possess is difficult to achieve and easy to forget amidst our hectic schedules and stressful lifestyles, I have personally found that my experience with CityDays and the Public Service Center has helped to keep this rooted as an essential component of my goals and ambitions. The impact that this program has had on my time at MIT and its implications for the future have been truly invaluable, and I hope that future MIT students will have the opportunity to have similarly eye-opening and influential experiences.

Ali Sheppard ’12, CityDays coordinator, FUP counselor

Specific benefits

To say that CityDays does not meet the criteria for orientation means that the goals of CityDays were not truly and accurately evaluated. CityDays welcomes students to the city they will be living in for the next four years. To many, it’s the first time they step into Boston, or take the T, or familiarize themselves with some of the larger streets. It’s the first time they get to experience something that’s physically external to MIT, but fundamentally a part of the culture. It introduces freshmen to a main component of their life at MIT, and that’s service back to a community in need. One of the guiding principles MIT was founded on is service to humanity, and that mission statement is encompassed in CityDays. Not only that, but it’s a great way to introduce the PSC to freshmen as an MIT hub for innovation, service, and leadership.

Jessica Chen ’14, CityDays participant

National/peer perspective

Community service and volunteering are national priorities.

According to the Corporation for National & Community Service’s September 2010 report entitled “Civic Life in America: Key Findings on the Civic Health of the Nation,” 26.5 percent of Americans (62 million) volunteer with an organization. Here at MIT, 11.5 percent of undergraduate and graduate students (1,219) have worked with the PSC in a formal way (e.g., CityDays, fellowships, internships, grants). Anecdotally, anywhere from 18.9 percent - 28.4 percent of undergraduate and graduate students (2,000–3,000) come in to the PSC for formal opportunities (listed above) and/or for community service and volunteer opportunities. Formally, MIT has a lot of catching up to do just to get in line with the national average of Americans who volunteer. As quoted by Michael Scherer in a Time magazine article published on Jan. 15, 2009, Barack Obama has made it a national priority to volunteer by saying, “I will ask all Americans to make a renewed commitment to serving their community and their country.” Even anecdotally, MIT is still below average, and only slightly above with the more generous end — and even then by a small margin. I believe that MIT ought to commit itself to reaching the great standards set by this nation, its government, and its people. One fantastic way to do that is through CityDays.

MIT ought to recognize its differences from other institutions, and embrace them in such a way so that it can enhance MIT’s service culture.

MIT has had a long history of being different from other institutions, and this has proven to be a verily beneficial thing because those different ways of doing things have worked well for our campus. For instance, we do dining, housing, student life, student activities, public service, academics, and many more things differently than do our partner institutions. We have a Housing Lottery and Residence Exploration (REX) that allow flexible choices to all students, including freshmen; we do not require summer reading, and have pass/no record for the first semester; and we have a dining program that is only mandatory for students living in certain dorms. That does not mean we should change ourselves to adapt to a cultural “norm,” but rather that we should continue to work to assist students in the ways they need, and promote our values, like volunteerism, to them in the best ways possible — like CityDays.

Cory D. Hernandez ’14, CityDays coordinator, FUP counselor

The symbolic power of CityDays

CityDays changed the course of my MIT career — in a very subtle way. It wasn’t my interaction with some 700 other prefrosh and upperclassmen around me. It wasn’t the tree-branch cutting itself. It wasn’t the opportunity to travel on the T for the first time. It wasn’t the interesting departure from the very academic culture I expected at MIT. It wasn’t even the healthy brown bag snack.

Instead, it is my lasting memory of CityDays. What I mean by that is that three years into MIT, there are only 5-6 instances that really jump out in my mind as memorable and telling experiences. One of them is CityDays. That’s because when I talk to prefrosh, when I talk to friends at other schools, and when I talk to family, I can explain the culture of MIT with one word and one short description:

“MIT endorses one full day, which they dedicate their orientation to, for peer bonding and public service. And this event is highly attended — almost by all incoming students.”

What does that tell people? It tells them that MIT prioritizes its students’ well-being, leadership abilities, and communication development. It tells them that MIT is keen on enabling its students to not only be bookworms, but to make a tangible impact on the world around them — isn’t our motto mens et manus? And my statement has credibility exactly because CityDays is endorsed at a pivotal time of the year and is highly attended by the student body: We are all on the same page on that one day.

Any alternative to CityDays would fail to be endorsed at a pivotal time, and would fail to engage the undergraduate student body: It would fail to tell the story of why I love MIT.

Also, on a quick logistical note, the PSC fully funds CityDays, utilizing funds/donations from PSC discretionary funding, the CSF, the COOP, and other in-kind donations. Therefore I don’t see the Institute’s rationale for its cancellation. I’d like to see a more even hand from an Institute that prides itself on listening to its students and faculty.

Noam Angrist, FUP co-coordinator, Amphibious Achievement co-founder and co-president