Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition): MIT

By Kang Yi Xi (15S03N)

Photos courtesy of Liu Aofei

Thinking about which university to apply to, or already a J2 beginning your early admission applications? Raffles Press brings you our Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition), a series of articles dedicated to providing information on Rafflesian alumni’s experiences at their respective universities.

 

Mens et Manus – Mind and Hand. A particularly apt motto for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a university which has groomed some of the world’s finest minds in academia and engineering. It is no surprise, then, that it features prominently on many a Rafflesian’s list of dream universities. Yet, MIT’s sheer popularity and renown invite quite a few questions: What is student life like there? What are the shenanigans that students engage in – and get away with? What are some of the student-run clubs and activities on offer? To answer these queries, Raffles Press interviewed RJ alumna Liu Aofei (J4), a sophomore majoring in Chemistry at MIT.

A scenic shot of the campus in winter.
A scenic shot of the campus in winter.

Press: What’s the course you’re currently taking like? Are there significant differences between the JC and university teaching formats? What are lecturers like there?

Aofei: I think most US universities work by modules, which means that in order to complete a major, you just have to take all the required modules. So far, for lessons that count towards my chemistry major, I’ve taken three lab modules and a module in inorganic chemistry, and I would say that the lecture/tutorial system is actually very much like what we’ve had in JC. I think the JC system actually prepares us very well for university-style learning, because the US students seem to take much longer to adapt to it than we do.

The lecturers vary in style greatly. Because most lecturers are professors working at the college, they are all quirky in their own ways. Actually, you’ll find that some of the best lecturers aren’t necessarily the most famous professors, and some of the really brilliant professors can’t really teach undergraduates that well.

Press: Tell us more about the lecturers’ quirks, or any particularly interesting mode of lecturing.

Aofei: I took linear algebra last semester under Professor W. Gilbert Strang (you can find his lectures on YouTube). He’s 80, but he still insists on lecturing, and he does a really great job at pacing the class in such a way that almost everyone in the class understands what he talks about. The thing is, he’s always game when student groups disrupt lectures during days with special events. For instance, on Valentine’s Day, some of the a cappella groups were singing Valentine’s Day wishes during lecture time, and while I’ve seen some professors who were less than pleased with the interruption, he was totally bobbing along with the music in the background, which was really adorable. Moreover, one of the fraternities once had a fundraising event for charity in which you could pie one of the brothers in the face for a fee. They wanted to promote it in Professor Strang’s class – he gave them the green light and even pied one of them in the face. He also has his favorite matrices and stuff like that, so he’s really a quirky, nice guy.

Aofei (second from right) and her friends on a ferry trip to Georges Island off the coast of Boston.
Aofei (second from right) and her friends on a ferry trip to Georges Island off the coast of Boston.

Press: Are you in any enrichment programmes and/or extracurricular activities? What are they like? Are there any particularly unique/quirky clubs in the school?

Aofei: MIT has a bunch of student clubs and groups; in fact, it’s really easy to start your own club so long as you can get people to join it. Different clubs also have different commitment levels, so some clubs are really chill and meet up about once or twice a semester while others have weekly meetings and work sessions. As you may expect, sports clubs would definitely be a lot more intense. You’d find that most MIT clubs have their own website, although they are not always maintained and updated.

There are loads of interesting clubs! I guess the most famous one would be the Assassin’s Guild, which is really a LARP (live action role-playing game club). There’s also an anime club, as well as a cosplay club. I’m involved in the Educational Studies Program club and the MITMUN (Model United Nations) club, and sometimes I go for OrigaMIT (origami club) meetings and help out for events organized by the Laboratory for Chocolate Science. It’s a club that buys tons of chocolate and organizes some chocolate-related events every year. For example, it organizes Finals Hot Chocolate, in which they get people to man a booth in Lobby 10 that serves free hot chocolate to people. As we make our own hot chocolate, it’s really thick and chocolaty. There’re also truffle-making classes over IAP (independent activities period: for the month of January there are no classes you are required to attend, and you may spend the time doing research, taking IAP classes or doing whatever you want; you can even treat it like a holiday and go back to visit your parents), and a few other events throughout the year. I’m in the Association of Taiwanese Students as well, but it’s really just an Asian appreciation club; you don’t have to be Taiwanese to be in it!

