To be able to tell this story in full, we must start in late January. I’m living in Next House after a busy on-campus Independent Activities Period, a part of the school year in January where students mostly do things other than school, like externships and teaching abroad when an email is sent to our dorm mailing list. The email asks for applications for the Next House Campus Preview Weekend, during which we welcome prefrosh to MIT! committee. As a frosh, this was not strictly true, but I did want something more to do, especially something that involved giving back to the next house community so I apply, and after a few days, I get an interview. A day or two after that, I get placed on the committee, and from there it is off to the races.
Planning proceeds throughout the month of February. The pandemic looms larger in the subconscious of campus, but it is still Someone Else’s Problem. We go through all the steps of the traditional planning process—looking at past events, thinking of new ones we could run, asking for safety plans, so on and so forth. The committee is entirely frosh, and we’re excited! Some of us (including me) have never been to CPW before, so we’re eager to see what it’s like and to represent our dorm. By the end of February, we’ve submitted the list of events we plan on running, and we’re beginning to plan to recruit volunteers.
It’s Thursday, March 5th. I’m in a meeting for techX: Think; we run <a href="https://think.mit.edu">a high school research competition</a> when the email comes through, canceling all in-person classes with over 250 people. The email mentions CPW, but does not in particular, it is not immediately clear to us if CPW is canceled or if it is just the CPW events with too many people leaving a wake of confusion and an emergency meeting the next day. We’re still thinking of different ways that we can hold events that show off our dorm and our culture—someone could live-stream walking around Next House, for example—and the planning process starts anew, very tentatively.
It’s Tuesday, March 10th. Ongoing rumors about the closure of campus have been circulating since early morning. By the evening, the email is sent out and forwarded around until the whole student body knows. The cancellation of CPW is not very high on my list of worries, which have suddenly expanded dramatically to include packing all of my stuff and getting home safely, but it does sit somewhere at the back of my mind, taking up space. All of our new planning has been thrown out, and it’s not at all clear if CPW will even take place, not to mention in what form and when.
True to form, however, Admissions eventually figures something out, and we end up running Campus Preview ~wildcard~ The month of April abounds with long conversations on Discord, tours of the Minecraft campus on Twitch, and fun activities in Zoom rooms. It’s a lot of fun, and getting to meet and talk to so many amazing new people is exciting. I spend a lot of time online during this time, writing haikus, listening to music, and just hanging out amidst the chaotic experience that I’m told is supposed to somewhat model a normal CPW.
Despite this, I feel somewhat disillusioned and fatigued after CP*. I think a big part of it was that I felt like I kept meeting the same frosh over and over. It felt like we had somehow missed out on interacting with a large portion of the admitted students. Then again, in particular, I had missed mine to play in a pit orchestra and people were still in school. We at CPWcomm had organized our events, and it seemed that the prefrosh who were there had enjoyed them. In other words, we had done our part. Maybe that was enough. A few weeks later, we organize some of our thoughts in a post-mortem, and leave it for the next CPW committee. We hope that they won’t have to use it, and that they can return to the in-person playbook come next spring.
May rolls around. I’ve been at home for two months at this point, and I’m beginning to make summer plans when another email rolls into to the dorm mailing list, asking us to apply for the Residence EXploration, the week we traditionally welcome freshmen to dorms on campus committee. Under some amount of wishful thinking, I apply to be co-chair of the committee. We know that fall won’t be normal, but there’s still a glimmering light of hope that we might be able to run some kind of physically distanced REX. An interview and a few weeks later, the committee members are set. My co-chair and I set up a few meetings in early June to discuss our thoughts about the fall. We take administration’s list of five scenarios and start to put together a framework for each of them, considering what the ensuing REX would look like and the events it would allow.
And then we wait. In the meantime, I have plenty of other things to worry about. I’m working two jobs over the summer, one of which is to help to run the Research Science Institute (RSI), a high school summer camp which I attended in 2018 and was a counselor for in 2019. Along with a cadre of other camp alumni, we’re tasked with replicating as much of the in-person social experience as we can. That means trying to build a cohesive social cohort while fighting all of the new tasks we’re facing; setting up Zoom calls, virtualizing traditional events, coordinating across time zones.
We spend a lot of time thinking about how to best approach these problems, to build community, to engage all of the students over the course of just six weeks. In person, community comes naturally from living together. Without the serendipity of meetings in the hallways and meals shared together, it becomes a lot harder to create the same kind of social bonds. We do our best anyways, with fun social events and casual hangouts. By the end of the camp, we feel like we have succeeded; our director notes that although the experience was not the normal one, it was an authentic one, with all the hallmarks of a typical year.
The camp still doesn’t feel quite the same though, at least for me. It seems like the community is a touch less vibrant than it has been, and although I realize that part of this feeling comes from the fact that I have a less student-oriented role this year, something else is missing. Personally, I remember that my RSI experience had offered me the first chance I had ever had to be unapologetically myself, something I’ve carried with me into MIT. It feels to me that we’ve missed that mark—but, then again, that experience is difficult to recreate digitally.
