Campus Life Confessions of a GRT

Paying it forward

The rewards of being a GRT

Editors note: this is the first in a series of articles written by various MIT Graduate Resident Tutors (GRTs) about their experiences.

Mary Tellers, East Campus

You know the scene in The Sound of Music where Maria skips up to the gates of the Von Trapp Manor with two pieces of baggage and a song about beating imposter syndrome? That was figuratively me moving to MIT in 2015. In my imagination, those two awkward pieces of baggage were titled “Forever Alone” and “PTSD.” I set those two pieces of baggage down and asked myself, “What can I do to support mental health on campus?” Not because I’m some saintly nun, but because volunteering is a good way to meet people, and helping other people’s mental health makes me feel better about my own. In my undergrad days, I worked at a crisis intervention and peer counseling hotline, and it was the best thing I did with my time. I was ready to get back into the mental health support game!

Alas, MIT doesn’t have a hotline like that. Instead, I started my PhD looking for something to do for mental health, even though I didn’t know what form that would take. Had you told me it would come in the form of being an “adult in residence” (aka GRT) to 39 undergrads, I would have laughed. But then I started hanging out with one of the GRT’s in East Campus, and I found out there was a job open. Thus began my deliberations.

Did I want to give up my nice pseudo-adult grad apartment for some ancient building? Did I want to live with the noise of boisterous young adulthood? I wasn’t sure. I was sure, though, that I wanted to be the resource person, the “I just need a hug” person, and the checking-in person. I wanted to feel useful, and I knew I’d enjoy the availability of social time. Also cats. Having found my something, I applied, interviewed, and got the job. It was pretty exhilarating.

Living on hall is less exhilarating, but still rewarding. Mostly I hang out in the lounge or make weekly waffles. I socialize and hope my students have gotten the message that if shit hits the fan, I’m here to help clean up the mess. (Not literally. God, I hope I haven’t given them any Bad Ideas). Being a GRT works for me: I’m an extrovert, I don’t have any other time-consuming extracurricular activities, and I fit into the culture on my hall. I don’t get to put on my mental health supporter hat every day, but when I do, it’s to help people I care deeply about.

To return to my Sound of Music metaphor, I’ve lightened my baggage since coming to MIT. For one, I threw out my self-deprecating “Forever Alone” identity like Maria rid herself of ugly clothes. I now use the “PTSD” guitar to sing Kumbaya with my residents. Just kidding, this metaphor fell apart. What I really mean to say is that helping other people, especially in a community like the one I live in at East Campus, has helped me to be a happier and healthier person at MIT. My residents are probably rolling their eyes right now because I’m so sappy, but DEAL WITH IT, GUYS.

Aditya Bhattaru, East Campus

I can’t do commitment. It doesn’t matter if I’m promising to go out next Friday with friends, or if I’m getting involved with a cool project, I wheedle and struggle and stress until I manage to put myself out there or just give up. Part of the problem is that I like my time to be open; obligations mean I have less time to just wander about and pick up random things to do. I tend to feel like commitments restrict my life excessively, especially since I’m a researcher with odd hours.

Knowing this, you might ask me, why would I ever ask to become a GRT? It’s not often that a graduate student would say they want more work. In between classes and research, most of us are up to our eyeballs in things due the next day. We came to MIT for a world class education, for the wonderful resources and opportunities that emerge from every corner. Taking on more work and more stress seems like crazy talk, an exercise we don’t need in our lives.

Yet, as studious and focused as graduate students are, I think we benefit from facing challenges and having work outside of our field of study. I think we can find fulfillment in ways other than new, exciting research. Maybe that’s what draws so many graduate students to the GRT program: because despite the apprehension, there’s something incredibly fulfilling about being a pillar of support for undergraduate students. Many of us were able to lean on our RAs when we were undergraduates, and the academic and social support they provided was invaluable; being able to offer that in return is a rewarding process, oftentimes worth the extra struggle.

At the same time, many of us are working in highly technical fields that involve a great deal of math and science. Helping a student manage their stress, mediating conflicts, and creating a community are skills and challenges that are outside the realm of expertise of most MIT graduate students. It definitely takes some level of hard work, but when it’s not the same type of challenge, it’s not as stressful as you’d think. If anything, it helps you develop those soft skills that you might not get a chance to exercise doing technical research.

Sure, if I wasn’t a GRT, I wouldn’t struggle with extra work sometimes. I wouldn’t have to change my plans slightly because of an urgent text. I’d probably have more time to relax. But I wouldn’t be as happy. There are few things I’ve done that are as satisfying or as worth my time as being a GRT.

For more information about becoming a GRT, visit beagrt.mit.edu.