Campus Life

IT’S ALL GREEK TO ME: Building houses, building communities

A Habitat for Humanity trip inspires a habit of volunteering

“You can do it!” one of my sorority sisters cheered as I awkwardly held the circular saw, which was already weighing my arm down. My task was to cut some pieces of wood for the framework of the house I was building for Habitat for Humanity. In my mind, I thought of all the things that could go horribly wrong.

“Line up the blade with the edge and move slowly,” another student instructed me. I turned on the saw, but it unexpectedly jolted in my hand and made a piercing screech. I had not positioned the blade close enough to the wood. I immediately let go of the button.

I was about to hand the saw to another student, but the sister stopped me. “Try again, you can do it!” Her smile gave me more courage, and I tried again. This time, I steadied the saw and moved the blade through the wood.

I was so excited that I discovered I could use a saw properly, and I was even more grateful that I had a sister who would not let me give up.

I began community service in high school because I wanted to get to know people, but in my small hometown, there were few people-oriented opportunities. Instead, I shelved books in my library and transported patient files in the hospital. However, at MIT, I was better able to realize my volunteering wishes.

As the first semester of my freshman year drew to a close, an older student in my sorority, Sandra Chen ’12, introduced me to one of the many opportunities offered by MIT. An active member of Habitat for Humanity, she urged me to sign up for the Habitat spring break trip, telling me she thought I would find it surprisingly worthwhile. Having no other plans for spring break and curious about the opportunity, I signed up, as did a number of other MIT students, including two friends from my sorority.

Oak Ridge lies 22 miles northwest of Knoxville, TN, and its enchanting grassy stretches of land belie its history as the home of the Manhattan Project, the research program that brought forth the atomic bomb. Moreover, the town resides in a county in which more than 4,000 people out of 75,000 are below the poverty line. That week, the other MIT students and I were to refurbish several houses in the town by painting, installing floorboards, cabinets, and more.

In the middle of my week of volunteering, the spring break trip participants and I were invited to dinner at a local church. “Spread out, each of you pick a table,” a church member encouragingly told us. I sat down at a table already filled with three people. “We’ve been expecting you. Thank you so much for coming to us to help,” said the elderly man across from me. When he said “us,” the meaning of my trip hit me.

I was not just here to help build and refurbish houses for a few families. In a small way, I was helping this entire town. The people at my table also pointed out some locals in the room: the young girls who sang for charity, a church member who won the local award for most hours of service, and a schoolteacher, among other active town members. I realized I had not only traveled to a town in Tennessee, but also to a genuine community. Furthermore, being immersed in this community with two sorority sisters from my MIT community, who were always there to make me laugh and to encourage me, made the trip all the more meaningful.

This trip initiated my involvement in service at MIT, making service a part of my lifestyle instead of an occasional engagement. Looking back, I am grateful that Sandra shared with me her passion for service, because this trip gave me the motivation to create new service events for sorority women as the Panhel Community Service Chair in 2011. For me, volunteering has opened up an entire new chapter of my life at MIT.