Finding My Grad School Home
An experiment in communal living
When I arrived in the foreboding metropolis of Boston, I sought a group of friends that brings soup when someone is sick, welcomes each other into our homes even at the lowest of times, asks deep questions, and challenges each other to be the best we can be. I struggled adapting to this new place called MIT, and I needed a family to replace the one I left behind in Texas.
My cut-throat classmates, while friendly on the surface, competed for the top grades and the most interesting research projects. Strong cliques coalesced around ethnicity, nationality and undergraduate institution, which was accelerated by recent building renovations which physically separated our study space into isolated rooms. Between classes, meeting potential advisors, and preparing for qualifying exams, I rarely introduced myself to people outside the department. To cleanse my body of this high stress environment, I would frequently drop my work and run along the river.
My luck changed during Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday of reflection, repentance, and fasting. After second-guessing my decision to come to MIT in the chapel all morning on a very empty stomach, I headed to the small Jewish lounge on campus to shelter myself from the work week. I entered the cozy space and idly chatted with other students to pass the time before the next service. One student, Jill, mentioned she lived with about thirty students, sharing 6 bathrooms and one kitchen — a very different world from my two-bedroom apartment. Desiring a walk to enjoy the crisp fall weather, Jill offered to show her home to me. I hesitated, given my desire to conserve my remaining energy, but she convinced me when she mentioned that I could hug one of their chickens.
We arrived at a large green house, whose yard and porch were littered with old sofas, outdoor tables, a street light, and a hand-carved sign reading “69 Chestnut”. Wooden patios protruded from the back of the house, connected by outdoor stairs and a firepole. Beneath the first-floor patio, six chickens pecked at leftover vegetable scraps.
The main entrance opened to the living and dining rooms, each with a miraculously clean floor and numerous trinkets mounted all over the walls and ceilings. As we walked through the house, every room struck me with its colorful murals and personality. Pockets of communal space peppered the place, turning the tour into a series of sequential introductions to numerous housemates. From these short interactions, I realized that Jill was enthusiastic not only about the house and the chickens, but also about the community she had found. Suddenly, playing with chickens seemed secondary to understanding how this ragtag group of students cared for each other and maintained their home.
As we walked back to campus to catch the last service, Jill invited me to one of their communal meals. I graciously accepted and returned the next day. As I ate freshly-cooked food around a full table for the first time since arriving in Boston, I found myself reminiscing of home. After this experience, I started visiting many times a week and signed up to clean the kitchen every other Thursday. Over the sometimes delicious and often experimental food, we discussed so many topics entirely taboo in my department: What are the pros and cons of voting-based and consensus-based decision making? What constitutes respect in romantic relationships? Should MIT be involved in weapons research?
After months of forces pulling me toward the co-op, my landlord raised the rent and started charging fees not listed in our contract. At that point, I had no reason not to move. I gave away half of my furniture, rented a truck, and headed towards 69 Chestnut. Finally, I was in a house full of caring people, sharing a room with two new friends, and enjoying fresh meals with many more. I couldn’t have asked for a better community.
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