Burton Conner reopens to residents after renovation

Devasia: ‘Overwhelmingly, I’m happy to be back’

Burton Conner reopened to residents this semester after closing for renovations June 2020.

Seniors move back

Among former BC residents from the senior Class of 2023, “lots of people were excited to move back,” BC President Sarah Aaronson ’23 said in an interview with The Tech. She added that there were some seniors who “would have loved to move back, but just couldn’t justify the expense.” There “wasn’t too much I could offer them, there was no compromising from Housing & Residential Services” (HRS) about the Tier 1 pricing.

Most of the Class of 2023 stayed together “on their own” because they experienced “the bond” of BC and came back because “they knew what they were coming back to.”

Recruitment of new residents

According to Aaronson, recruiting people over Zoom was “tricky.” Floors had varying success recruiting members of the Class of 2024 in Fall 2020 as part of the Support Community for First Years (SCUFFY). “But we had some SCUFFY people who really really got attached just during that singular virtual semester, so much” so that some who joined through SCUFFY ran for BC leadership positions during elections.

During SCUFFY, Ankita Devasia ’23, former vice president of BC, recalled in an interview with The Tech that BC “hosted some really good events.” Residents put “a lot of time and effort” to ensure that the events were “interactive” and “interesting,” which enabled BC to stand out.

Aaronson said that overall, some floors had structured SCUFFY activities while people from other floors “made friends” and would “just casually bring them to events.”

Aaronson added that Fall 2021 Floor Exploration for the Class of 2025 was exciting “because it was the first moment we had everyone” in BC “back in one place.” There was another publicity event in February 2022. All of these events had “good turnout,” Aaronson said.

Finally, BC’s CPW events were also popular among the first-year Class of 2026, especially now that they had a physical “anchor point” with the BC lounge in the Stratton Student Center. Additionally, funds have been pulled out of BC’s “reserve fund [for floors] to do some bonding events the first week of having” their new first-years.

Only six first-years squatted in their initial room assignments, which Aaronson said was “really validating” because this meant the new class understood “the importance of the floor placement process and actively wanted to find a floor that” best fits their “personality.”

Keeping community and culture alive

The “semester and a half” Aaronson spent in BC prior to the COVID-19 pandemic “was just incredibly impactful,” she recalled. She had been excited about BC prior to her matriculation, calling the “2019 i3 [Interactive Introduction to the Institute] video a work of art that showcased” BC’s “incredibly lively community.” She “immediately” felt like part of the community after moving there with no real “transition period.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic and dorm renovations, staying together as a community was “really hard,” Devasia said. The challenges inherent to keeping a community together were “exacerbated by the pandemic.” After BC was shut down, many residents continued to live together. Devasia said that her floor was “scattered throughout East Campus” and “not wanting to infringe on other communities’ spaces,” the floor would “hang out” in other spaces.

Michael Lu ’23 added in an email to The Tech that “floor-wide events would be held every couple of months. It was pretty [nice] seeing BC friends every so often” even “without a dorm to keep us together, though there’s only so much you can do.”

Devasia described moving out of BC in such an “expedited way” due to the pandemic as “heart-wrenching.”

“How much easier would it have been if we had a full year in BC?” Devasia wondered. “And what if we had the time to … store all of our historical objects and document all our art better,” or to “have alumni help us, … guide this transition of the community” off campus?

When moving back into BC, Aaronson said that being able to form staple groups helped preserve some of the pre-renovation culture. Other attempts to preserve culture included special CP* events that called back to unique features of the dorm and the continuation of traditions of pre-renovation BC, which include ranking Starburst flavors, first-day-of-class photos, and exchanging holiday poems and gifts.

Aaronson said that keeping her own first-year experiences in mind and wanting similar experiences for others motivated her to work toward keeping the BC community and culture alive. She was also excited by “getting to shape” the place she’d go back to as a senior.

“Even during the times when I felt as though I wasn’t doing anything to keep the community together, I think that the community wanted to be together,” Aaronson said.

“Overwhelmingly, I’m happy to be back,” Devasia said.

Preserving old murals, creating new art

Prior to the renovation, Devasia said that for those that stepped onto her floor, “it was very evident that students had the ability to maintain a high level of self expression.” However, “currently, the walls are very white… it feels like a laboratory.”

