Mechanics, Materials, and Meaningful Relationships

MIT taught me a lot of things, but the one I’ve talked about at job interviews is that it taught me that failure is not the end.  East Campus taught me that.

I left high school used to breezing by in my classes, but unused to being able to express my thoughts and feelings without people looking at me like I was from some other planet.  At MIT, I worked harder than I ever had in my life in order to scrape by with average grades.  If I wasn’t a brilliant student anymore, what was I?  My hallmates on Fifth East, and my friends from students activities (mostly from Random Hall, Senior House, and Epsilon Theta) taught me all the other things I had to offer to the world besides intelligence.  They taught me to value my creativity instead of hiding my ideas as “too weird.”  They taught me that I had patience and empathy to offer, and that what made me a worthwhile person went far beyond intelligence.  They taught me how to be connected to the rest of the world so I could use that intelligence to do things that really matter.

In a different type of dorm environment, this never would have happened.  Through dorm rush, people actively told me that they wanted me to live with them.  This recruiting style meant that I trusted my hallmates in a way I had never been able to trust anyone before.

In a dorm at some other university, I probably would have lived much as I did in high school – hiding in isolation, spending my evenings alone with nothing but TV and homework.  At East Campus, our kitchens meant I ran into friendly faces multiple times a day as I cooked meals.  Other people studying together in the lounges made me feel welcome to study with them and ask for help.  (13 years ago, the person who became my husband taught me how to do line integrals, and now I use my knowledge of beam bending to consult on his carpentry projects.)  Pulling hacks together taught me more than any class did about project management, budgeting, risk management, and leadership.

On the east side, since living groups are families, many people don’t lock the doors to their rooms.  The doors stay open, so you know you can always walk in on a hallmate and talk if you need help.  And if you haven’t been around for a while, or you’ve had your door closed a lot, people will find you and ask you if you need help.  Someone asked me earlier this year to list my greatest accomplishments.  One that springs to mind instantly is how I was able to get a friend mental help and probably save their life due to the closeness that our east side culture of chosen community created between us.

As an alum, I’ve been glad to help guide graduating seniors into industry.  There are people many years younger than me who I’ve been able to advise because the continuity of east side culture has kept me connected to friends who know younger engineers.  I want this culture to continue, so that the people I guide now are as connected and as able to give back next decade.

I started this essay writing about what MIT and East Campus taught me.  EC taught me how to have friends, how to have personal relationships, and how to integrate with teams and people in a way nothing had before, because I got a chance to grow among a group of people who I chose and who chose me.  One night, in the spring of my freshman year, a friend and I were up late talking.  We had both been having a rough semester.  I’d recently had a pet die; she was adjusting to some new medication.  At some point I was struck by how honestly and openly we were talking.  I told her, “Most people, when they get to know me, I only let them make a small impression.  Then my protective shell bounces back, and I’m alone again.  With most people, my shell only ever experiences elastic deformation.  I don’t know how, but somehow you achieved plastic deformation.”  And then I pulled up my 2.001 homework and explained stress-strain curves to her, and then she knew what I meant.  And that’s the best thing MIT taught me — that understanding and trusting others is a valuable skill, and that I’m able to do it.  It took even more late nights and agony than learning 18.03, but in the end, EC taught me how to have a friend and be a friend, as much as it taught me how to be an engineer.