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Dean for Student Life Gives Advice, Support to Students

By Angeline Wang

The Tech: What is your role in the Institute?

Larry Benedict: My title is Dean for Student Life, and I oversee a variety of the non-academic support services on campus. That ranges from Housing and Dining to Student Life Programs (SLP), Residence Life Programs, Student Support Services, and DAPER [Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation] which includes athletics, recreation, and intramurals. I oversee the campus chaplains, the Office of Student Conduct and Mediation, and the Student Activities Office. Then, within SLP, in addition to student activities, there is the Public Service Center. It is a large organization. We have almost 400 staff, and our primary goal is to help students in all those various areas. We provide services for all students, undergraduate and graduate.

TT: What services or support does your office offer for students, specifically freshmen?

LB: We try to let students know, freshmen especially, of the resources available to them for any kind of help they might need. As you look at the offices that I’m responsible for, you can see the kinds of services available through those offices.

TT: I know that you offer office hours during the school year. When will those be?

LB: I myself have open office hours every Friday at 10 a.m. If you want to complain, if you need money, if you want to tell me what life is like, you just want to say hello, stop on by. And if you can’t do that, you can always make an appointment with my assistant. My phone number is 3-4052. In addition, I check my e-mail every morning before 7:30 a.m. so I will get back to you within the day if I’m not off campus.

TT: What advice do you have for incoming freshmen based on your own college experiences and what you know of MIT?

LB: This is a very good question, and it’s one that I get asked often. I don’t want to sound paternalistic and I don’t want to sound authoritarian, but my advice to freshmen is to make sure you live a balanced life, that you don’t just spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week studying. Studying is why you’re here, but you can’t do it forever. You need to get some sleep. I think freshmen forget to sleep. And the less sleep you get, the less well your mind functions just physiologically speaking.

And related to sleep is that you need to remember to eat and eat more than just Ramen noodles and Mac & Cheese. That sounds silly, but if you talk to freshmen around the sixth to eighth week of school, and I talk to a lot of them, they forget to sleep, they forget to eat, they get sick. And as a result, their learning is negatively impacted.

The other thing that I encourage in terms of the balanced life: every freshmen who arrives here was involved in something in their secondary schools, some activity, sport, club, the student paper. It’s important for you to get involved in something at MIT, even if it’s only one thing. And I know that, especially the first semester, freshmen feel that they don’t have the time. I’ve gotta study study study. In fact, those students that are involved in something else end up developing better time management skills, which means that you can be more effective with the time you study.

So that is the advice that I give. I know it sounds terribly old fogie-ish, but it’s important.

TT: What about incoming graduate students?

LB: I have a different story for them, because by now they’ve learned to deal with these kinds of things. MIT has a wealth of things available. Boston and Cambridge have an enormous variety of opportunities and experiences. Take advantage of them. This is one of the few times in your life where you’re going to get out and get involved. And, as you know, the number of student activities we have here is phenomenol, let alone the kinds of opportunities that exist in Boston and Cambridge. So, get out, experience our area, enjoy it. And we also have a lot of international students, and we want them especially to get to understand the variety of things that are available to them here.

TT: What do you think will be the major challenges the freshmen will face?

LB: The biggest challenge for freshmen that first semester is learning how to study, learning how to learn, and learning how to adjust to this incredibly exciting but competitive environment. Getting through the first 8.01 problem set and getting through the first 8.01 exam. It’s very challenging. I think first semester can be very overwhelming, but all of our students learn how to deal with it by the end of the first semester. So I try to calm people a little bit. Don’t be overwhelmed. It will be tough; we know it’s going to be tough, but that’s why we’re here.

TT: If there was one thing you think new students should in their first semester here, what would it be?

LB: The very first thing I would recommend is to get to know one of your faculty. Almost all faculty have open hours, and if they don’t they’ll meet with you on appointment basis. Almost all of our faculty really enjoy that. But I think as a freshman coming in, you think, oh my gosh, there’s Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. big time Nobel-winning, prize-winning faculty member, I can’t talk to that person, they don’t want to talk to me. In fact, they do. I think one of the more enjoyable experiences those freshmen who do it have is meeting and talking with faculty.

The other thing is that this is a big place, and during the course of four years you’re going to see a lot of people. You need to make contact with some of them and let them get to know you as a person, because down the road you’re going to want recommendations. And if you start connecting with a faculty member early on, then you see that you’re going to keep that connection for four years.

One of the challenges I give to freshmen is to come talk to me. I have open office hours. I have e-mail. I’d love to meet you.

TT: What were your first impressions of MIT? Have they changed at all?

