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The Challenge Undergraduates Face

Alvin Lin

Since I first set foot on MIT’s campus three-plus years ago, it has changed positively. Back then, there was no Zesiger Center, no nanotechnology laboratory in the infinite corridor, and no open skylight or coffee shop in Lobby 7. Construction had not even begun for either Simmons Hall or the Stata Center. I remember feeling embarrassed when talking about our facilities with friends from other universities. I could only shrug when comparing facilities like Northeastern’s gym to our small, one-room weight room. I am happy to see that MIT’s facilities have much improved.

Now, it may be because I am becoming a nostalgic, old fart, but I have recently caught myself admiring the campus and thinking it is actually beautiful. Views from Kresge Oval or Killian Court are nice. Even Simmons Hall, a lightning rod for criticism, has its charms. From the small docks on the Boston side of the Charles River, Simmons Hall stands out on the skyline in a way that exclaims innovation and uniqueness. Additionally, the facility improvements have made my job easier to sell the school to prospective families at information sessions and college fairs; MIT’s campus sells itself in ways it never could before in words and numbers. But the buildings and facilities are not the only things that have changed.

MIT’s students have changed -- they look, dress, and even smell nicer than they used to. I doubt underclassmen are even aware of this, but I bet many of my fellow seniors will agree it is a wonderful thing. I attribute this improvement to MIT’s greater focus on well-rounded students and the on-campus freshmen policy. While the stereotype of the nerdy, awkward, and socially inept MIT student may never go away, it is being amended. Somewhere in the near future, it may change to the point where I no longer have to prove to non-MIT peers that I am articulate, assertive, and social; being from MIT will imply those qualities.

The campus and its people have changed for the better, but a new challenge has emerged: preserving the unique cultures of the residential system. During the glory years, half of MIT’s males started their college careers in fraternities up and down the Charles River. Dormitory residents and fraternity, sorority, and independent living group members alike took great pride in the unique traditions and personalities of their communities. It used to mean something when you said you were from a specific living group. Many people found identity from their choice of home. Since all freshmen have started living on campus, residential identity has decreased. Numbers for dormitory and FSILG populations have reshuffled and stabilized at new equilibrium levels. Many freshmen move off campus every year, which creates a problem for maintaining dormitory culture. It has been suggested that residential culture may not even be desirable in the future, and will become a relic of the old system. I strongly beg to differ. In matters of community, I believe the housing evolution has lead to an acute state of affairs: that dormitories and FSILGs are charged with identifying and preserving their cultures more than ever.

Soon, MIT will consist of students who know only of the current housing system. They will only have a faint understanding of its recent history. Preserving culture in each FSILG and dormitory will soon become a struggle, especially in large freshmen-based houses like Next House. Cultural sustainability will require vigilant, willful efforts of members in each living group. So far, I am extremely impressed by what I have seen. Across many different communities, I have seen my peers serve as excellent, inspiring leaders in protecting the culture of their homes. The many vibrant cultures of MIT will not be lost by this year’s graduates.

I am afraid that once the leaders from the old system graduate, the cultures they have fought for will slowly die away with them. Future students will come to identify themselves more with MIT, but at what cost? I am certainly not suggesting that future residential communities will become indistinguishable from one another. My fear is that traditions that have come to define residential communities may be lost. Under MIT’s new housing structure, it will be a yearly necessity for upperclassmen to help underclassmen appreciate, embrace, and add upon the traditions of the community that they live in. Otherwise, students may come to remember their residence as nothing more than a place they used to live in. I think that would be a shame.

Alvin Lin is a member of the class of 2004.