Upon further thought, I realize that the ultimate source of this disparity seems to be that even though we’d provided the framework for the extroverts, and even some of the more intrepid introverts, to get to know each other, we’d failed to attract all the students. For some, it was easy to stay camera on and unmuted and hang out late into the night. But there were also plenty of people for whom it felt easier to just slip away once official business was over, or who couldn’t participate because of time zones. I couldn’t blame them—I would’ve been the same way, if I was in their shoes.
How could we have solved this? How do we provide a comfortable space for people to engage with us and with each other in an environment like this? How can we build community?
MIT releases its plans for the fall more accurately, an incomplete FAQ page leaks on the evening of July 5th; for a more complete description of the administrative rollercoaster from march through august, see <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/deciding-to-live-on-campus/">Nisha<span style="font-weight: 400;">’</span>s post</a> and it ends up being none of the ones we had looked at. The announcement has a lot of big implications for all students, but one of them is the stipulation that only seniors will be invited back to campus. For me, it is March 10th all over again—I am once again faced with a dramatic expansion of my list of worries, like finding a place to live in the fall. The fact that our REX plans have been blown out of the water also sits at the back of my mind, taking up space.
For this is among the many abbreviations that have been used for the next REX committee, including the very cursed nESCUFFYxtcomm no frosh in residences essentially means no REX. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though. It also means that, similar to CPW, we are flying completely and entirely blind, previous planning undermined by an ever-shifting situation. This time, we don’t even have Admissions to guide us; it’s just us and the other dorms left to fend for ourselves, lead valiantly by the MIT’s Dormitory Council, which is a student-run organization representing students at all dorms REX/CPW chairs as we try to figure out what to do.
Answers come slowly. We attend various DormCon meetings, where, along with other dorm representatives, we give input on what we think should happen. We argue about whether or not we assign frosh to dorms, how that assignment process should work, how we maintain those communities throughout the semester. We argue about what the goal of our process is in the first place—is it the continuity of dorm culture, or is it to provide support networks to the frosh? We go back and forth, trying to answer all the questions that come from trying to do something completely unprecedented.
At the end of the DormCon planning process, we settle on two new initiatives: SCUFFY, Support CommUnities For First-Years, which are communities of frosh and upperclassmen based around dorms, and in my headcanon, pronounced ‘escape’ Exploring Support Communities, the REX-week equivalent. With this plan, the very purpose of the nREXt committee changes. Our initial goal was just to run this one-week residence exploration process. Suddenly, we are also in charge of creating this pluralization refers to the subcommunities from each dorm; it's kind of strange since SCUFFY is technically already plural placing frosh in them, and making sure that those communities last throughout the semester. These are tasks I am proud to be working on, but that are also sufficiently important to make me worry about if we are doing them right.
The weeks before ESC are filled with an organizational frenzy. The turnaround time is short—the complete, finalized plan from DormCon is sent out just eight days before ESC event submissions are due. We email upperclassmen, asking them to form SCUFFYs associated with different wings of Next, with fun names such as the 4E Sporks and the represent We gather events from our student groups and brainstorm some ideas of our own, from traditional events like an event where you present from a nonsensical slide deck you've never seen before to new ones designed specifically for Zoom like Very UnVirtUaliZEabLe Activities, such as trust falls and badminton; yes, we did misspell unvirtualizable just to get the acronym to work We write up accountability plans and design a system to place frosh in SCUFFYs. We put together something that seems like it just might work.
However, after being stuck at home for five months and having worked two jobs during the summer, I am tired. There is an inescapable lack of energy that characterizes my day-to-day, and the fatigue makes me unoptimistic for ESC week. Surely, after months of quarantine, the frosh feel the same way, right? How can we hope to engage a population that may not want or have the energy to engage with us in the first place? How do we make sure that the students who are most likely to need support aren’t left behind because they are exactly the students who wouldn’t want to or be able to participate? Even after CP* and RSI, I still feel unready to answer these questions, perhaps because there are no easy answers to be found.
ESC week hits. I attend the events I am responsible for; giving a tour of Next House in Minecraft with the help of a bunch of other Nexties, PowerPoint Karaoke, a virtual petting zoo(m) with stuffed animals, a small hangout event with nREXtcomm. I get to meet a good set of frosh, and they are quite cool, but I keep wondering in the back of my head how much of the population as a whole is actually actively participating. I hear from a few of them that it is kind of overwhelming to go through orientation and ESC at the same time, and I think back to my own hectic REX week. It had also been busy, but I had still gone to plenty of events. And yet, it is so much easier to log off virtually and so much harder to spend quite as much time staring at a screen.