Press: What are the fraternities/sororities there like? Are you in a sorority?

Aofei: I’m not in a sorority, but Greek life does exist at MIT. The general consensus is that there are two kinds of fraternities/sororities at MIT: social fraternities and geeky ones. The sororities are largely the social kind. I think there are generally a lot more guys in fraternities than there are girls in sororities, probably because the fraternities are more diverse in culture. Like I mentioned, there are those that are geekier, such as the Alpha Delta Phi division at MIT; I’ve got quite a few friends in that fraternity and they’re definitely not the stereotypical frat boys you’d think of. Ultimately, Greek life is just another social circle/group of friends you’d have at college, since it’s kind of relatively harder to make friends in class, especially during the bigger lectures. You’d rarely be sitting next to the same person, unless it’s someone you already know.

Some people would say that joining a fraternity/sorority is like paying to get friends, since you do have to pay a membership fee, and some people also choose to live in fraternity/sorority housing, though not everyone in the fraternity/sorority would live there. Those are technically off-campus, although there are other off-campus housing options as well, such as independent living groups like Pika and WILG (Women’s Independent Living Group).

As for the activities that fraternities/sororities do, I think they all generally do volunteer/charity work, like the ‘pie a friend, save a life thing’ I mentioned. Another big event for them is recruitment, which is termed ‘rush’ and happens every year, as well as the initiation of new members that happens after that. Another big part of fraternities/sororities is social life – they throw lots of parties and social events. Generally, these are open to everyone, even those not in the fraternity or sorority. I think they also have gatherings – those are pretty formal events during which they meet the divisions of their fraternities in other schools. I’ve actually been to a frat party (Alpha Delta Phi’s party) once because my friend invited me, and I guess parties aren’t really a thing for me. If you like dancing and/or alcohol and large crowds of people, you’d probably like parties. I think the gist of everything I’ve said is just that MIT is home to very diverse people and, chances are, you’ll always find a group of people you fit in with.

Some interesting murals along a corridor in Aofei’s dormitory.
Some interesting murals along a corridor in Aofei’s dormitory.

Press: I’ve heard that MIT students organize weird pranks called ‘hacks’. Do you have any interesting anecdotes regarding these?

Aofei: There are a few simple rules to hacking: it must not do permanent damage to property, it must not harm anyone and you musn’t get caught since some of the places you go to aren’t exactly places you’re technically supposed to be, like on top of the dome, for instance. When the freshmen enter MIT every year, there will be people who will give things known as “orange tours” which are tours of the common hacker hangouts and how to get to places. It generally involves a lot of climbing and crawling and tearing of clothes on things. An elaborate hack might take months of planning.

As for specific hacks, there’s the Tetris Green Building one that people all seem to know about. There was one in Lobby 7 a while ago when it was undergoing a bit of construction. A group of hackers suspended a couple of papier mache figures wearing protective gear from the ceiling with warning signs and stuff. How they got to the ceiling, I have no idea. Generally, the cool part about hacks is that it’s kind of difficult to see how they managed to do it.

Press: So what are your fondest memories of your times in university? What are some of the most enjoyable moments you’ve had?

Aofei: Wow, this is hard. Well, I guess helping to organize Splash and Spark is definitely high on the list. Splash and Spark are two one-weekend events ESP organizes for high school/middle-school students. They come to the MIT campus over that weekend and take a variety of classes in all kinds of subjects imaginable, taught by MIT students or anyone who volunteers to teach. There’re crazy crash courses in quantum physics, classes analyzing the historical references in Game of Thrones, classes teaching how to win Pokemon Link Cable battles, and classes that teach various languages, including fictional languages like Quenya/Sindarin/Klingon. Because I’m in ESP, I help to organize it and ensure things are running well on the day itself. The weekend over which Splash or Spark occurs is really tiring, but it feels really satisfying to see it run successfully. Generally we’d average about 5 hours of sleep over the entire weekend.

Press: Tell us more about any major university-wide events.

