From Sept. 2 to Sept. 4., a group of 11 undergraduates from Caltech visited MIT as part of a two-week, cross-country trip to observe student life and culture at eight East Coast colleges, including Harvard University, Williams College, Princeton University, and Olin College.
At MIT, the Caltech students met with DormCon and the Undergraduate Association, and talked with UA President Noah S. Jessop ’09, Senior Associate Dean for Students Barbara A. Baker, and Associate Dean For Residential Life Donna M. Denoncourt. On Sunday they arrived home to prepare a report that will recommend improvements to Caltech’s student groups, residential organization and facilities.
“We wanted to separate fact from fiction about what goes on at other schools,” said Anthony Chong, a member of the visiting committee. “We all know people who say ‘You know, I have a friend at another school, and they do stuff totally different there and they’re actually happy.”
There are over 4,000 undergraduates at MIT, compared to about 900 at Caltech. The gap in size makes up much of the difference in student life at the two schools. The visitors often remarked that everything at MIT was on a much larger scale.
“There’s stuff that MIT can do that we can never do — like there’s no way we could have frats across the river,” Chong said. Caleb Ng, president of Caltech’s undergraduate student government, said that because they had so few students, Caltech could never run a student government as large and complex as the UA.
But there are benefits to being small, too. Chong said that Caltech had less bureaucracy, and that it is easier for one person to get his ideas heard. The campus is also much cozier.
“You know, at Caltech we’re pretty spoiled. I didn’t like walking across the [Harvard] bridge … it’s frickin’ far,” Chong said.
The Caltech students also visited Harvard while they were in Boston. Ng said the school didn’t make much of an impression because classes hadn’t started yet. There was much more going on at MIT — Chong mentions bumping into “a million sorority girls rushing” as he was walking out of the student center.
Ng said that at heart, Caltech and MIT are very close to each other, even in terms of student life and culture, and that in many ways MIT reminded him of Caltech.
Chong agreed, saying “If you multiplied Caltech by four times, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was very similar to MIT.” He added, “I think the schools have a lot in common, which is something I don’t think a lot of people understand.”
The Caltech students had a chance to tour campus and visit the dorms. They were amused by the East Campus roller coaster, remarking that they had undertaken their own construction projects, but never amusement park rides.
According to Chong, when the group was at Senior Haus, a desk worker said to them “Wait, you’re Caltech students? The last time I saw Caltech students, I was half naked and I offered them cookies and all they said was ‘Fuck you, we want our cannon back.’”
Ng stressed the importance of both schools maintaining close ties and added that he was “very glad” for having been given this opportunity to visit MIT.
The group was surprised at the MIT administration’s attitude toward hacks. “When I went to MIT I found that when anyone gets caught on the roof, they get fined $50,” Chong said. “That sends a very mixed message. If you take hacking, or pranking, as part of your culture, there’s some weird contradiction in that.”
Chong said that at Caltech, campus security may not interfere with a prank without first checking in with the vice president for campus life.
Caltech has made a similar East Coast expedition twice in its history, once in the 1930s and once in the 1960s. Following the 1930s Student Experience Survey, which included visits to Cambridge and Oxford Universities, Caltech reorganized its undergraduate residences into a house system. Following a recommendation of the 1967 survey, Caltech began accepting women.
One long term goal for the current survey is a restructuring of the Caltech student government, Ng said.
On Sept. 2, Ng and the others met with UA President Jessop and discussed the functioning of the student government at both schools. The MIT UA, with its executive committee, senate and class councils at acts like an umbrella organization that coordinates and oversees all student government activities at the undergraduate level. The Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology or ASCIT at Caltech operates free from Administrative control and is an independent non-profit corporation. It sponsors a number of student ventures and activities and publishes the Caltech’s newspaper (The California Tech) and yearbook (The Big T) and even a student hand handbook (little T).
Jeff Guo contributed to the reporting of this article.