A phoenix rising from the ashes
Rebuilding community at MIT after the pandemic
It was 11 am on a crisp fall morning and I was standing in the North End of Boston carrying six bags full of pastries and struggling to walk to the rideshare pickup. I had visited three different bakeries to get every student who signed up for an event I was hosting their custom pastry order, and as I walked down the street I thought, “Why am I doing this?” Since I knew there would be many bags to carry, I had asked several fellow students if they could take two hours out of their day to help with this event, which would benefit a hundred graduate students, but everyone declined because they were too busy. This was the fall of 2022, and it was the moment where I knew the graduate community at MIT as I knew it before the pandemic was no-longer.
Before we continue, I should answer the question of what is community? This abstract feeling is supposed to be beneficial and increase people’s wellbeing but is invisible and difficult to measure. According to ChatGPT, the definition of community is:
“A group of people who live in the same area or have a common interest or characteristic. Communities can also be defined by shared values, beliefs, or culture. In general, a community is a group of people who share a sense of belonging and connection to one another.”
This is a logical definition of community, but ChatGPT, being an AI software and not a person, only knows the dictionary definition of community and has never experienced it. To me, community is knowing people across your organization, the feeling of having people you don’t even know congratulate you on a milestone, and the sense of accomplishing an initiative as part of a team.
There were still pockets of community at MIT, such as the volunteers at Ashdown, mentors at Project Manus makerspaces, and volunteer instructors at the MIT Sailing Pavilion. Whenever I hosted an event with these people, everyone would offer to help, even if it was inconvenient for them. However, outside of these groups at MIT, if I was obviously struggling to carry something or to complete a task and someone walked by and noticed, they would rarely stop and offer to help and would just keep walking past me.
I knew that the MIT community had hit a low point when I led a hybrid meeting for a student organization. I was the only one who showed up in person and everyone else on Zoom had their cameras off. I felt like I was talking to a wall for half an hour. Many people around the world have had this experience over the last few years, and it is a symptom of the loss of a sense of community. At this point, I almost decided to quit organizing events and leading student groups; however, my determination to never give up kept me going. The feeling of an MIT community is slowly beginning to return, but we still need to invest more time and money to reach and surpass the feeling of community that MIT had pre-pandemic.
MIT wasn’t always like this. Before the pandemic, MIT had an active and collaborative community. People would stop by for a quick chat to see how you were doing or bring snacks in to share with the office. But when everyone was dispersed across the world for over a year, the MIT community withered like a plant without water. Pre-pandemic, if you looked like you were struggling, someone would usually stop and ask if you needed help. The pandemic tore a gaping hole in the MIT community that can’t be quickly patched with duct tape.
Does MIT need a sense of community? How does collaboration with other students and faculty, or the preference for working alone from home, contribute to academic and professional development? Can teamwork and collaboration help us achieve our goals? Does isolation impact an individual’s overall well-being?
There are many studies demonstrating the impact a sense of community has on an individual’s well-being. Building a strong community improves the well-being of its members through a better sense of belonging and purpose while providing a support network, which increases personal resilience. These benefits translate into increased happiness for people and stronger teams who are more productive.
Luckily, the leadership in my department realized the need to rebuild our community after COVID and launched several efforts towards this goal, including generously funding our graduate student association to hold events. With the department’s support and the tireless work of many of our graduate students, we held a variety of events to re-build community, including a sailing day, study breaks, and small community lunches. At each of these events, people in our department had an opportunity to meet others in a relaxing setting to make new connections or strengthen existing ones.
So, if you find yourself in a school, department, or workplace with no community, how do you fix it? There is no exact recipe for building community, but here are some suggestions for how to get started. Your first goal is to bring people together where they can identify shared experiences and what they have in common. When organizing community-building events, take care to reduce the barrier to entry by holding events onsite, as well as hosting a variety of events that appeal to different types of people in order to attract a wider range of participants. During these events, you can create opportunities for interaction by having activities where people must talk to each other, such as playing board or video games or recreational sports. Events can also be focused on a certain topic to bring together people interested in said topic and who will already have something in common.
Another effective method to establish community is by providing opportunities for people to lead and make an impact, expanding the community’s reach. It’s also important to celebrate accomplishments in people’s lives such as birthdays, graduations, or other milestones. Together, the activities and actions you develop for your specific organization will put you on a path towards building a strong community.
An important part of developing a sense of a community is to reward people for their participation. Of course they will be rewarded with increased happiness and fulfillment as part of the community, but these benefits take time to develop. More immediate rewards ensure people stay involved long enough to reap the long-term benefits. At MIT, this reward usually comes in the form of free food. I would even go as far as to say MIT runs on free food, and many graduate students regularly rely on free food for their meals.
Next time you see someone struggling or you’re in a virtual meeting where no one has their camera on, don’t brush it off; help pick up food for an event or turn your camera on for the meeting. You’ll be amazed by who you’ll meet and how much your experience as a student will be enhanced. Nowadays, when I walk across campus, I always run into someone who says hi, and more often than not, invites me to an event with free food. The community I and so many others have worked hard to build is starting to show.
 Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(1_suppl), S54–S66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501
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