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The Bygone Traditions

Guest Column
Jennifer A. Frank

Yesterday I opened three residence halls for over five hundred residents at my college, most of them freshmen. These newly arrived students moved hundreds of cardboard boxes of their belongings into a multitude of identical brick and mortar boxes that will be their homes for the next nine months. The furniture is largely fixed in place; each half of the room is the mirror image of the other half. The walls are white, or brick, or both. The building carries the scent of fresh carpeting. The new lounge furniture is straight from the Ethan Allen catalog.

Shortly after they move in, the freshmen are all herded over to an opening convocation with the president of the university. Immediately following this, they dutifully attend their first floor meetings with their resident advisor, in this case. Each RA is responsible for looking out for approximately forty freshmen, a Herculean task if ever there was one.

I make a brief appearance at each of these meetings, introduce myself, give them a taste of my background (rarely mentioning where my degrees are from), my role in the hall -- “Discipline, but I won’t ever be seeing any of you for that, now will I?” -- and my expectations of them. This last part is, to me, the most important, but I don’t think they yet have any understanding of why I say it. My message to them: “I will assume you are all adults, and I will treat you as such unless you otherwise prove that you are not worthy of this treatment.”

Sometimes it amazes me how much my experiences at MIT have colored my perception. I reflect fondly on all of the protests about freshmen on campus, about the timing of rush, about how college-age students are adults and should be allowed the freedom to make choices, even -- Gasp! -- mistakes, on their own. There was so much life within the student population, so much activity, and despite the differences, a unity that I do not see in the population of students I currently work with. This is not to say that they are not intelligent, capable individuals. It is just that I do not see in them the same spark I saw, and still see, in the MIT student population.

When I was an undergraduate considering student affairs as a profession, I kept thinking that I should keep a journal of how I felt about certain issues. I didn’t want to lose sight of that perspective, the viewpoint of the student who was actually in the middle of it all. I never kept this journal, and I regret it, even now, only two years removed from my time as an undergraduate. During graduate school, I could feel myself changing positions, seeing the other side of the issues.

I would like to think that I have not lost my understanding of the undergraduate position just yet; in fact, I am quite sure I have not. More often than not, I find myself arguing with my more experienced colleagues and taking the students’ side. Still, there are days when I check my MIT mail and cringe at the latest scheme thought up by some students; the liability issues race through my head and I thank my lucky stars that my residents would never come up with a scheme like that.

I spent this evening being nostalgic. I flipped through old photo albums -- pictures of me and a whole pig the year we had a luau, snapshots of a graffitied wall being demolished with a chain saw, hundreds of freshmen amidst dozens of fraternity signs at Killian Kickoff. On Web sites I saw faces of people who were my inspiration when I was a freshman. And I took a look at what people are doing this year: all of the activity, all of the strength of certain traditions, like the Freedom Trail to East Campus. I am currently in a land with few true traditions, and none that are held onto so dearly by the students.

I miss the incredible closeness of the residents of each building. I miss cooking a metric butt load of food to feed hundreds of residents and freshmen each day. I miss tie-dying and hair-dying and moon bounces. I miss melting toasters full of burning Pop Tarts, courtyard explosions, and CDs in microwaves. I miss overnight room-assignment sessions as we determined the fate of dozens of freshmen, overly-pierced desk workers, and hundreds of Victoria’s Secret catalogues, destined to become advertisements for parties.

But most of all, I miss the fight. I miss the fact that students at MIT take the time to fight -- they don’t just give in. You know what you want and what you need, and you don’t let anyone take it from you. My message to the class of 2006: don’t take the easy route -- don’t give in. You have come too far to succumb now. You have so many choices ahead of you. Discover what is important to you, find your passion, and do whatever you have to in order to keep it. And never forget how fortunate you are to have all of the opportunities afforded you -- not everyone is prepared to handle that kind of responsibility. Prove that you are.

Jennifer A. Frank is an alumna of the Class of 2000.