LB: Before I got here, I had a stereotypical view of MIT. And that is that we have a bunch of drudge people here who never do anything but work and study and who don’t have any fun, who don’t have any life. Very shortly, within days of being here, I found out quite the opposite. We have a very diverse student body that is very actively involved, that is very heavily engaged in all kinds of activities, taking advantage of all the various things MIT has to offer. It is an incredibly dynamic place. As I talk to students one on one — they don’t want to admit it in public, but behind closed doors they will tell you — most of the time most of them are having a very good experience here. They are enjoying MIT. They’re having all kinds of things they never dreamed would be possible for them.

It’s a wonderful environment in that MIT gives its students more autonomy over more aspects of their education within the classroom and outside the classroom than any other school I know. I think that’s wonderful. You’re going to learn so much more here than at other schools because of that autonomy.

TT: Why did you want to be the dean for student life?

LB: MIT has a wonderful academic reputation, but at the time when I took the job, it didn’t have such a wonderful reputation for the student life program. And one of the things that I want to be able to do is be part of an organization that was beginning to invest heavily in student life, to improve the quality of life outside the classroom, to provide more opportunities and support for students. It’s a wonderful time to be here. We’ve built new buildings, we built the Z Center and residence halls. We’ve got new staff and new moneys for student life programs. It’s been a great time, a lot fun.

TT: Since you’ve been dean of student life at so many other colleges, what would you say is different about MIT?

LB: Our students really are very driven. In some ways, that’s really good, and it some ways I feel sorry sometimes because students get so exhasuted, so worn out, so frazzled.

Another thing is the MIT education. It’s a very tough education, but when I talk to students they say, oh yeah it’s killing me but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Students say the one change they don’t want is to dumb down the academic experience here. And I don’t blame them. But with that comes the price of a lot of hard work.

TT: What are you currently spending your time working on in terms of student life activities?

LB: There are several big things this year. One is to continue our work on the new graduate residence hall NW35. We began that last year; we’ve got a full blown planning effort underway for that. The new graduate hall will open up near Sidney-Pacific and Albany Street. Related to that, we’re going to begin the planning this fall for the transition for Ashdown into an undergraduate residence hall. That’s going to take about 18 months to 2 years of planning and renovation. We’ll be looking to put a committee together at the beginning of the semester.

We have a variety of dining programs and experiments we’re working on this year. I want to see Pritchett Dining Hall that we renovated last year become an integral part of the east side of campus. We want to work with MacGregor, for example, to introduce a pilot dining program there. We’re looking at experiments in the other residence halls that have residential dining. And then finally we are looking to graduate students to try to get them more involved with our dining programs on campus.

We’re bringing in a new director for the office of student mediation and conduct, Veronica Mendoza [’96]. She was a student here, and she went to law school and has been out working in the legal profession. She’s going to be joining us Sept. 1.

The staff and myself have been working very closely with the Dormcon’s Judcomm to overhaul the Judcomm rules. We’re going to be phasing those rules in this fall. The students have been working very hard on that for several years now. So, that’s a major improvement. We’re looking forward to that.

We’ve got a whole new effort called student leadership development efforts. You know, residence hall retreats, training workshops for various student leaders and things like that. We have a lot of initiatives we’re planning to work on. The idea is to try to give students lots of opportunities during their careers here to try out different kinds of experiences where they play some kind of leadership role.

TT: What would you say are changes or differences in student life in colleges in general since you were a student?

LB: Students now are smarter. They work harder. They try to be more excellent at more things, especially at MIT. You want to do a thousand things and do them excellently, which is a great goal, but sometimes it is a struggle. Students struggle with more problems these days than we had when I was back in school, whether it is the pressure of having too many things to do or if it’s the pressure of trying to get the ideal job or if it’s the pressure of trying to take three majors, two minors and a specialty. We have students here like that. We’re also dealing with things like eating disorders, that whether they existed at the time we don’t know, ranging to things like downloading music, problems with the RIAA and MPAA.

The opportunities available today are phenomenol. When I was in school, nobody I knew studied abroad, nobody I knew traveled abroad, no undergraduate I knew had a research project with a professor. Those are critical pieces of people’s education now. Lots of new opportunities, lots of new expectations, and lots of new challenges. It’s a tough world. And it’s a lot to try to balance.

TT: When you’re not in your office, how do you spend your time?

LB: I like to go walking around Boston, I like to cook, and I like to read contemporary fiction. I don’t have time for a lot of any of that, because when school starts I’m in the office a lot, including many evenings and many weekends. But those are the things I enjoy doing most. My wife and I used to go walk on the beach, walk in the woods of New Hampshire and Maine.