As my bio below says, in a former life I directed web communications for MITAdmissions. A big part of my job was running the blogs. While many colleges now have student blogs, the MITAdmissions blogs, founded by Ben Jones, are famous for being honest, uncensored avenues of student expression.
On October 29, a junior named Lydia wrote an blog called “Meltdown,” in which she wrote a heartrending account of what it’s like to be a stressed-out MIT student.
I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the workload.
There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid, and MIT keeps an overflowing warehouse of proof in the second basement of building 36. There’s stress and there’s shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes there’s overwhelming loneliness.
Reading it broke my heart. I’ve known Lydia for a long time. I read her application to MIT. I hired her to be a blogger. I’ve talked with her before about how difficult MIT — and life – can be. Her blog post made me cry.
I was not the only person deeply affected by Lydia’s post. It spread, first through MIT students, then alumni, and then the broader world. The traffic to her post almost took down our servers. Lydia was interviewed on WBUR and WCVB. MIT President Rafael Reif addressed the post in a letter to the MIT community, urging “every member of the MIT community — faculty, students, staff and alumni — to read Lydia’s words and try to imagine how we might respond, as individuals, as groups within the Institute and as an institution overall.”
Joanna Kao, the Tech’s Online Media editor and frequent friend of the Civic Media Center, led a team which created several beautiful interactive data visualizations to explore student survey responses about stress on campus:
One of my favorites is this chart, which I have nicknamed “ImposterSyndrome.jpg.” Seventy percent of MIT students believe they are below average:
And, as one former blogger emailed me, “GenderStudiesThesisProposal.jpg”:
But, in a brilliant display of well-done data journalism, the Tech did not stop there. Instead, they contextualized the data with a series of interviews: with Chancellor Eric Grimson, with my old Admissions boss Stu Schmill, with Student Support Services, with random students, with peer support staff, and with Lydia.
MIT has struggled for years — maybe decades — with the perception and reality of student stress. There is a culture of intensity at the Institute which opposes the fragility of humanity, a tension Lydia articulates when she tells the Tech that “I’m not just an academic machine — as much as I’d like to be. I’m still a human being that needs a break.” The inhuman, inhumane hardness of MIT is simultaneously one of the best and worst things about the place. As one Media Lab grad student tweeted yesterday, “Pre-MIT I suspect I evaluated in terms of “inherent” aptitude. Now, persistence and perseverance…[survival is] a survival skill, right?”
But the current conversation — triggered by Lydia, addressed by Reif, now continued by the Tech — gives me hope. In her interview, Lydia says she was “emailed by S3 [Student Support Services] on Nov. 16, and they said that in the past week alone the office had had three times the number of walk-ins that they did last year…Some people have emailed me, commented, or came up to me and said, “I wasn’t going to go S3, but now I think I will.”
This is the best student journalism — any journalism — can do. Identify an apparent but underdeveloped problem in the community. Explore and contextualize it through data, through interviews, through advocacy. Create not only a space for conversation, but help clarify and define the frame of the conversation itself. I could not be prouder of Lydia, Joanna, the Tech, and the MIT community for the work that they’ve done. Their efforts deserve recognition, praise, and awards.
Chris Peterson is on leave from MIT’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, where he has spent three years directing web communications, to be a full-time graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. In addition to overseeing all web and new media activities for MITAdmissions, Chris liaised with FIRST Robotics and had a special focus on subaltern, disadvantaged, and first-generation applicants. He continues to be involved with MIT’s awesome undergraduates as a freshman advisor. Before MIT, Chris worked as a research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and as a Senior Campus Rep for Apple. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition Against Censorship, as an Associate at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and as the sole proprietor of BurgerMap.org. He holds a B.A. in Critical Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he completed his senior thesis on Facebook privacy under Professors Ethan Katsh and Alan Gaitenby. He is interested generally in how people communicate within digitally mediated spaces and occasionally blogs at cpeterson.org.
A version of this post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.