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A Flood, an Ark, a Third Word I Am Missing by Selam G. '18

Sophomore year starts out a little wet, and what is a community, really?

Hello again, internet~ It has been a while.

Well, actually, I’m on the internet everyday, so it hasn’t been that long at all. At most three hours, maybe. But as for this particular piece of the internet, I haven’t blagged since the fall semester started due to trying to get on top of everything and hopefully make academics run more smoothly this year.  So far, it’s been a lot more work already, but actually, I think I enjoy my classes and the work way more than last semester–which I guess means I picked the right major!

 

(An example of some ridiculousness from one of my classes, 6.005: Elements of Software Construction)

 

This is my first post of the academic year, so I’ll treat it as a bit of a new beginning, even though I still blogged over the summer (and all the other bloggers have been blogging a lot, too!). To returning readers, thanks for sticking around, and to new ones, I hope you’ve been enjoying yourself so far!

As a recap, my name’s Selam; I’m a 2A-6 (Mechanical Engineering with Computer Science) sophomore. I’m from Colorful Colorado, with roots in my father’s nation, Ethiopia, and my mother’s, China. I consider myself both entirely Chinese and entirely Ethiopian rather than half of either (you may have two hands and two feet, I have two or three cultures!) (and also hands and feet, in case that wasn’t clear). I speak Chinese fluently; I can communicate pretty well in my dad’s regional language, Kafa Noo’no, and I know at least enough Amharic to maybe find my way home if I were lost in Addis Ababa. You’ve probably already guessed that I get excited by things like robots and engineering and sometimes, slaying one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, even though it isn’t my major. But I also get excited (really, really excited) by writing, social media, cultures, languages, and just people in general. Meeting people is pretty cool, both physically and virtually, so please, send me emails!

Last year, at the start of my admissions blogging in the spring and throughout the semester that followed, I talked/wrote/typed a lot about what it was like to be away from home, and what it was like facing real, raw feelings of failure or disappointment here at college. It was a pretty rocky road, but like climbing any mountain, now that I’ve done it once, I really do feel so much better prepared for this year and beyond–and honestly, it was actually pretty fun most of the time! The most important things I gained were not necessarily academic skills or time management skills (though that definitely improved a lot too). It was the ability to separate myself from my troubles and my failures, to look at them objectively without succumbing to absolute despair. It was really hard to gain that, but also really powerful–once you’re no longer scared of failure (because, well, it’s happened so much and so spectacularly already) you aren’t really scared of doing anything! That said, I also think a good lesson from freshman year could be summed up by a tumblr post I saw the other day: you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

If my previous year was about finding my “home” and facing failure, then this year, I can already see another theme of the semester taking shape, or at least an interesting tangent:

Community.

What is a community? This is probably the most cliche question I have ever let fall from my very own keystrokes, and doubtless, many of you applying to basically anything ever have had it asked of you in some way: how are you involved in your community, what impacts have you made on your community, how could you make your community better, and on and on. To answer these kinds of questions, you first have to ask yourself what your community is, and how you fit in it.

When living at home with my parents, many of my communities were already defined for me. There’s the very obvious physical places–the neighborhood we lived in, my school, our church. Then, there was a network of our family friends, often linked to us through Chinese or Ethiopian culture. Since all my extended family lived on other continents, many of these people were placeholder aunts and uncles and cousins–and emotionally speaking, I was just as close to many of them as my actual family members, if not closer. We spent holidays together, grieved together, and generally went through the vicissitudes of life together. When I was really little, for a long time I actually thought we were all biologically related, and was shocked to find out when I was maybe eight that “auntie”, “uncle”, “big sister”, and other words were actually just used as affectionate terms rather than literal familial bonds in both Mandarin and Amharic.

Pre-defined places and communities are comfortable. They may not exactly be “your people” all the time, and when one is twelve to fifteen, might even seem horribly inane or irrational. But nonetheless, they are there, and they aren’t going anywhere, which is comfortable. In college, especially far from home, that isn’t true anymore. There is, frankly, nothing there with much certainty, and you have to find communities yourself.

Last year, I lived in the lovely dorm of Simmons, whose culture I always compare to Canada (partly because there’s a GRT in it with a lot of Canadian pride). The building is very clean, the people are very nice, and it is quite large with lots of space–like Canada. Canada is great, and so is Simmons! I really liked living there, and I also liked living inside of a piece of art, since the building is also an incredible architectural piece.

