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A Bond of Vulnerability

Sonali Mukherjee

Sometimes, we MIT students believe that we are invincible. We have been admitted to one of the best universities in the United States, and as a result, nothing terrible can happen to us: we are the untouchable leaders of the future.

This feeling of invincibility, however, was knocked off its pedestal when news of Elizabeth Shin ’02, victim of a fire at Random Hall on April 10, reached the community. I remember where I was that Monday night: in the Athena cluster on the top floor of the Student Center. As usual, it was pretty crowded, and I had trouble finding a computer to check my e-mail. My first reaction to the Associated Press report in my inbox was one of shock, then gratitude to the campus police for their bravery, and then of hope that perhaps the victim would recover. Looking back, I realize how incredibly detached I was from the whole situation: it was my shield of invincibility that separated me from the incident, just as was the case with most other students at MIT as well.

Even after I had heard on Friday night that Elizabeth had passed away at the Massachusetts General Hospital, I still felt detached from the whole situation. Then came the news that shattered my shield of invincibility like a mirror. Elizabeth attended a program in 1998 called National Youth Science Camp (NYSC), a month-long summer program in West Virginia for graduating high school seniors, many of whom go on to the best universities in the United States. MIT is intimately connected with NYSC because every year, without fail, a large concentration of the students who attend the camp become MIT freshmen -- just like Elizabeth, and just like me. I attended National Youth Science Camp in 1999, a year after she did.

I realize how apathetic I was to last week’s situation until it hit home that both Elizabeth and I were NYSCers. I never knew her personally, but the fact that she was a delegate to NYSC connects her as much to me as to any NYSC alum. The community, while not always constantly in contact, was shaken up by this news.

Since I heard that Elizabeth was a 1998 NYSCer, I have gotten in touch with students who went to camp with her that summer. From my experience as a science camper, I know that among all the people I know, NYSCers are among the most hopeful, happiest, and the least apathetic to their situations and to those of others. I also know that Science Camp is a place of refuge for me: whenever I have difficult times at MIT (and I’m sure everyone has them), I think about my month at Science Camp. In all honesty, that month was the best in my life, and I made most of my close friends during that time. That was why I wanted to talk to people who were with her during that month.

Cindy Ku ’02, also a sophomore at MIT, was Elizabeth’s statemate -- they were the two delegates selected from New Jersey that year. “Liz was such a wonderful person. She was incredibly talented in music and fencing, and yet she was also very down-to-earth and easy to talk to. She was always cheerful no matter how much stress she might be under (like many of us at MIT) and she was always ready to give a hug to her friends,” says Ku. She speaks for all of her fellow NYSC delegates when she says that they were all in shock when they heard of her death.

One of the main points that kept coming up as I went through descriptions from NYSCers was what a down-to-earth, yet amazingly talented person Elizabeth was. The Newark Star-Ledger’s description of her as “a teenage Midas” who “seemed to transform every effort into something special” was confirmed time and time again by the delegates’ descriptions. Elizabeth was an amazing musician who participated in All-State Wind Ensemble, All-State Orchestra and All-East Orchestra. She had played at Carnegie Hall and was picked to perform a duet at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center.

Scott Benolkin, a delegate from Kansas, remembered her talent at playing the clarinet. “I don’t think I had ever heard someone my own age play so well. ... I played clarinet myself, as did many of the delegates to NYSC ’98, but she was clearly the most gifted of us all.” This musical talent was also confirmed by two of her close friends at camp, Janiece Flick, a delegate from Washington, and Zarema Singson, a delegate from Texas. One of their mutual, poignant memories is of Elizabeth playing the clarinet. “If I stop for a minute, I can still hear her playing the clarinet after dinner,” said Singson. Janiece also testified to Elizabeth’s athletic and social skills, citing her ability as a rock climber and foilist, and the conversations they had about “life and the things they had been through” during overnight camping trips.

Alison Henry, a delegate from Arizona, recalls Elizabeth’s optimism and sagacity. “[It was] as though she had found what she wanted out of life, and knew how to get it.” Elisha Wood-Charles, a delegate from Idaho, will miss more than anything the compassionate person Elizabeth was. “Granted, she was a very intelligent girl, but she never once tried to better anyone. She was always learning from others, and she was very open to life and new ideas. Her excitement for learning and knowledge will be missed...”

These are the bare, true facts from people who knew Elizabeth. By the time I submitted this article, I had an inbox overflowing with e-mail responses from delegates all over the country with memories, reminiscences, and support for Elizabeth. These are the type of discussions we should pay attention to because they are honestly founded on facts. When someone is no longer with us, it is that person’s life we should celebrate. Rumors and speculation only serve to hurt the people to whom Elizabeth mattered the most: her family and friends.

I commend the community for coming together in this time of crisis and honoring people such as the campus police for their brave efforts. I know there were many people who wished Elizabeth good health. This event, more than anything, has truly brought together people who had started drifting apart. However, I implore the MIT community to please think about what you say when you discuss this incident and remember that there is always more than one side to an issue.

As for me, I know I will never be the same person: I will always look upon my friends, my family, and my community with more compassion because I have realized how vulnerable I am and how it is so important to treasure every minute of every day for the rest of my life. As Ku said: “Liz will be with us forever.”

Sonali Mukherjee is a member of the Class of 2002.