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FLP Promoted Freshman Involvement -- Not Elitism

Guest column by Pardis Sabeti

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the Freshmen Leadership Program. Unfortunately, most of the discussion has been sparked by people who have not been to or talked to anyone involved in the program. Judgements have been passed without any information to support them. As the founder of FLP and a two-year participant, I would like to shed some light on the discussion.

FLP was, in its most primitive form, a conclusion to a paper I wrote titled "The Effects of Housing and Orientation on the Quality of MIT Student Life." I felt that MIT was a self-segregated community and that measures should be taken to bridge gaps between different groups of people. My primary goal therefore was to build a sense of community among MIT students.

I felt that this could be achieved by giving students an opportunity to get to know each other before the pressures of Residence and Orientation Week and the school year set in. When I decided that a longer orientation (pre-rush) period was a good way to achieve this goal, I began researching other school programs. The evolution of programs around the country leans toward longer, more involved interaction between members of the freshman class.

By interviewing students at MIT and researching MIT's R/O history, I became aware of my second goal - for each individual. I wanted to provide students with an initial positive experience that would give each one the confidence and a sense of community that would create the foundations for their next four years. I feel that MIT freshmen have worked hard to get where they are, and we should give them a moment to realize their achievements and potentials before introducing them to the turmoil of college life.

Now, some concerns have been raised about the method I used to achieve these goals. I welcome your opinions; I hope that many people can take an active role in creating an MIT community that is right for them. However, it would be tragic if these decisions were made before the facts were known.

FLP accepted everyone who applied. We even tried our hardest to bring in freshmen who applied well after the deadline. We are not the anointed ones, as some have claimed, but simply those who chose to participate. The application process was used to establish interest and helped us to know the participants better. I feel that the Admissions Office has already done our job of bringing visionaries and leaders to MIT. FLP does not try to select leaders; it provides a way to develop them.

And what are leaders? The word "leadership" has been tossed around quite a bit in the recent dialogue, but no real definition is ever given. I found it amusing that the column by Brett Altschul '99 ["Too Many Perpetuate False Notions About Leadership," August 25] condemned our kind of leadership without realizing that the rest of his arguments supported what we achieved. One of the primary goals of FLP this year was building strong teams - taking the talents, experiences, and ideas of each freshman and allowing them to contribute to the group.

I believe that a group's potential can best be achieved if everyone's ideas can be used , as opposed to a situation in which only one person is heard. We are not creating politicians at FLP but rather developing engineers, scientists, businessmen, etc., who can work together and individually to achieve their potential.

The highest achievement that could be claimed of the 1996 FLP program was not that six participants went on to become Class of 2000 officers. The true success was the fact that 85 freshmen became active in their community in their own way - in science, in sports, in student government, in their living groups, or as friends - and that in doing what they loved, they benefited the community.

I find it funny that of five days of activities, the one activity that got the most notoriety was one that could not have lasted more than 10 minutes over the duration of the camp - heinie-writing. But because it seems so important to some, I will give it its undeserved attention.

The goal of heinie-writing was twofold. First, it made people more relaxed and lowered inhibitions. If freshmen saw that their counselors and other freshmen were not too cool to look silly, they would be willing to take more risks and let their guard down. Second, heinie-writing provided a necessary contrast with other more serious activities and discussions that were ignored by columns like Altschul's.

FLP participants did build close bonds after spending five days together. It may seem natural to simply assume that these bonds would be stronger than those formed by other freshmen during the first three days of R/O. But it is rather premature to make judgements on the effect of FLP on the MIT community after only a few days. We did not see a FLP clique split off from the class of 2000 after FLP 1996. What we did see was these freshmen go into many different living groups and, through connections with each other, begin to bring the MIT community closer together. That was our main aim.

If you want to know more about the FLP program and activities, you should ask participants or check out the FLP World Wide Web page. Please do not learn about it from people who have not done any research before declaring their opinions.

After reading some of the columns that have been printed, it seems that I should be ashamed to say that the freshmen who attended FLP enjoyed themselves, that they got a lot out of it, that they made a variety of friends. But I am not ashamed. We gave every freshman this opportunity, and we are working harder for next year to make sure more freshmen and counselors go. We are doing the best we can. Instead of faulting the program for giving some freshmen a very good experience, we should think about ways to give such an experience to more people.