 

 

(An eerily gorgeous Simmons pic from Snowpocalypse 2015; photo credits to my roommate last year, Ayesha B. ’18!)

 

 

This year, I moved to New House. I had planned it last year. I moved for two reasons; one was just because I wanted to experience another dorm’s culture at MIT, since there are so many and they are all so cool, and the other was that I wanted to be off the meal plan and experience cooking for myself. Simmons has a dining hall in it, so if you live there, you have to be on the meal plan. The reason I moved specifically to New House rather than another cooking dorm was that I had a lot of friends there, especially in Chocolate City, House 2, and Spanish House. I moved into House 4, thinking I’d be able to meet other people on the west side of the dormitory I didn’t know, and still be close to my friends in the first three houses.

But there was no way I could have planned for the flood.

Returning readers will know I like to use a lot of extended metaphors–tempering iron, making porcelain, and climbing mountains are just a few. This time, I’m talking about an actual, literal flood. As in, water, pouring from everywhere and onto everything and destroying all that you love. A faulty fire sprinkler pipe burst and poured all of its reserves all over House 2, affecting houses 1, 2, and 3. Within the ridiculously short time span of an hour, a lot of students’ items in storage rooms were badly damaged, and the floors and walls needed intense repairs. I was very surprised over the summer when I received the email that half of New House was going to have to live in the Hyatt Hotel for all of first semester while repairs were made. Fortunately, House 4 was not affected, so I’m still living in New House proper, so to speak. Most unfortunately, everyone I knew left. Most of them did not seem particularly excited about it either–the hotel is not made for college students; it doesn’t really have any community space, and they have to bring their laundry back to New House to do it. Most ironically, it was all caused by a fire sprinkler, something that’s supposed to protect against damage. There wasn’t even a fire.

Well.

I found myself, at the beginning of the semester, almost like a freshman all over again. I was in a place where I didn’t really know that many people, even if it was just my dormitory and I still knew people around campus. It’s a small change compared to last year; but still, I found myself thinking about it. I felt slightly uncomfortable again, in a new place where I didn’t know that many people, and I wasn’t sure what it was I was missing or I was looking for. Suddenly, maybe when I was sitting in my room watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and feeling a little melancholy for no real reason, I realized that I fully understood, in a way I had not before, what a community was–mostly because at the time, I felt like I did not have one. I had friends, but now it felt like they were separate points, not correlated or linked in any particular way.

A community is a different concept than individual friendships or relationships, because in a community, one is not necessarily close with everyone in the group, but some shared value or bond creates a feeling of mutual obligation. For example, if I were anywhere in the world, I’d be pretty excited to run into another MIT student or alumn, even if I did not know them at all, just because we share the MIT community and its various goals and values.

Greek life is a type of deliberately created community. I had a pretty negative view of greek life when I first came to MIT, mostly because my impressions of it came from other colleges or the media, where I’d heard mostly of the problems with greek life rather than its benefits–specifically fraternities. While I still think at large there are a lot of serious social issues with greek life in the US, life is definitely different on an individual scale, and so I found my perspective more diversified when my own close friends were in fraternities and sororities. In college, a lot of students are looking for social support, and greek life provides an intentional network of support. I have a better idea of why people find that concept appealing now, having been in college for a year and felt a little lost or displaced for myself. You could argue a lot about whether or not greek life is the right solution to that problem depending on exactly how it is implemented and where, but my point is, fraternities and sororities are communities that have a sole purpose, really, of being communities, and this idea makes sense to me now. MIT’s Independent Living Groups, like Pika and WILG (Women’s Independent Living Group) are other structured, off-campus communities that a lot of people join for the same reason, and without some of the connotations greek life might have.

MIT is different in a lot of ways from other schools, but one of the biggest I’ve actually been able to notice from just talking to my friends at other colleges is the dorm life. Dorm communities are taken very seriously at MIT; housing is guaranteed for four years so no one is forced to move off campus, and there’s no such thing as “freshman dorms”. Each of the dorms has its own culture, and students are given the freedom to choose between them. The dorms are not only where we live, but also where people form lasting relationships with each other and support one another.

