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Building Community Through FLP

Guest Column Rima Arnaout

Who read the article covering the Freshman Leadership Program on Thursday [Variety of Programs Ease Introduction into the Institute, Aug. 27]? Who wondered how the article could have possibly been about the same program that you might have heard featured the "I Want to Be an Indian" song? I went to the Freshman Leadership Program and decided that Thursday's article didn't really describe what went on at FLP and how the program has affected Orientation.

Now I'm not sure the group exercises we did actually built leadership in the traditional sense - for example, we didn't try to do mock leadership things - but they did foster a sense of community. We played a lot of games, some funny and some just plain silly, and let me just say that there's nothing like watching some of the finest minds in America parade around on stage dressed in paper swimsuits. So in a lot of ways, FLP resembled a summer camp rather than a program to build leadership skills to take to MIT.

At the same time, however, those stunts helped us get to know each other in a hurry. Being at FLP has given me and others the confidence to do things we normally wouldn't do; some of you may have seen someone at Killian Kick-Off on Saturday, standing in front of the entire freshman class as they waited to be photographed, doing a little thing I like to call "The Banana Dance." That was me (although I'm not really sure it's a good idea to have admitted it).

On the more serious side, being comfortable with each other enabled us to have some important discussions about race, about what it means to have a label cast upon one by his or her community, and about gender issues we would be facing on campus. In one exercise, the men and women were asked to stand if they felt certain questions applied to them. And these were often hard questions to answer: things like "Have you ever felt the need to put a woman in her place in front of other guys?" and "Have you ever been afraid of a man's anger?"

Coming from a high school in which the need to be politically correct overwhelmed attempts at creating an appreciation for diversity, I was impressed by the candor of these discussions. So I suppose the Freshman Leadership Program was about getting MIT freshmen to feel like a community and preparing them for problems, such as issues of race, gender, and self segregation, those that might threaten that community at MIT.

Unfortunately, that sense of community was built with only 162 of the 1050 freshmen. Although I enjoyed FLP for the most part, I've had a certain guilt about "being FLP" since we arrived on campus on Wednesday whenever there happen to be more than one FLP person in a certain place. For the record, we don't plan it. Since FLP was so successful at getting freshmen together, maybe there are some elements of the program that can be brought to regular Orientation to encompass the whole class. Now I'm not quite sure how we could accomplish that, since it was already tough trying to organize 162 people, let alone 1050. I also assume that since everyone who wanted to do FLP was accepted, others simply wouldn't be interested in FLP-type exercises during Orientation. I don't think Orientation can or should be turned into a giant FLP.

What helped me meet so many people at FLP, however, was that I was always in a different group. The people I bunked with weren't the ones I ate lunch with and weren't the ones I barked like a dog with (don't ask), but, nonetheless, in each group I was asked to interact with others to accomplish something. I feel that if the same concept of group activities with different people were employed during Orientation in the future, we could change Orientation week to build community on a wider scale.

Rima Arnaout is a member of the class of 2002.