Campus Life guest column

HRS is Failing Undergrads

I won’t be living on campus next year — but not by choice

In February 2021, I arrived on campus for the first time. I had made it through my first semester at MIT, although it had felt more like an addendum to high school since I’d only taken GIRs and hadn’t really tried to make friends with anybody over Zoom — a common experience for many 2024s. My dad helped me move my bags into MacGregor House, said a quick masked goodbye, and then immediately started his trip back home, leaving me alone in my room. Q-Week began with a Discord call to meet my new floormates, the same people who are still my closest friends here and my main support network. That virtual semester was filled with late nights getting to know my new suitemates, an endless stream of the cartoon Regular Show, post-all-nighter sunrise viewings, and a wonderful trip to Rockport to cap it all off. Despite everyone on the floor growing quite close and living together without issue, we went our separate ways to explore different dorms that fall. A few of us ended up at Simmons, and while we liked it there, we quickly realized that we missed living together and began planning to return to MacGregor for our junior year.

That first somewhat regular semester was full of all kinds of ups and downs, and I was excited to be back home for winter break spending time with family, seeing my high school friends, and getting some much-needed rest and relaxation. However, it was not long after getting back home that I started to rest too much — sleeping almost all day, every day. I was waking up at 10am, going back to bed by noon, and then sleeping until my family woke me for dinner, before passing out again for the night. And it wasn’t good sleep, either — I was having night sweats and hallucinatory fever dreams all the time. After two weeks of back-to-back doctor’s visits and a litany of blood work and scans, I was diagnosed with Stage III non-Hodgkin diffuse large B cell lymphoma, just two days after my 20th birthday.

My family and friends were understandably terrified, but to be honest, throughout those five months of chemotherapy, I was never particularly scared. I had incredible care from all my doctors and nurses and was told from the very beginning that this kind of cancer responded very well to treatment. The part that bothered me the most was having to take a semester away from school on medical leave. I greatly missed spending time with my friends doing nothing of particular value, the daily routine of going to classes and working on problem sets, and everything else that wasn’t being stuck in a hospital bed all day.

During this time, my friends from MIT came to visit me at the beginning of spring break. I know it must have been hard for them to see me in that state, but I nonetheless couldn’t have appreciated their company more. It was so nice to see them again, and I was happy just to spend time around my friends, chatting about things that didn’t matter, as if everything had gone back to “normal”. Along with our usual light-hearted conversation and our bizarre humor, one of the things we talked about the most was our plans for being back in MacGregor. We jokingly discussed making posters to find a sixth person to fill our suite, or our ideas for floor brunch every weekend, and were overall looking forward to the upcoming fall very much.

As my treatment ended that summer, my life slowly started to become “normal” again. I was working at a summer camp, my hair began to grow back slowly but surely, I could spend time with friends without risk of becoming sick easily, and I even got to go on vacation with my family. Over these months, I started to keep note of how many days in a row I could go without thinking about the unfortunate happenings of the year. It became a measure of normalcy for me. Working at camp, I could go a day or two. On vacation in Jamaica, as we visited family, however, hardly a day passed where I didn’t have to talk about my experience to everyone who was so worried about me for all those months, but unprompted, I still wasn’t thinking about cancer.

As August wrapped up, I was getting antsy about returning to campus, but I still didn’t know where I would be living. I made several long-distance calls to Housing & Residential Services (HRS) with my bad cell service. Eventually,  I got through and learned that I would not be offered housing in an undergraduate residence hall. Students who take a leave of absence are not guaranteed housing upon return to campus. I knew this, but I was hopeful that I would get an offer from the waitlist. I did not. In a few days, I would instead be arriving at Tang Hall.

And I adjusted to living in Tang Hall. I adjusted to the longer walk from the western extremes of campus to my classes in Building 2, and to generally not being around other undergrads. I would, and still do, stay until the wee hours of the morning in MacGregor with my friends, who welcomed me back to MIT as if the whole year had just been a bad dream. Then I walked back just to sleep in Tang for the night; it’s been a house, but certainly not my home. It was harder to have days without thinking about the past year when I knew the only reason I was walking all the way down Amherst Alley was a direct result of my unfortunate circumstances. But I also adjusted to this, and have had long spans where things felt normal again.

Now the spring semester has rolled around, and I’m more than a year out from my diagnosis and the beginning of my treatment. Thankfully, my experience with cancer has few tangible manifestations in my daily life anymore. I have a few scars, and I learned from genetic testing that I shouldn’t eat fava beans, but that’s the extent of it. At least, that’s what I thought it would be. For yet another year, I will not be guaranteed undergraduate housing by MIT, since I do not currently live in undergrad housing. Taking time away from school to let doctors literally save my life meant forfeiting my rights to housing, and that will roll over into the next year. I will likely spend another year not living in undergrad housing. What’s worse, I learned that my current spot in Tang Hall isn’t secure either, and I will be on the waitlist for both graduate and undergraduate housing.

Where you live while at MIT can really shape your experience, especially as an undergrad. Each of the dorms has a unique culture, set of traditions, and vibe. Not being around other undergrads and partaking in one of these communities can feel very isolating at times. This is why it’s so important that HRS guarantees on-campus housing to undergrads. They seem to understand this too: the HRS website talks about how a dorm is much more than just a place you sleep, calling dorms “central” to a student’s experience. The fact that all first-year students are guaranteed housing also demonstrates that HRS considers students having a dorm community to be important. Placing me and other undergrads in graduate housing, along with not guaranteeing us housing next year, however, directly calls into question how much HRS really cares about guaranteed housing for anybody else.

Obviously, things could have been a lot worse. I am extremely fortunate to have had everything turn out the way it did, in terms of my health, and the support I received from my family and friends through the last year was integral to my being able to bounce back so quickly. However, I have not been supported by HRS in the same way; in fact, they’ve made a medical situation that should already be resolved into an ongoing issue in my life. I think it’s evident their protocol for students returning from medical leave is inadequate and unfair.

I’m not the only one in this situation. Other undergrads were put into grad housing after returning from other kinds of leaves, or even because HRS simply double-booked their guaranteed housing and then didn’t have anywhere else to put them. With the impending closure of East Campus for renovation, I only expect this situation to get worse. The fact that HRS has guaranteed EC residents housing makes me almost 100% confident that I will not live on campus for the rest of my time here, and likewise for anybody not already guaranteed housing. It’s awful that this should be a factor in anyone’s decision, but if you are thinking about taking a leave in the next few years, you now need to consider what you will do for housing for the rest of your time at MIT.