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Supporting our students

A student’s question at the Memorial Lobby event Tuesday evening haunts me: “What will you do so that we don’t forget?” She was referring to the life of Matt Nehring and to the impact of suicide on classmates.

I told her that I commit to advancing a respectful and caring community, to be a student advocate on mental health issues, and to help students in distress. Another student looked skeptical, saying that professors expect life to go on as if nothing has changed. Most of the students I spoke with said that none of their professors took time out of their classes to acknowledge the loss, to share in the grieving, and to be human. Some did.

During the last year, hundreds of MIT students have told me that they desire more interaction with faculty members outside of their academic role and to be validated as persons and not merely learners. If you are a faculty member who felt too uncomfortable to interrupt your class this week to talk about suicide, please contact me. I’d be glad to meet for coffee, to learn your story, and to help you explore ways of showing students that you care.

MIT students sometimes fear they will not live up to faculty expectations unless they excel even among their peers, all of whom are outstanding. This fear can lead to an unhealthy spiral whereby students see their peers doing amazing things, which causes some to doubt their own competence and belonging, so they stretch their limits to excel, in the process achieving amazing things, which causes others to doubt their own competence, creating a vicious cycle.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” There has been talk about hacking the MIT culture. We don’t need to invent a new technology for this; we can simply return to basics.

Do faculty know how much students can treasure a kind word and affirmation, or how many students doubt they belong at MIT? If you do, and would be willing to join me in meeting with students as a friendly advocate, and to get to know students outside the classroom, to help unwind the spiral of stress and despair, please contact me and together we will show that we do not forget the loss of Matt Nehring, Phoebe Wang, Austin Travis, Seth Teller, or Hadi Kasab.

Edmund Bertschinger is a professor of physics and the Institute Community and Equity Officer.