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MIT is one community

Lydia K, a junior who blogs for MIT Admissions, posted a powerful account of her feelings of academic strain and anxiety. It is impossible not to be moved by her experiences and by her bravery in sharing them. But her post also generated an outpouring of thoughtful, appreciative responses from current MIT students and alumni as well as students at many other colleges and universities. In other words, her post declared in a poignant way her desire for a greater sense of connection and community; many of those writing comments said they felt the same way. Yet the comments themselves also offered overwhelming evidence that our community is full of caring people eager to reach out to one another.

It is not clear to me that there is a magic wand of institutional action that would address the issues that Lydia highlights, in ways that would be acceptable to the MIT community as a whole; many of those posting comments shared this view, too. But the sheer number of people who responded to her post, and the warmth, respect and support evident in their comments, tell me that we should try to broaden and deepen this conversation across our community. I would urge every member of the MIT community — faculty, students, staff and alumni — to read Lydia’s words and try to imagine how we might respond, as individuals, as groups within the Institute and as an institution overall.

Fortunately, we’re not starting from zero. We have a good system of student support in place, and it is benefiting from faculty committees that consider issues around academic stress as well as a working group convened by the chancellor last term to look at opportunities for improvement. I am open to considering many further possible steps. I am also asking Chancellor Grimson to hold a forum sometime soon to give members of our community an opportunity to talk openly about these issues and learn from each other’s points of view.[Editor’s note: Check page 7 for more information on this forum] I am encouraged that this conversation has begun, and I am grateful to Lydia and her supporters for leading us here.

President L. Rafael Reif

Chronic stress

I am heartened by the conversation that MIT Admissions blogger Lydia Krasilnikova ’14 (“Lydia K.”) has started with her “Meltdown” blog post.

I was originally a member of the Class of 2010, but was forced to graduate a semester late after I suffered a concussion in the fall of my senior year. Three years later, I still have not successfully returned to work. After many fruitless doctors’ visits, it is becoming clear that chronic stress, not a head injury, is the main culprit; the concussion was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I don’t blame MIT for my body’s collapse. I can trace my self-inflicted stress to before my MIT days, and undoubtedly my own personality is what led me over the brink. But by gathering so many smart, driven people in one place, MIT concentrates and amplifies the pressure we put on ourselves. If we want this to stop, the Institute must take the lead in affecting cultural change. The message that one is valued, regardless of one’s achievements, must be strong and pervasive if it is to be heard.

This message may seem to threaten MIT’s greatness, because the university as a whole is judged based on what it achieves. I think this is a false fear. Dissipating the internal pressure so many of us feel will only make our thinking more clear and more creative — leading to more Institutional success, not less.

With his letter to The Tech, President Rafael Reif has taken the first steps toward affecting positive change. Just look at the comments on the “Meltdown” blog post. Chronic, self-imposed stress is a major problem at MIT, and throughout the nation. Just as we have taken the lead on solving other problems facing our nation, I am confident we can be a leader on this one, too.

Katrina Ellison ’11 is a Course 2 alumna

Stress and meltdowns — half the discussion

I’m encouraged by many recent efforts to bring student wellness issues at MIT into the light. Lydia K.’s blog post, and Katrina Ellison’s recent opinion piece in The Tech, called to mind times I have felt worthless as a student and a friend, alone in crowded hallways, and skeptical that tomorrow would be any better than today.

I agree that Katrina’s message “that one is valued, regardless of one’s achievements” is central to this ongoing discussion; my conviction that I am valued in spite of my circumstances has been a lifeline in dark moments. But is that message believable, and will it change a culture of “chronic stress”?

I think the answer depends on our fundamental beliefs about what gives us value, why we’re here, and where we’re headed. If these sound like lofty ideas best left to private religious practice or the philosophy department, then we’re only being honest about half of the problem at hand. The first half of the problem is that our professional achievements can fail us when we rely on them as the primary source of our value. But the second half of the problem is this: If we are encouraged to find our personal value in something other than academic achievement, what will that “something” be and why?

I hope that the MIT community will help students better engage with that question in our classes, in our living groups, and through student organizations. (The last time a professor challenged my reliance on academic success and suggested an alternative was freshman year!) We will inevitably reach different conclusions as to what gives us value here and now — the affection of friends, expectations of future success, living a moral life, the loyalty of family, our contribution to society, the love of God, or perhaps something inherent to humanity. But we have the chance to reach those conclusions consciously by examining and challenging our implicit beliefs in dialogue with each other. Will we take that opportunity?

Andrew W. Stuntz ’13