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Frosh Program Encouraged Leadership, Cooperation

Column by Orli G. Bahcall

Ever feel that you can't make a difference at MIT? That the administration is not receptive to your concerns? In the past several weeks I have heard from many students who are frustrated by a lack of student involvement in Institute decisions. At times, I have shared these sentiments, for there are many arenas at MIT in which students find it hard to participate.

However, I do see strong student leadership at MIT. And I do see an administration that is supportive of student efforts to contribute to the MIT community.

This year the freshmen orientation was expanded to include MIT's first ever Freshmen Leadership Program. The freshmen returning from the pre-orientation program were excited to begin their MIT experience, having had the unique opportunity to get to know other freshmen and become acquainted with MIT activities. I was one of the 12 upperclassmen counselors that joined 88 freshmen in the program.

FLP was modeled after the National Conference of Christians and Jews Anytown Conferences. The Anytown Conference is a week-long event in which students are able to discuss race and gender issues. The conference is sponsored by the NCCJ, a nationwide organization committed to fighting racism.

The MIT conference strives to deepen participants insight into race and gender issues. The week is also designed to build a strong and supportive community in which participants will feel comfortable developing personal leadership.

The program was initiated by Class of 1997 President Pardis C. Sabeti '97 as a culmination of several years effort to improve freshmen orientation. This year's FLP was a pilot program. The focus of race relations and gender was chosen because the most immediate results could be seen by addressing these issues on campus. The program was sponsored by the Office of Race Relations and Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

FLP exemplifies MIT student leadership at its best. Sabeti had a vision to create a positive initial experience for freshmen by exposing them to a diverse group of their classmates in which they were encouraged to express their views and learn from others.

FLP gave the freshmen an introduction to university life with a diverse group of students in a setting where they felt comfortable challenging their views and which promoted their personal, social, and intellectual growth.

The program became a joint effort between the counselors, the administrators, and the freshmen to explore important social issues and build community. It was exciting to see that we had developed a support system from these diverse groups. The program took students that would otherwise be likely not to interact, and bound all by a common experience and common goals.

Back at MIT, the FLP community has begun to question social norms by continuing to remain a community even after rush, when individuals were spread out and somewhat segregated into different living groups throughout campus.

Many freshmen returning from FLP dove right into student life, running for Undergraduate Association positions, attending the Interfraternity Council pledge retreat, and becoming involved in their own favorite student groups. Next year, we look toward opening the program to many more incoming freshmen.

In the meantime, the MIT community as a whole awaits to see what FLP has to offer. These freshmen leaders are familiar with questioning the social norms of their cultures. They have shown the interest and motivation to probe difficult issues in race relations honestly. Their next challenge is to prove both individually and as a group their commitment and leadership.

As their first project at MIT, FLP members have planned a series of race relations programs in all dormitories, living groups, and two Cambridge high schools. We hope through these programs to empower freshmen to ensure that future classes come to a university in which students from all different backgrounds can work together.

FLP succeeded far more than any of us had imagined. I find myself inspired by the activism of so many freshmen. And I am already looking forward with anticipation to next year's Residence and Orientation Week and toward expanding FLP. Such programs are exactly the way to encourage and nurture student leadership.

So instead of worrying about the new restructuring of MIT's administration, I focus on a picture of MIT seen through the eyes of a 100 freshmen who, with all the possibilities of our university laid out before them, are grabbing at every opportunity to become a part of our community.

A university that encourages students to initiate such programs that benefit the entire community is indeed a university that educates its students to become leaders.