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MIT blogger Ankita D. '23

preserving student community by Ankita D. '23

what does it take?

If you’ve read any of my other posts, you probably know how much I care about my dorm and floor communities. I’ve talked about my experiences on the Burton Conner Transition Team, which is responsible for helping students transition in and out of the dorm and navigating student concern during the renewal process. Being a member of this team was formative in establishing my interest in preserving student culture across MIT, starting with my own dorm.

As you might have heard, in the renewal, Burton Conner is seeing a few changes that have implications for its ability to preserve its communities. For one, our murals are being painted over, and we’re seeing some fluctuations in bed count. Burton 1 is potentially having an Associate Head of House apartment installed somewhere on their floor, which is annoying because it hinders college students from, uh, being college students. There’s quite a bit of concern that this apartment would prevent the floor from existing in the capacity it’s used to, so people would end up moving away to frats or sororities, where they would have the ability to ~vibe~ freely. Also, my floor, Burton 3rd,01 burton 3rd bombers, for future reference isn’t being allowed to install our iconic orange and black tiles on the floor outside the elevator landing, which is pretty frustrating.

In such circumstances, where people are separated due to a global pandemic, our dorm is being renovated for two years, and we might not be able to exist in the way we want to once we move back in, the question of what community preservation will look like has been raised and discussed quite a bit. It was first posed to me on a call with someone on Transition Team, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

What does it mean for a community to be preserved? Ignoring the resoundingly obvious answer of “that depends,” this is an interesting question to consider.

Is it the visual identity—our logo, various insignia, murals, or any sort of branding that signifies the community to others? Is it traditions—miscellaneous small and large scale events that have been maintained for decades? Is it simply values—thoughts and ideas that people in the community resonate with and adhere to?

And in this set of options, when a community has to be split up or no longer has access to its space, what should be adapted, and what should remain?

Well, it’s complicated. Communities emphasize things like visual identity, traditions, and values differently; some don’t have a logo but feel bound together by their name, some have traditions that come and go but are united in their values, and so on. I know that in my community, we have a STRONG visual identity, a huge emphasis on traditions, and many shared values. However, we used to be white, overly fratty, and male, and now we’re…very much not that; we have people from so many different backgrounds with unique identities, and we feel a kinship with the alumni we meet from decades ago even though we wouldn’t necessarily vibe with the floor culture at the time. Cultures aren’t static since people come and go and model the community to be more like what they want it to be.

The community’s physical space also plays a role in how culture is shaped. My dorm has suites, so suite culture is prevalent throughout the dorm’s communities; on many floors, there’ll be a main suite02 the 23 for conner side, i believe, and the 41 for the burton side? that serves as a social hub for the floor. Since suites are separated off from the hallway, it’s easy to hang out with certain groups of people but also to hang out in the hallway and interact with people passing by. Suite culture is a significant contributor to how social BC is, in my opinion. Other dorms, like East Campus, are corridor-based, so they have varying levels of hallway and room culture. On some floors, everyone will hang out in the hallways when they want to socialize, and on others, people socialize mainly in certain rooms. These are two completely different vibes that tend to say a lot about the floor.

In dorms like New House and MacGregor, the Cook-For-Yourself aspect shapes a few cultures around cooking. It’s wonderful when these community members are all on campus, but when they’re scattered across the country due to quarantine, it’s hard to feel connected due to communal cooking anymore. It’s challenging for one to preserve communities like this in extended periods of time where we don’t have access to campus.

But what’s a community or culture without the people? Branding is important, but you don’t need to wear a shirt emblazoned with a community’s logo to be a part of it. I could meet someone wearing a Bomber shirt ten years in the future who I don’t vibe with at all, and it would be sad but indicative of the fact that there’s a lot more than insignia in binding people together. Traditions are wonderful, but a lot of them were created just a few years ago and aren’t as ingrained as you might think. On my floor, we champion most traditions as being held for “33rd years and counting,” but really, some of them started in 2016? 2017? (Many)03 prioritizing is hard. my floor has thrown a party for over 50 years and that's important to us and our culture, so putting traditions on a scale of 'what is important and what is not' in the context of the renovation is annoying and difficult to navigate traditions are mutable just as values are. Also, in the case of my community and many other communities I’m familiar with at MIT, a lot of traditions are utilized as means of strengthening relationships with new members/people in the community you don’t know well. In quarantine, my floor has held virtual versions of multiple of our annual events that are fundamentally different since they’re not in person but are mainly a means of engaging our freshmen.

So, at the end of the day, traditions aren’t super important and branding isn’t essential to our identity. We’re all in different places and time zones, but we stay connected, and that’s what’s critical to maintaining our bond as a community. That doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating when we aren’t allowed to tile our floors or paint our walls, though.

As for what should be adapted and what should remain, things that are important and symbolic to an existing culture should be given to, but not impressed upon its successors. New generations should inherit what they want to keep, and current ones shouldn’t get hung up on the things that must be preserved. I spoke to an alum who I really, really respect about this topic, and they mentioned the importance of agency in choosing what you want to pass on and in deciding what you want to keep. This cycle of inheritance is important to many, if not most dorm communities at MIT.

Another aspect of community is being able to inherit a support network. Upperclassmen are essential in guiding new members of a community, which is why it’s so important to my class that we move back to Burton Conner when it reopens. Alumni are important as well; just as Bomber alumni have helped me out multiple times in the past, I know I’d do the same for any future Bomber. I feel a strong communal duty towards ensuring that current and future generations of the floor are able to thrive.

When I asked my community’s floor chairs about what it means to preserve our culture, they told me that it boils down to having a structure through which forming friendship and community is prioritized. I wholeheartedly agree; friendship and community are the cornerstones of our culture, regardless of how much our values have shifted throughout the decades. In addition, giving new members an identity to claim, but also the agency to grow and make the culture what they want is so, so important. Many student cultures today are so different from what they were even five or ten years ago, but they still can connect across generations through a shared identity.

So, as nebulous as it may be, the simple answer to community preservation is the intuitive one: finding new people who share the same values. I’m not really worried about preserving community in Burton Conner if the Class of ’23 can move back to the dorm, and given that floors found new freshmen through virtual rush, I’m confident that cultures can reestablish themselves. Having an identity to claim will drive new classes of dope people to move to Burton Conner, just as they did even when they knew it was being closed down. Student culture is so, so incredible in shaping the experiences of MIT students, so I don’t want this renovation to destroy a dorm with one of the strongest cultures, especially when it made my time at MIT so amazing.
Considering that I’m a sophomore who spent barely a year on campus, my perspectives and interactions with student cultures across campus are limited. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this! :)

 

 

  1. burton 3rd bombers, for future reference back to text
  2. back to text
  3. prioritizing is hard. my floor has thrown a party for over 50 years and that's important to us and our culture, so putting traditions on a scale of 'what is important and what is not' in the context of the renovation is annoying and difficult to navigate back to text