The faces of student support: the deans in 5-104

The Tech sat with three of the S ^ 3 deans to get a sense of their thoughts about MIT

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Assistant Dean Miri Skolnik
Tami Forrester—The Tech
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David Randall, Associate Dean for Student Support Services
Tami Forrester—The Tech
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Assisstant Dean James Collins
Tami Forrester—The Tech

Miri Skolnik

Miri Skolnik’s office is filled with a number of comfortable blue chairs, a couple of pictures, and a plain desk. Skolnik, an Assistant Dean at S3, says she loves MIT students but wishes some aspects of MIT culture would change.

“I think MIT’s ‘one-up’ mentality is counter to every student’s personal wellbeing — I try to discourage this mentality as much as humanly possible,” she says. Skolnik believes students constantly compare themselves to others, but that people should create their own yardstick for measuring success. That said, Skolnik is impressed with students’ problem-solving abilities.

“Many MIT students live in a bubble and forget how smart they really are. For me, working with students who are consistently this smart on any given day makes my life so much easier,” said Skolnik. “In most cases we can get to the heart of an issue really quickly because MIT kids are inherently problem-solvers.” She firmly believes that this gift is present in all the students she sees at S3. “Every time I see them, they look at a new problem with enthusiasm and energy — they’re so lively.”

One thing Skolnik thinks would help ease the pressure students feel is if they realized that their professors were once in the same boat. “If MIT students knew that their professors got C’s, D’s, and even failed some of their classes, I’m sure their perception of themselves and their classes would change so much.” She continued, “Ed Bertschinger, the head of MIT’s Department of Physics, admits that early on in his studies, he was once a mediocre student in physics. One time, one of his instructors even discouraged him from pursuing physics. Look at him now!”

Miri Skolnik has a doctorate in psychology, with training from University of Michigan and the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. According to her S3 profile, Miri finds it helpful to approach life with a sense of humor, humility, and a strong cup of coffee.

David Randall

“We call ourselves deans, or administrators, who have a lot of experience working with students who have difficulties in their life,” said Dr. David Randall, an Associate Dean and Director of S3. Under his leadership, the organization sees about 5000 visits a year.

One of the issues Randall tackles on a day-to -day basis is the “one-upmanship” culture of MIT. “We see it all the time. And, frankly, I don’t think it works for students,” said Randall. “But when students come into my office, they don’t have to play that ‘I’m more hosed’ game. They don’t have to prove anything to me.”

Once this pressure is taken off, Randall says it becomes easier for students to evaluate their own happiness and understand they are not alone in their plight. “They feel that they’re struggling but don’t want to get help because they think their peers are doing fine. This isn’t the case at all though. 56 percent of last year’s graduating class sat right there in that chair at least one time last year.”

Randall calls being hosed the “big elephant” in the room; he believes that MIT students are all dealing with high levels of stress, though not many want to admit it. “I think people need to know that they’re not alone. That was the power of Lydia’s blog post” — referring to a recent MIT admissions blog post by Lydia K. ’14 titled “Meltdown” (see page 14 for the full text) — “because it showed people that others are in the same boat. Many of these highly driven, high school valedictorian types don’t realize that there are other freshmen and upperclassmen out there with the same problems as them. Above all, every MIT student should know that even at their worst weeks, they are all extraordinary.”

Randall completed a PhD in psychology from Penn State University.

James Collins

James Collins, Assistant Dean of S3, thinks everything in life is about a correct balance. To him, MIT and stress are inextricably linked.

“Stress is a part of MIT life and that hasn’t changed, unfortunately, in all the years I’ve been here. Some students have the sense that if you’re not stressed at MIT, you’re not having the authentic MIT experience,” he said. At the same time, stress can operate in insidious ways. “Sometimes it’s the thoughts and assumptions and fears that really make the stress expand and blow up on someone, not just the stress itself. Sometimes people internalize stress in unhealthy ways that make them start questioning their ability to manage stress.”

Collins finds that many students deal with their stress better after they identify the thoughts and fears that get associated with the stress. In fact, for Collins, stress management is an ongoing process. “I go through my own stress and try to deal with it the best way I can. It’s a continual learning effort and there’s absolutely no quick fix,” he said.

Collins loves to learn from MIT students. In every meeting, he sits down with the students and learns a little bit from them. “Being able to interact with such bright students is the best job possible — MIT students are great,” he said.

More than anything, Collins says he understands it takes courage to reach out and talk to someone. “Sometimes, there’s a sense that we should compare ourselves with our peers. Students can isolate themselves and don’t open up to their parents for fear of disappointment. This further isolates them and it takes a lot to come in and just say ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed.’”

James Collins started working at MIT in 1987, and formally came to S3 in 1997. Collins holds a master’s degree in mental health and counseling and is involved in the LGBT community at MIT.