Similarly, Aaronson cited the murals that used to exist on every floor as what she misses most: in the renovated building, the all-white walls mean that “there are no landmarks.”

Aaronson said that coming to the decision of  no longer allowing murals was “very complicated” This decision “wasn’t coming from” HRS but “was instead coming from above them.” Putting nails in the walls without submitting a formal approval is also forbidden due to asbestos.

“When we were inquiring about pushing back more, we were directed to the Associate Provost Krystyn Van Vliet, who is now leaving MIT,” Aaronson said. “The administrators we were working with were not the ones who we could negotiate with, and to go further was going to take up all of my mental energy”; working with the administrators became unfeasible.

Both Aaronson and Devasia mentioned that as a replacement for the murals, picture rails have been installed on walls along which temporary canvases could be displayed.

Even the canvases proved to be challenging, especially with the Massachusetts Fire Code’s rules on “what percentage of the wall can be covered and what counts as fire safe,” Aaronson said. While this issue was eventually resolved, Aaronson said that by disallowing residents to paint directly on walls, the decision-makers have “taken away the thing that's nice and easy for us to do and now given us a dozen more hoops to jump through.”

Aaronson said that there are current plans to collaborate with the MIT List Visual Arts Center to obtain some art to hang along the rails. Additionally, some of the displayed canvases will contain “high-resolution” photographs of former murals. However, Aaronson noted that these photographic prints cannot showcase all the “time and care” put into the original work.

“I think there are many adults and many, many administration members who have been extremely supportive of this whole process,” Devasia said. For example, she said that BC Heads of House Janelle Knox-Hayes and Jarrod Hayes have “helped [students] tremendously” in terms of advocacy, including pushing for the wall installation of a board on each floor where residents could paint their floor logos.

Student advocacy efforts

Despite the challenges surrounding many of the renovation decisions, Aaronson said that “if you could clarify exactly what you wanted to ask and really have a specific proposal,” getting ideas approved was actually “very easy.”

“We got exactly the plan for bringing people back [to BC] that we wanted,” Aaronson said. The plan included letting all the former Class of 2023 residents return; allowing all the officers to live in the dorm, even those who “for some reason [would typically be] ineligible for housing”; and letting residents form staple groups which enabled the building to be “filled with people who were really passionate about” BC.

Aaronson added that BC is also funded “very well,” although to obtain funding administrators “ask for a budget proposal,” which is “difficult to come up with when you don’t have an idea of what you’re working with.” 

Regarding building decisions, some things like room furnishings “were kind of done” and “we didn’t get any say,” Aaronson said. On the other hand, while the initially-proposed common space furniture “just looked so corporate,” “luckily the lead architect was a [BC] alum” and “was pretty sympathetic.”

Upon sending her pictures of the old suite lounges, the administration was able to locate “fire-safe, corporate” furniture to make the spaces feel “a little more home-y” with furnishings that look “somewhat similar to the old furniture, which is really nice.”

Another major decision that students successfully advocated for was maintaining a number of triples in BC. Aaronson said that triples are important to BC’s culture and have historically set first-years up with a “smaller friend group,” an arrangement that has “worked really well” for many people.

Having triples also distributes first-years among BC’s suites, which “almost guarantees that they will get upperclassmen interactions.” Although these triples are only present on the Burton side of BC, “the fact that [MIT administration] did take another look” and revised their initial proposal is something that Aaronson gives them “credit for.”

Aaronson also noted other instances where MIT administrators took student feedback “to heart,” such as ensuring that the placement of the Associate Heads of House apartment “is not super intrusive.”

Closing remarks

Daisy Wang ’24, a junior in BC, wrote in an email to The Tech that while she had never seen “the pre-renovation BC,” the renovated dorm “seems clean yet full of character,” with individual floors “also taking the space and transforming/decorating it to suit their vibes.” Additionally, Wang wrote that BC’s suite housing format facilitates “a community where [she] could leave [her] room and feel comfortable to hang out with people.”

Devasia praised the BC underclassmen: “they are so committed, … so dedicated to making the space something that they can call their own,” and she has “no doubts that BC will [continue to] thrive.”

“It’s been a long two-and-a-half years, it’s been a lot of ups and downs, but it has been very, very rewarding,” Aaronson said. “Being back in this space… it’s amazing!”