All the dorms are different, and what makes New House different is that, actually, the dormitory itself is a large community composed of smaller communities. This is definitely true of other dorms as well, with different floors having different cultures, but New House’s cultural living groups are formally recognized by MIT, and require applications to enter. New House is physically divided into six towers, called “houses”. Some of them connect across and some don’t. House 1 is home to iHouse and Chocolate City. La Casa, or Spanish House, is the 2nd floor of both Houses 3 and 4. French House and German House are arranged in Houses 5 and 6 (I can’t remember exactly how) and the rest of the dormitory is regular dorm space. I live in the regular dorm space of House 4.

Finally, there are all the many, many student groups on campus where you can forge and find a community. Many are professional or activity based, like Sloan Business Club or Dance Troupe, and many are cultural, like the BSU (Black Students’ Union) or MIT CSC (Chinese Students’ Club).

The first week I was back at MIT, I went from setting up my room in House 4, to hanging out with my friend Kevin P. ‘18 at his fraternity, Phi Kappa Theta, where I also knew a couple of his fraternity brothers. Afterward, I went to visit a few other friends at the Nu Delta fraternity. The next day, I went to set up and run the activities midway booth for Chinese Students’ Club (CSC), after preparing many, many dumplings, and talked to a lot of the freshmen interested in joining.

All the while, I observed, perhaps more closely than before, how each place or group conducted itself as a community. They all had different cultures, different structures, different markers of membership. All fraternity brothers or sorority sisters are a part of their fraternity or sorority; in a dormitory or club you have to actively want to participate in activities to really become a part of the community. I could appreciate how each of these places offered different things to different people, and what they all gained from it. By the end of the week, I was much more comfortable in my room in New House 4. After being on campus a bit longer, I remembered that actually, I was part of many communities, formal and informal, with a varying role in each of them. I met a lot more of the people in New House 4 and discovered they were all pretty awesome, and I’m glad I get to live with them. Though I’m still sad my friends are so horribly far away (like a whole six minute walk!) at The Hyatt, I also visited them there and hung out for a bit. Structured or unstructured, I realized the best way to find a community is to really participate, to get to know other people, to find that value or connection you might share with them. If you don’t participate, you don’t walk out into the lounge and ask your floormate’s name, you don’t go on the late-night IHop trip, you don’t take the time to do any of these things for whatever reason, then it becomes a lot harder to “find your people”, as some might say.

New House 3, or NH3 (yes, they do have ammonia as their logo) has actually already had most of its repairs completed already, so you can usually find at least one of their house’s members lounging about or working in their brand new first floor kitchens at any given time of day. I honestly sometimes forget that they actually live at The Hyatt, because they’re in their kitchens all the time. Once as a group of them were headed back for the night, I heard someone say, “well, let’s go back to the ark…”

“The ark?” I asked curiously.

“Well, yes. We all have to live in doubles at the hotel, so you know, there was a great flood, we went two by two….”

They smiled at each other and we all had a good laugh about it.

But I also thought about how interesting the comparison was. The reason that so many of the New House students live in the Hyatt instead of filling up other dorms is only partly due to the fact that there wouldn’t be enough space. In fact, I think if MIT really wanted to, we could find a way to cram people into each crevice of each dormitory (I mean, have you seen the forced quads in Maseeh?) or at least enough so that very few people would have to live in some sort of extra housing, like the Hyatt. Rather, the reason they all mutually came to the decision to live there is because they did not want to be separated from each other. They wanted to keep their communities together, and in their case, the communities were partly defined by physical space. And MIT actually recognized this need, working to accommodate it somehow. That should show how important it is, both to the students and the Institute, that these communities all exist. We are at an exciting, but potentially fragile time of life, and in a place that really doesn’t treat us very mildly. We can be incredibly smart and incredibly strong, facing academic blows with nothing but a laptop and pure grit!……but we also need the space to be vulnerable, and we need people we can safely open up to. While that other, biblical flood and ark indicated the wiping out of the world, this flood only physically wiped out a very small part of it. The residents could have easily been dispersed elsewhere. And yet, we needed the ark anyway.

It was that important, keeping everyone together.

 


(True story: agonized over this title for days before giving up and going with that.) (“A Flood and an Ark” just sounds like it’s missing something….right??) (If you have any idea of what the Third Word should be, you should totally comment it below) (because I could not figure it out) (lol) (interactive blagging?)