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CMI Orientation Introduces Cambridge Students to Classes and Social Life at MIT

By Brian Loux


MIT welcomed thirty-three students from Cambridge University for the first time this fall, as the Cambridge-MIT Institute exchange program entered its second year.

On Tuesday night, program hosts gave the Cambridge students a tour of MIT’s most famous landmarks and facilities, helping to orient them to the campus. The tour was followed by a group dinner attended by the MIT-Cambridge exchange students from last year. At dinner, the groups swapped stories about England and discussed their feelings about MIT.

Most of the students at Cambridge University major in math, engineering, or the physical sciences; There are no biology or humanities majors.

“These are some terrific, smart, and personable students,” said Van Chu ’99, a staff assistant for the Cambridge-MIT Institute who acted as the tour guide and host for the incoming students. “I love the excitement that they have for being here.”

Chu acknowledged that there may be some problems with the programs during the course of the year. “Being the first year of the program, it may be a little problematic and people may complain a bit. But that’s how we can improve things,” Chu said. “There will always be people checking to see if things are OK.”

Students try to Adjust to MIT

At dinner, the students expressed some nervousness about the classes at MIT, but most were quite excited about the range of academic choice they had at MIT. “I wanted a change,” said David Hammond. “It is much less restrictive here, and the selection of HASS subjects is amazing.”

In England, there is very little choice in one’s secondary education classes. An English high school student’s acceptance into college is to a great extent dependent on their scores on tests called called A levels (similar to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams). The A level courses that a student takes will define his or her major.

From there, the university sets most of the curriculum. Richard West G said that all engineers have a completely set curriculum for one to two years. The ability to freely choose their courses pleased many of the students.

The two universities worked together to plan curriculums for all the Cambridge students, as they did for the MIT students last year. “Many of the CU students who are here are taking a course load that looks similar to that of a junior here, including in many cases a HASS subject,” said Kirk D. Kolenbrander, an Associate Program Director for the Undergraduate Education and Student Exchange Program of CMI.

Students also are getting used to MIT’s unique campus life. Unlike MIT, Cambridge University is subdivided into smaller colleges where much more of a student’s life takes place. The colleges are not like MIT dorms or FSILGs, as most of the Cambridge colleges do not have a distinct personality or culture.

“The colleges were something like your social community; you’d see these people on a daily basis” said Hammond. “There would usually be a large get-together every one or two weeks.” Hammond said, “There is more loyalty to your college than there is to Cambridge.”

Students were also quite excited to hear about MIT’s hacking traditions. “Cambridge is much too uptight to let something like that happen,” said Hammond. “Trying a hack in Cambridge would most likely mean you would be kicked out or severely fined. They get upset if you walk on the grass.”

West recalled a time when someone strung a large hammock across one of the old courtyards in his college as a prank. “Unfortunately one of the ropes snapped and it fell. They found the guy who did it and they fined him 10,000 pounds ($14,500).” Some of the students expressed hope of incorporating a Union Jack into a future hack.

Students will have some help from program administrators as they adapt to life at MIT. “It’s also a great help that [the students who went to Cambridge last year] want to help out,” said Chu.

A First Look at America

The students have been in Boston since last weekend. They have been able to explore some of the city’s main attractions, such as the Duck Tours. “My favorite place so far is Harvard Square” said participant Anna Finlayson. For most Cambridge students, this is their first time in America, though some have travelled here before. “I came here for 10 days when I was 12,” West said. “Oddly enough, it was to Boston.”

The students did not think of Americans as loud or obnoxious. “That’s the stereotype,” said Finlayson, “but we knew that it wouldn’t be that way seeing how Britain is so diverse.” She added, “If someone did have that prejudice coming here, it would die in the first day.”

Some students did notice that most Americans were less reserved about talking to one another than the British. “Along with that,” Finlayson said, “we also noticed that a person who speaks to you for 2 hours on one day may not be as friendly or receptive the next.”

One of the “culture shocks” that many of the students have experienced during their stay here is America’s stance on alcohol. “I can’t believe how strict [America and MIT] are about alcohol,” Finlayson said that others told stories about going to a bar the night before and being forced to present their passports to purchasing each drink, as Massachusetts law does not permit them to use their English licenses for validation.

Many students discussed how carding for alcohol, and even punishment, are not seen as serious in England. One example was the national treatment of Tony Blair’s son compared to George Bush’s daughter. “As MIT seems to run on free food, Cambridge runs on free wine,” said West. Others agreed, sharing stories of their advisors offering wine during student conferences.

Another shock that students said would take some getting used to is the food schedule. “It usually be the case that your meals would be small and cost you about 3 dollars,” Finlayson said. “Here the proportions are larger, but so are the prices,” said West.

Many students expressed an interest in learning American sports. “I’m hoping to see a Red Sox game soon,” said Finlayson, who along with many other students, were interested in learning the complex rules of baseball.

By the end of the month, 27 MIT students will journey to Cambridge University to complete the exchange. “It is our hope that this exchange will continue and increase in numbers in the years to come,” Kolenbrander said.