Aofei: There’s HackMIT, which is a programming/engineering competition. Lots of people participate in teams to build cool stuff. I had some friends who built this machine hand that mimicked the movements of your hand when you put on a glove with a bunch of sensors in them.

Press: Are there any major university rivalries?

Aofei: I think university rivalries exist but aren’t really taken that seriously, except maybe the MIT-Caltech one. Apparently during MIT’s campus preview weekend this year, some Caltech people sneaked over and were handing out mugs emblazoned with an MIT logo that turned into the Caltech logo when you poured hot water into them.

The picturesque central commons of Boston.
The picturesque central commons of Boston.

Press: Have you felt homesick? If so, how do you alleviate that feeling?

Aofei: I don’t really feel homesick that much, since I can Skype chat my parents quite a bit. Moreover, there’s always so much going on during term time that you barely have time to feel homesick anyway. There’s also a Singapore society at MIT, and the Singaporeans there do meet up for events once in a while (mostly, we just go out for food), so that helps too!

Press: Are there a lot of Singaporeans there?

Aofei: I won’t say that there are a lot; there are definitely more graduate students, but we’re not that familiar with most graduate students. There are about 3 undergraduates per year, so we all know each other quite well and are pretty close to each other. In my year (class of 2017) there’re three of us and we’re all from RJ, so we all know each other!

Press: Do you visit the surrounding town frequently? What do you do there and what’s it like?

Aofei: MIT is technically located in Cambridge, MA, but it’s right next to the Charles River and Boston is located on the other side of the Charles River. The river is pretty narrow, so I can walk into Boston.

A junction in Boston surrounded by quaint buildings.
A junction in Boston surrounded by quaint buildings.

Cambridge is more quiet and is really a university town, since it’s home to MIT and Harvard and quite a few other colleges (Harvard is within walking distance from MIT, although it’s a 40-minute walk). It’s rather quiet, but Massachusetts Avenue (you’d walk along this to get from MIT to Harvard) has a lot of great places to get food, and Harvard Square and Central Square are both nice places to visit on the weekend to hang out with friends and such. There’s a Lorean mart in Central Square where you can get all your Asian snacks and cooking ingredients if you’re too lazy to go to Chinatown in Boston (though some things I need are only available in the Chinese mart in Chinatown).

Boston is a bit more interesting than Cambridge! Boston is a city with a lot of culture and history, and it’s a wonderful place to be in if you love the arts. There’s a pretty good art museum there, and, of course, it’s home to the world-famous Boston Symphony Orchestra, and frequently hosts concerts with world-famous guest performers. The best part is that as a college student, you can get a college card which allows you to get free/discounted tickets to their concerts. I’m very much a classical music person, so this is a wonderful thing for me. Other than that, Boston also has a Chinatown like I mentioned, and it’s a great place to go if you miss Asian food. Newbury Street is also definitely worth a visit if you like to shop or visit cool little shops.

Additionally, because I quite like anime, I have to mention that Boston is home to Anime Boston which happens every year around March, usually at the Hynes Convention Centre which is within walking distance from MIT. If I remember correctly, it’s the biggest anime convention on the East Coast, so it’s really great! You get to see cosplayers from everywhere in great costumes. If you like sports, baseball is pretty big – everyone seems to like the Red Sox, which is the home team. I think one of the touristy things to do in Boston would probably be to go on the Freedom Trail.

Press: What’s the cost of living like at MIT? Are you on a scholarship or any assistance schemes?

Aofei: I’m on financial aid from MIT. I am led to believe that the cost of living in Boston is relatively high, but that it’s not as high as that in California. Depending on the dorm you live in, and whether or not you are on a meal plan, things could be very different, because the meal plan is pretty expensive. You definitely spend less if you cook for yourself.

Press: Do you cook?

Aofei: Yep, it’s not that hard! Plus, my dorm has plenty of kitchens per floor. This way, you can eat stuff you like and you are far less likely to get the “freshman 15” – supposedly, you gain 15 pounds the first year of college. I cook stuff I eat at home; sometimes, I make pasta too because that’s convenient. Cooking is actually good practice for lab skills, or the other way round, in my case.

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