MIT is one community

This past Monday, 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. 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

Together campaign

It is good news that the MIT Student Life program is coming “Together” for wellness, but I believe that this endeavor should be linked to community-wide health and wellness promotion efforts. As the site describes, it is important to de-stigmatize and de-mystify offering and asking for help. One can do this graciously, as the Charm School mini-session “How to tell somebody something they’d rather not hear” has taught for almost 20 years. The session was mentioned in last spring on CBS Sunday Morning.

The success of these programs begs the question: could “charm school” be made mandatory for the entire MIT community? Doing so would resemble Safety Office trainings. They would not be optional, and would have to be held more than once a year. If the Institute chooses to take this path, I believe it would improve cooperation, intensify congeniality, irritate complacency, invigorate creativity and instill a capacity for positive change. This is not a new suggestion, but it may be timely.

Eve Sullivan is a former Senior Editorial Assistant for parentsforum.org.

1 Comment
Lisa Rice about 11 years ago

I read Lydia K's blog entry and it made me sad. Brava to Lydia for expressing herself so effectively!

Her statements confirmed what I observed/learned when I was a graduate student at MIT Sloan (SM, 1991). My conclusion: The 'tute is NOT a healthy environment for undergrads. I met a few undergrad students back then; most seemed stressed 95 - 100 of the time. I found it depressing and somewhat frightening.

I'd worked for six years before entering MIT Sloan. Experience had taught me that nothing -- not work, school, or any pastime -- is good for you when it becomes all-consuming.

MIT was tough; that's why I chose it. But I knew enough to understand that good, healthy friendships are rooted in joyful, supportive camaraderie and positive experiences. It would do me no good to drown in the work and miss the joys of life happening all around me.

I fear the friendships Lydia expects to cherish in the future, those "born of suffering," may cast a terrible pall on her life perspective. Pain over joy? That's out of whack to me.

My son, now a sophomore in college, asked about going to MIT as an undergrad. My response to him was "No! It is not a healthy place for undergrads. There is no balance. College needs to be more than constant pressure to excel. You need to have fun, too."

I'd hoped things had changed for undergrads since the early '90s. Apparently, that's not the case, especially if Lydia's experience is closer to the rule than the exception. Perhaps this will further open dialogue about achieving success in a healthy environment. It would be my pleasure to be able to recommend MIT for undergrads; I would need to see proof of change.

Honestly, I believe there is an underlying culture of success at any cost at MIT, especially in the undergrad environment. Sacrifice of one's physical well-being and mental health isn't necessarily frowned upon, it seems to be accepted and expected. I really hope that changes, but understand it is so woven in the culture of MIT (for undergrads, anyway) that it may never go away.

I wish the very best of luck to all of the undergrads. Stay healthy. Meet new people. Get out of the classroom and off campus, enjoy life!