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Students Build Better Communities

Thomas Burbine

After fifty years of trying, the MIT administration seems to have gotten what it always wanted: Ashdown House (previously Graduate House) will become an undergraduate dorm. What is disconcerting to most former and current residents is that this decision seems to have been made not to give graduate students a better place to live, but to allow MIT to increase the size of the undergraduate population and make more money. If the administration really cared about the Ashdown residents, it would have involved them in the process much earlier instead of telling them that they will have a new place to live in two and a half years in a dorm that MIT has already designed. The reason Ashdown has so much character is that it was originally a hotel and not built by MIT.

What I would like to tell the administration is that graduate students are people and not commodities to be bought, sold, and traded. What makes Ashdown House an amazing place to live is that it is a community. Most graduate students come to MIT not knowing anybody and expecting their life just to be research and work. Ashdown is an oasis from that grind. Events such as coffee hour, house dinners, and barbecues are thrown by residents and housemasters to allow students to relax and make friends. This community is even more important to international students for whom Ashdown House is a first exposure to American life.

At least two Nobel Prize winners have lived in Ashdown, but happiness is a much harder thing to quantify. Most former graduate students I know who lived in Ashdown seem to have much fonder memories of MIT than those who lived elsewhere. While I was there, I considered it my home and not just a building.

Throughout its history Ashdown has also been blessed to have some amazing housemasters (Avery Ashdown, the Hulsizers, the Ingrams, the Orlandos) who have made sure the community stayed strong. These faculty residents have jobs of their own during the day, but during the night and weekends they make sure the dorm is a fun place to live.

The dorm has also evolved over time. Ashdown has gone from predominately male, with most foreign students originating from Europe, to containing men and woman from all ends of the earth. Students from America, Canada, China, India, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, France, Greece, Iceland, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, Australia, South Africa, Italy, Egypt, Switzerland, Argentina, Columbia, Dominican Republic, etc. all live together under one roof.

Will the Ashdown community survive? I think it will in spite of the administration’s best efforts because graduate students want to have a community and not just a place to live. Ashdown has previously withstood nine hundred apprentice seamen replacing graduate students during World War II, and I pray it can withstand another upheaval.

I hope the administration takes a step back and thinks about what it is doing. Most former and current residents only ask that residents be included in planning their future. If the administration chooses to impose its will on the graduate students, it may destroy a community that has benefitted graduate students since the 1930s.

Thomas Burbine PhD ’00 is a former Ashdown resident.