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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

Not my college essay by Yan Z. '12

It's Blog Action Day and the topic is poverty.

Believe it or not, this is not a post about how the bloggers are grossly underpaid and need your donations (PayPal preferred) to buy space heaters and electric blankets for the coming winter. Although I’d love to keep my room at a feisty 80 degrees this winter and start a refuge shelter for the southern Californians here at MIT, I think we can agree that “poverty” doesn’t always refer to the consequences of astronomical tuition fees. Admittedly, when four classes, an advising seminar, work-study, grocery shopping (trust me, it takes time to choose between 20432039 kinds of soup), social life, free food hunts, and a dumpsterload of potential extracurriculars are playing tug-of-war with your attentions, it’s sometimes difficult to think about world beyond MIT. And that’s only my excuse. You, potential applicant, have an even heftier dumpsterload of extracurriculars and a thick layer of college-related paperwork on top of that unholy casserole of classes, schoolwork, science fairs, YouTubing, and more extracurriculars- and with the admissions blogs being the thrillers that they are, it’s probably also difficult for you to think about the world beyond MIT (don’t worry, we forgive you).

But, though it may sound as if we spend our nights complaining about problem sets and occasionally finishing them too, the average MIT student is more than conscious of problems that don’t involve converting to spherical coordinates and taking a triple integral. The Tech, for instance, has an impressive circulation, well-formulated opinion articles, and no shortage of reporters willing to cover just about any topic*. Take poverty, for instance- a perfunctory search on the Tech website yields a transcript of Muhammad Yunus’ insightful and conscientious commencement address for the Class of 2008, as well as a response in the opinions column from an MIT student deeply affected by the sight of food riots in impoverished nations. Unlike some of our other answers, there’s no need to simplify when it comes to complex world issues.

*I speak from first-hand experience. Back in the nascent dawn of Fall semester, I joined the Tech staff and showed up to exactly one meeting, in which a crowd of student reporters grabbed open topics like hot, newsworthy tamales. I didn’t even manage to claim the story that involved interviewing some guy who makes sandwiches in the Student Center.

You’re probably thinking, “Hey, enough about opinions and reactions; let’s trans-categorically apply Newton’s 3rd and talk about the action.” To which I respond, “How clever of you, I was just about to say that.”

For starters, there’s D-Lab a trilogy of courses coupled with field trips to developing countries over IAP that allowed students to study and design technology for developing communities in countries such as Haiti, India, Brazil, Honduras, Zambia, Samoa, and Lesotho. On the research front, there’s also the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which investigates problems in health care, education, social roles, economics, and just about everything else related to poverty. I’d be a terrible excuse for a blogger if I didn’t throw in a word or twelve about Alia Whitney-Johnson* ’08, an MIT graduate who started her own non-profit organization to teach economically valuable skills to help young mothers in Sri Lanka.

*Anecdote time: A few weeks ago, I was taking a private house tour of the Women’s Independent Living Group across the street when I noticed a box of books in one of the hallways. To be precise, the box of books was in the company of boxes of other unpacked living items. I pointed out that one of the residents seemed to have forgotten to unpack, to which my tour guide responded, “Oh, those belong to a member who started her own non-profit organization to fundraise for impoverished communities and was featured in Glamour Magazine’s 2006 College Women of the Year. She’s been traveling and hasn’t had time to unpack.” To which I elegantly responded, “Oh.”

Now that I’ve adequately filled you with wonder and admiration, let’s talk about what MIT freshmen (or sophomores, or juniors, or even cynicists) can do to combat poverty.

Every August in the midst of Orientation merrymaking, there’s a massive one-day community service extravaganza known as CityDays. This year, over 800 students (that’s most of the freshman class!) signed up to clean up harbors, work at the zoo, cook for homeless shelters, distribute AIDS info packages, and engage in plenty of other service activities in coordination with local agencies. I participated, made a lot of new friends, and got the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich that has ever met human consumption. Not to mention a heartwarming sense of fulfillment that felt like peanut-butter-and-jelly for the soul.

With regard to long-term community service, there’s literally opportunities at every click of a mouse. Each week, a kind-hearted person in the MIT Financial Services department sends out a mass email to all eligible freshmen about community service work-study job openings. Community service work-study, despite the unwieldy name, is just about as close to a win-win situation as you can get without opening a jar of peanut butter- you get to tutor underprivileged kids, do AIDS and cancer research, help the disabled, or raise environmental awareness while being paid attractive wages by the federal government.