In spite of this, as I move through ESC week I find that the events are at least somewhat reasonably attended. Seeing the enthusiasm of some of the frosh, I start to feel a little better about the possibility of building productive communities, even if they aren’t totally complete. The small events are the best; sitting around, having a casual conversation, telling stories. There’s a glimmer of hope that, with smaller subcommunities, we might have a better shot of engaging people.
Eventually, ESC week ends. At this point, I have moved back to campus, and classes are just around the corner. We get the 100+ frosh assigned to Next, add them to our mailing lists, and start up Nextploration, the week-long introduction of frosh to each of the individual wings and subcommunities of our dorm. Since this coincides with the first week of classes, it starts off weakly, but as the weekend approaches everything starts to pick up a bit, with SCUFFYs scheduling events left and right. The entire Next House community seems more vibrant than it has been during the past few months, as upperclassmen pool their excitement to introduce their culture to the frosh. My subcommunity decides to run a few events, which we advertise on the dorm mailing list with I ran into my Graduate Resident Advisor (a grad student who lives on my wing and helps organize wing events and culture) in the hallway and he mentioned that he had seen me sending emails advertising events for 4W and I almost died of mortification
The events bring a little spark of joy back into my life. I meet a lot of frosh I haven’t met before, and we get to present them the weird and quirky aspects of our wing culture over Zoom. We watch Backstroke of the West, a backtranslated version of Star Wars Episode III, run another PowerPoint Karaoke, and hang out and watch the weird, cursed videos that we find funny for no apparent reason. The events are random, but they remind me of my own Nextploration, arguing with certain wings about the this turns out to be a very consistent way to start a fight or playing Geoguessr. For a brief moment, it feels like we’ve captured the soul of the endeavor: to build new communities of frosh and upperclassmen; to come together in the face of it all and do what we’ve always done, albeit through a different medium.
The night after Nextploration ends, we hold a nREXtcomm meeting. Over Zoom, we lottery details for the interested: we had an optional preference form and gave everyone who submitted that their first preference, before randomizing everyone else and send out SCUFFY assignments. I add the new 4W frosh to the group chat and the Discord server, and we get to introductions, memes, and psetting together in the Discord voice chat. In an instant, our community has grown larger, and I feel an inexplicable mix of excitement and protectiveness over the frosh. There is much to learn and plenty of struggle in the semester ahead, but we’ll be here to support each other, and along the way, we just might get to know each other better as well. That, after all, is the meaning of having a community.
Much remains to be seen about how our subcommunities will actually function in practice, and how they might affect dorm culture in the long run. In the near term, my tenure on nREXtcomm also continues, as we prepare to run student check-ins and host office hours to try and make sure things stay on the right track. Some of my worries about the endeavor remain, haunting me as I make my way through what promises to be more on this soon, hopefully These days, however, having seen the kind of welcome our community can pull together, I feel at least a little more hopeful than I used to. Maybe—just maybe!—we have a good shot at making sure the frosh get the community and culture they deserve.
- Independent Activities Period, a part of the school year in January where students mostly do things other than school, like externships and teaching abroad back to text ↑
- Campus Preview Weekend, during which we welcome prefrosh to MIT! back to text ↑
- this was not strictly true, but I did want something more to do, especially something that involved giving back to the next house community back to text ↑
- techX: Think; we run a high school research competition back to text ↑
- in particular, it is not immediately clear to us if CPW is canceled or if it is just the CPW events with too many people back to text ↑
- Campus Preview ~wildcard~ back to text ↑
- in particular, I had missed mine to play in a pit orchestra back to text ↑
- Residence EXploration, the week we traditionally welcome freshmen to dorms on campus back to text ↑
- more accurately, an incomplete FAQ page leaks on the evening of July 5th; for a more complete description of the administrative rollercoaster from march through august, see Nisha’s post back to text ↑
- this is among the many abbreviations that have been used for the next REX committee, including the very cursed nESCUFFYxtcomm back to text ↑
- MIT’s Dormitory Council, which is a student-run organization representing students at all dorms back to text ↑
- in my headcanon, pronounced ‘escape’ back to text ↑
- this pluralization refers to the subcommunities from each dorm; it's kind of strange since SCUFFY is technically already plural back to text ↑
- represent back to text ↑
- an event where you present from a nonsensical slide deck you've never seen before back to text ↑
- Very UnVirtUaliZEabLe Activities, such as trust falls and badminton; yes, we did misspell unvirtualizable just to get the acronym to work back to text ↑
- I ran into my Graduate Resident Advisor (a grad student who lives on my wing and helps organize wing events and culture) in the hallway and he mentioned that he had seen me sending emails advertising events for 4W and I almost died of mortification back to text ↑
- this turns out to be a very consistent way to start a fight back to text ↑
- lottery details for the interested: we had an optional preference form and gave everyone who submitted that their first preference, before randomizing everyone else back to text ↑
- more on this soon, hopefully back to text ↑