Campus Life vivian’s reflections

Bursting the MIT Bubble

a desire to engage with the Cambridge community

A month ago, I had an interesting thought as I ran along Memorial Drive on the weekend. Usually, the thoughts I have on my runs are mundane: upcoming deadlines, plans for the rest of the day, musings of my recent past, etc. But when I ran past and saw children playing on the playground and baseball field, I realized I hadn’t talked to an elementary schooler in a long time. 

Although I have interacted with middle and high school students in the Boston area through MIT ESP (Educational Studies Program), it’s not the same. I missed the light-hearted and playful conversations I once had with elementary school students. Conversations that made me think of the times I read picture books to children back in high school. There was something simple and unspoiled about entering these various fictional worlds with children.  

What started as an interesting observation became a series of questions about the extent to which I lived in the MIT bubble. To begin with, I wondered how well I knew Cambridge compared to other Cantabrigians. Running and biking have helped me develop a rough mental map of Cambridge, but I wouldn’t say I truly know this place — it’s one thing to get to places without relying on Google Maps, but it’s another thing to know the people and stories that make up a place. Take Cambridgeport as an example. Cambridgeport is the neighborhood right next to MIT, where I go to buy groceries at Trader Joe’s every week. But I can’t tell you the names of the streets behind Trader Joe’s or the snippets of hidden history.

Even though I spend most of my time on MIT’s campus, I am still a resident of Cambridge, according to the U.S. census. My runs make me feel more like a resident than a college student, as they have taken me to places off campus like Fresh Pond and Mt. Auburn Cemetery. On the edge of Cambridge and Belmont, these areas are pleasant because they are quiet and peaceful, unlike the hustle and bustle of MIT. 

Despite this, I still feel that they aren’t enough to leave the MIT bubble. Don’t get me wrong – I like running because it’s a great way to immerse myself in nature, an environment I can’t find on campus. There’s a reason why I don’t get tired of running along the Charles River, enjoying the fresh air and sunlight. 

After running the same few routes countless times, however, nowadays, my runs lack the novelty they once offered. As a result, they no longer help me escape the bubble, even though I am miles away from campus. Part of me is comfortable with the routes I know well, and yet another wishes I could try new ones. Why don’t I try new routes? Because I like simple routes with few traffic lights. It sounds like a silly excuse, but it’s easy to get into and stick to a routine. 

Cambridge and its neighboring area aren’t big, but there’s so much I haven’t explored, from the Somerville Community Path to the Minuteman Bikeway. I know this discontent is my own doing, but the Charles River keeps pulling me back. It’s a place where I can appreciate my natural surroundings and enjoy the present. 

Perhaps all this dissatisfaction of not leaving the bubble boils down to not meeting people outside MIT. I don’t have a problem with the MIT community: I love my floormates in French House, the admins in MIT ESP, and the wonderful friends I made from other contexts. I just think that while physical distance is one way to escape the bubble, it is insufficient. I want to talk to people outside of my age group, people who do things that aren’t STEM, lifelong residents of Cambridge, etc. My concept is similar to Humans of New York, a photography project interviewing New York residents, except for Cambridge and Boston. 

Despite this desire, I must admit that engaging with the greater Cambridge community is hard and unintuitive. Not because I have no interest in doing so but because all the social groups I am part of (dorm, clubs, classes, etc.) are on campus. I am in a weird spot: One side of me would like to branch out more, while the other side is content with my current social life.  

Although my default social life is still at MIT, I have participated in community events outside MIT. One that stands out is Cambridge Parkrun, an event where people run a 5k at Danehy Park every Saturday at 9 a.m. I did my first Parkrun in Jamaica Pond in my freshman spring but then went to Cambridge Parkrun for the rest of the semester. Before Parkrun, I was content with the new friends I made and the communities I found a sense of belonging in at MIT, but something about Parkrun felt refreshing. 

The bike ride from MIT to Danehy Park was long, but I liked exploring the residential parts of northern Cambridge, with streets that were calmer than Mass Ave. But what stands out in my memory was the people I met at Parkrun: people who came every week because they cared about promoting exercise in their community. 

Despite being a newcomer, the regulars welcomed me, introducing themselves and asking me for my name. I liked meeting people of various backgrounds from the general Cambridge community and having conversations that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I didn’t stay in Parkrun for long because of the commute, but I liked how they helped break my MIT bubble – temporarily, but better than never. 

I wish I could say that ever since Parkrun, I had conversations with people in the Cambridge community. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that I haven’t engaged with the greater Cambridge/Boston community as much as I would like. There are many reasons, but the main reasons are that I find the idea of talking to strangers daunting, and I don’t exactly know where to start. I still have a long way to go, but one small thing I have done is become more aware of current events in Cambridge. 

A few weeks ago, I picked up The Week, the print edition of Cambridge Day, for the first time at J.P. Licks in Davis Square. I was curious about what was in the newspaper as I saw stacks scattered around campus. As I ate my coffee chocolate ice cream, I read many interesting things about recent events affecting the city, such as the controversy surrounding the Cambridge Public Schools superintendent. On a lighter note, I also learned about the diverse events happening all over Cambridge and local cicada species under the Wild Things column.  

Before I left, a guy who entered the store asked me, “Can you turn to the last page?” 

Slightly confused, I showed him the Wild Things column article, and he pointed at the author’s name. 

“That’s my wife. She writes for this newspaper.”

 I didn’t even know his wife, but I felt this strange feeling of camaraderie, probably because we were both involved in local journalism, and I understood how much work went into publishing articles. 

“I see lots of these newspapers at MIT,” I said, smiling. I appreciated how much he supported his wife’s interest in writing. “Have a good night,” he said, leaving the store, and I never saw him again. It was a brief conversation, but I liked how invigorating it felt to talk to a local Cambridge resident. It was as if I stepped out of my MIT bubble momentarily. 

I will still focus mainly on the news and events at MIT, but I plan to continue reading The Week. It is good to be informed of what is happening in Cambridge, whether it is local politics or council updates. Even though some issues in Cambridge may not affect me directly, staying up-to-date is one way to burst the MIT bubble. 

It’s easy to let the bubble shield me from my surroundings, but the reality is that MIT is not separate from Cambridge. Given that the two places are interconnected, one thing that I can work on is community engagement. By engaging with the surrounding community, not only will I get to see Cambridge from different perspectives, but I will also have more enriching conversations. Combined, my college experience will be more meaningful.