My best decision at MIT
The fulfilling adventures of GRT life
John Arroyo, Simmons Hall
There was the time one of my sophomore students asked me for advice on where to have a nice — but affordable — dinner on a first date. There was the email from a first-year student who thanked me for lending an empathetic ear after his first tough, post-PNR exam. There was the birthday card a current student slipped under my door that read: “Happy Birthday, John! You created a family for me when I needed one.” And there were the homemade dumplings a former student saved for me because she remembered I missed out on her family’s delicious recipe. These are just a few of the memories that come to mind when I think about the special undergraduate students that fulfill my experience as a GRT at Simmons Hall.
I was certain the MIT chapter of my life had concluded in June 2010 when I graduated with my master’s from Urban Studies and Planning (Course 11). However, my search for a new professional adventure resulted in large questions about society, identity, policy, and urbanism — unanswerable questions without further education. In 2013, I returned to MIT to begin my doctoral studies. Readjusting to the rhythm of academic life at MIT made me realize that a productive research agenda was not enough to carry me through my time here. Meanwhile, I developed a fond interest in the two other pillars of higher education: teaching and student support. I became motivated to expand my community of like-minded individuals beyond my department and across MIT.
Opportunities to serve as a Course 11 instructor or to present guest lectures at local area colleges confirmed my love for teaching. I enjoyed helping a new generation think critically about cities and their roles within them. Like many of my peers in applied social science doctoral programs, I possessed a wealth of life experiences: over a decade of full-time employment, significant travel and exposure to diverse cultural settings, leadership service to local and national organizations, and the lessons I learned from my own ups and downs in life over the last 36 years. What I was missing was a venue for sharing my experiences with students beyond the classroom.
I have not had a typical life. I grew up in an immigrant Mexican and Mexican-American/Chicano family in East L.A., one of the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S. From a dearth of public space to cramped, substandard housing and schools, my firsthand experiences with these complex challenges eventually ignited my interest to understand the relationship between social equity and urban planning, as well as design practice and research. Despite an interest in leaving my familial and financial challenges behind — my father was not around, and when he was, it was unsafe to be around him — heightened circumstances derailed my escape plans to attend college in another part of the country.
I made my decision to stay, local work in my favor. I excelled in my journalism and urbanism studies in a top national program. I finally had the time to explore what I already knew about myself — and discover what I didn’t — after several academically rigorous high school years. And while I never spent much time on my own campus, I met a wonderful group of music loving friends attending other area schools. Somehow I balanced making new friends and schoolwork with working three jobs to afford school. I had caretaking responsibilities with ill family members. I became a commuter to save money. I came out as queer a week before my 18th birthday. I struggled (alone) with public discrimination on account of that decision. I started my first serious romantic relationship. I had my first heartbreak. I was mugged at knife point. I got my first “C” on an exam. I managed publicity for the college radio station. I made the dean’s list. I got into a car accident. I had a falling out with a close friend. My dog died. I reunited with that close friend. I learned what it feels like when someone is unfaithful to you. I won several prestigious awards. All of this and more occurred during my freshman year.
My mom’s work as an elementary school teacher in East L.A. taught me that students may not always remember your classroom lessons, but your life lessons have the potential to make an indelible mark — and I have lessons to share. She made me see that teaching and student support should go hand in hand. I thought about this in December 2014, when I saw a flyer announcing GRT applications in Lobby 10. I recall thinking about my own undergraduate experience, and how I would have benefitted from having a support system in my first-year dorm — especially if that was someone I could relate to from a minority perspective. I thought of my intersectional identity, and how any of the problems I faced long ago may be an MIT undergrad’s current problem. Having time away from MIT gave me perspective. The more time I spent at MIT, the more I witnessed the Institute’s critical need to recruit and retain underrepresented students, faculty, and administration at MIT across all levels.
After we submitted our application, my partner and I began to receive invitations to attend study breaks and student or house team-led formal panel interviews at various residence halls. I remember not knowing the exact number of windows at Simmons Hall (but being close!). I remember being asked to offer solutions to scenarios about typical roommate conflicts. Months would fly by before my partner and I were printing a fun poster to announce our first All Freshman Mandatory Section Meeting. Would the students like us? How quickly could we remember all their names? What’s good study break food for vegetarians? Which class is 8.01 again? These are just a few of the questions that ran through our heads during our first week.
These days, I often feel like the mayor of a small town when I walk down the Infinite Corridor. It’s virtually impossible to not get at least one smile, wave, hug, or high-five from a current student in my section, a former student in my section last year, a Residential Life Area Director or another wonderful staff member behind MIT’s extensive menu of student services, a fellow GRT (at Simmons Hall or a new friend I made during GRT training in August), or from the dedicated janitorial, maintenance, or food service staff across MIT’s dining halls. Peers often ask me “How do you know so many people across MIT?” My answer is as steadfast as it is simple: “Become a GRT.”
Discovering oneself is a constantly evolving exercise. As elements of our identity shift, so does our search for communities that ensure we are welcome, safe, and valued members. I still laugh out loud when I think about a student’s recent impression of the viral “Sexy Sax Man Careless Whisper Prank featuring Sergio Flores” YouTube video. It still warms my heart to remember when a student took the time (during the end of the semester) to express collective concern about a close friend going through a difficult period with their extended family back home. I appreciate when students in the dining hall say, “Maybe you’re right, John. Money isn’t everything. You make me think about trying to do something bigger than me when I graduate.” While I am proud to be a GRT at Simmons Hall, a similar, special sense of community resonates among our neighboring house teams across campus.
It’s no surprise that the PhD grind can get the best of you. When it does, it’s fulfilling to know you serve a tangible purpose that’s bigger than your general exams, dissertation, or lab work. College is one of the most formative and transformative years in a student’s life. It is a space where one learns (about academics and about oneself), takes risks, and challenges boundaries when necessary — all while having fun. A healthy balance between each of these aspects is made possible at MIT with various support systems at undergraduate residence halls and throughout campus. GRTs are an integral part of this network. We exercise warmth and patience, make the time to express genuine interest in what undergraduate students have to say, and are kind and thoughtful. While I may not always have an immediate answer or perfect solution when students come to me for help, one thing is certain: becoming a GRT was the best decision I made at MIT.
Editor’s note: this is a series of articles written by various MIT Graduate Resident Tutors (GRTs) about their experiences.
For more information about becoming a GRT, visit beagrt.mit.edu.