After getting these paid community service emails for a few weeks, I finally brought myself to print out a resume and go to one of the orientation meetings for MATCH, a public charter high school dedicated to improving the basic math and English skills of underprivileged and underachieving teenagers in Boston. I ate free pasta, listened to inspiring stories, handed out my resume, arranged an interview with the MATCH director, and was offered a tutoring job one week later*. I kid you not, the entire process was smooth and simple as the sine function but not nearly as repetitive.

*You might be wondering, “Why don’t more MIT students work for organizations such as MATCH?” For one, MATCH is a long walk from campus. You have to travel along the Charles River on a gravel path, cross a bridge into Boston, and walk past a large chunk of Boston University. On the plus side, there’s a department-store-sized Goodwill on the way to MATCH that sells five-dollar sweaters. I stopped by on the way back from my interview and conservatively purchased a black-and-pink zebra-striped shirt with giant metal rectangles on the cuffs. I would include a visual aid, but this seems completely unrelated to the rest of the blog entry.

If you’re still unconvinced, MIT provides a list of enough student service groups to fill a webpage. In fact, it does fill a webpage.

A final ironic twist: My college essay was an unabashed, unfacetious manifesto against mandated community service. I still think that volunteering should be voluntary, as absurd as it sounds.

10 responses to “Not my college essay”

  1. nancyo says:

    First post?! (unless I’ve taken too long to type this up).
    Oh no. Yea I’m too late. Whee typing too slow! smile

    Anyway, what about the the Global Poverty Intiative? (started this year a MIT ’11 student)
    I mean, it has the word poverty in it, I think it deserves a mention!
    Or is it not actually a “big thing” on campus? Hard to tell secondhand from the internet.

    And I liked reading the Forum on American Progress:
    But I guess that’s indirectly related.

    What’s MIT doing re: World Food Day this weekend / Oct 16th? Is it mainly focused around poverty week from GPI?

    and yay for freegans at MIT!

    Also, wondering if D-Lab will get updated? ‘cos the most of the stuff seems circa 2005. Actually I like the opencourseware website better:
    *Wait, does D-Lab count as a “program” for the application? Or is it just a class (course), or rather a series of classes? This confused me for the longest time. Define “program.” >.> It’s listed under “programs” for OCW.

    Sorry for the multiple questions–MDG’s are something I’m interested in right now and I’ve been bumbling around on my own researching MIT and MDGs.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. nancyo says:

    Er wait if you still haven’t mod’d my previous post (or however it goes/whoever approves these)
    I’d like to change the forum on american progress link to this, since this is what I actually read, the booklet:
    I actually got the booklet link from some bloggy blog somewhere. Probably the Humanitarian Blog. But I need to stop procrastinating, so no link digging.

  3. Yan Z. says:

    Up! Down! Out of the plane! Into the plane!

    I think we’ve covered the main directions in 3-space. On to other comments.

    @ Nancyo:
    Good call, GPI is a great example of poverty-related action at MIT and definitely deserves a mention, especially since Poverty Week is coming up. Hopefully someone more conscientious than I will blog about it next week or so.

    D-Lab is a class (three semesters) as far as I can tell, but someone else here will no doubt be able to give you a better response.

  4. Laura says:

    Those community service emails don’t stop after freshman year. =)

    nancyo: D-Lab isn’t a program, it’s just a group of 3 classes. You can’t exactly major in it or anything. =) The Ds stand for development (of an idea as a way to help an underserved community in the developing world), design (of some technology to meet the need) and dissemination (actually getting your idea out there into the real world). Each of these steps of the process has its own class.

  5. nancyo says:

    Well nvm guess no human intervention here. whee triple post then… sorry guys. I decided to actually look up what I was commenting on ^^;
    Apparently, last year the conference for poverty week had 1000+ attendees last year (I think it was last year’s poverty week? I’m pretty sure, ‘cos didn’t GPI get founded last year? but there’s no dates in the blog entry)
    So I take back my question about whether or not it’s a major event.

    Seriously, someone should add some pictures to the site! smile (not stuck up in pdf’s somewhere, ‘cos I get tired of dl-ing mysterious pdf’s yay I just further debilitated English) Even if it’s just a plain vanilla page with images stuck haphazardly in it, it’ll help people like me procrastinate more, heh, and get a better feel for scale. 1000+ people is totally crazy. The number I had in mind before today was fifty.

    Wait now it says 1000 multiple times on the site. Was I just blind?? X___x

  6. Shannon says:

    @nancyo- The blog is actually from this site, and GPI’s homepage is here. No worries, you guys will hear more about all this tomorrow. smile

  7. shy.tack says:

    One of my persuasive essays last year was titled “Mandated Volunteerism: Taking ‘Community’ out of ‘Community Service'”

    Pfft. Can you imagine how free this generation of high schoolers would be if colleges didn’t look at all this extra-curricular crap we load on?