Advancing Student Life and Wellbeing at MIT

“Mind and hand—academic excellence and rigor combined with hands-on learning and real-world experience—are still very much at the core of all we do. But there’s also heart, the essential element in a holistic 21st-century MIT education.”

Cynthia Barnhart, MIT Chancellor, 2014–2021; Ford Foundation Professor of Engineering

Once students arrive at MIT, they find countless ways to learn and grow both in and outside the classroom. “In high school, I never imagined that I would be dancing with middle school girls on Monday afternoons as a SHINE For Girls mentor, or writing a review of a Dutch film about a famous Swedish author for The Tech, or minoring in ancient and medieval studies,” recalls Muskaan Aggarwal ’20, who majored in biology. “MIT is an extraordinary place.”

But “student life” at MIT is more than just student groups—it’s about championing student wellbeing, growing in living communities, and engaging with leadership opportunities.

Generous support of MIT alumni and friends during the Campaign for a Better World has strengthened health programs, living communities, activities, faith-based groups, and athletics. Moreover, it has set in motion critical initiatives that promote a culture of wellbeing. Fueled by this momentum, the Institute will continue to prioritize and build upon all aspects of student life and wellbeing that graduates will carry forward into their professional and personal lives.

Building a Culture of Wellbeing

MIT continues to champion student health and wellbeing by building on its strong support network, increasing education efforts, and expanding spaces dedicated to wellbeing promotion, allowing students to find a sense of purpose, to develop positive relationships, and to flourish in mind and body.

When they need support, MIT students increasingly turn to programs such as Student Support Services (S3) and GradSupport. Throughout the Campaign, MIT has renovated and updated student spaces, with more projects in the works, that promote wellbeing. MIT’s vision to create a wellbeing hub in the reimagined Stratton Student Center will be central to this mission.

“Students’ emotional and physical health is fundamental to our educational mission as it sets them up for success in the classroom and in life. We want students’ wellbeing and personal growth to be an integral part of their MIT experience.”

Suzy M. Nelson, Vice Chancellor and Dean for Student Life

Prioritizing wellbeing also means ensuring that students have a safety net. The Student Life, Wellness, and Support Fund has been critical in meeting a broad range of student needs, such as obtaining a winter coat or a few meals, dealing with unexpected expenses, or traveling home to lend a hand with a family crisis. The fund has also helped address some of the emergency financial needs of thousands of students during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The MIT community is also dedicated to helping each other. Programs like MindHandHeart, which launched in 2015, seek to strengthen the fabric of the MIT community by financially supporting creative ideas from students, faculty, and staff, such as the MIT Puppy Lab, Random Acts of Kindness Week, and My Sister’s Keeper.

“The projects that come out of the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund have a focus on improving mental health on campus, a topic that can always use more attention, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Emily Han ’22, who spearheaded two MindHandHeart initiatives in 2020. “Every project is a testimony to our students’ unwavering energy to take the weirdest, loneliest, and most difficult semesters of our college experience and make them more fun, wholesome, and enjoyable for everyone.”

Athletics and Activities

At MIT, students can find many outlets for their passions, including more than 500 student groups ranging from the likes of Mystery Hunt and the Ballroom Dance Team to WMBR and the Radio Society to religious groups such as MIT Hillel, the Muslim Students Association Ramadan Fund, and the Tech Catholic Community.

Sports and recreation also feature prominently in MIT students’ lives. The Campaign helped create endowed positions including the head basketball coach and a new director of sports medicine. The Steinbrenner Stadium saw a full renovation in 2016, and an extensive renovation of the Harold W. Pierce Boathouse will enhance the competitive edge of MIT’s storied rowing program.

Students who compete in club sports or at an intramural level also find enriching experiences on the field, or in the case of Jonathan Sampson ’20, the ice rink. “I fell in love with ice hockey in elementary school, but I never got to play it—there’s not a lot of ice in Texas, where I’m from,” Sampson said in 2019. “To this day, joining the MIT intramural ice hockey team has been one of the best decisions I’ve made since coming here.”

The arts are also wildly popular with students. Two new facilities in particular are representative of MIT’s commitment to the academic and extracurricular pursuit of artistic excellence: the Theater Arts Building (W97), completed in 2017, and the new music building, slated to open in 2023. Music and Theater Arts is among the most popular minors at MIT, and more than 500 students participate in MIT musical groups and ensembles every semester. “I didn’t dance or sing in high school, but I did those things at MIT and had a lot of fun,” said Carolina Ortega ’21. “At MIT, there were so many opportunities to learn and grow as a person.”

Enhancing Residential Life

MIT’s residences are the hinges of student life for campus residents, where students engage with peers and build community, helping them to realize their potential. “Student housing isn’t just a place to sleep—it’s a place to grow relationships and make connections that can ease the stress of a heavy academic workload,” says Aiyedun Uzamere ’20, former president of MIT’s Dormitory Council (DormCon). “The environment gives undergraduates a space to relax, connect with others, and discover who they are and want to be.”

Two living spaces designed to promote student wellbeing opened during the Campaign. The Vassar Street residence, built on the West Garage Parking facility site and completed in 2021, houses 450 undergraduates and 12 graduate resident assistants. For graduate students, a new residence in Kendall Square features 454 units accommodating—for the first time at MIT—a mix of single students, couples, and families.

The New Vassar residence has added an additional 450 undergraduate beds to campus.

The New Vassar residence has added an additional 450 undergraduate beds to campus.

And though they are mostly located off campus, MIT’s vibrant community of fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILGs) house almost a quarter of MIT’s undergraduate population. They will once again provide singular living environments and laboratories for learning and leadership when they reopen this fall. With support from passionate alumni members through the Independent Residence Development Fund, FSILGs have been able to make needed capital improvements to their facilities, enhance their accessibility and safety infrastructure, and extend MIT’s high-speed computer network to all chapters across the area.

The Kendall Square graduate residence features 454 spaces for students and their families.

The Kendall Square graduate residence features 454 spaces for students and their families.

Both graduate and undergraduate students consistently cite the centrality of living communities to their MIT experience. Graduate students in particular, who are more likely to have families of their own, note the benefit of being close to campus. The Kendall Square graduate residence is located at the heart of MIT’s new gateway to the Institute and includes much-needed onsite childcare for the MIT community. “A graduate program at MIT is tough and very demanding,” says Will Kimball SM ’20, former co-president of his graduate residence. “To whatever extent our living situation can be as easy as possible and make it such that we can still have lives outside our work, that’s an amazing opportunity.”

Emphasizing Student Leadership

Learning effective leadership skills in formal and informal settings has increasingly become a part of the MIT experience for students at all levels.

Programs like the Resident Peer Mentor Program, which was expanded with philanthropic support in 2018, create meaningful leadership opportunities that reflect the importance of peer-to-peer mentorship in the MIT community. The Levitch Leadership Laboratory Lab, founded in 2018, reinforces MIT student-athletes’ opportunities to lead on and off the field, which has powerful, long-term benefits on their life beyond MIT.

Initiatives such as the Technical Leadership and Communication (TLC) programs, anchored by the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program and the Graduate Program in Engineering Leadership, complement MIT’s technical education by developing the leadership skills that students need to effectively lead engineering teams and endeavors. One of the TLC’s signature elements is the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, a yearlong professional development program that prepares sophomores, regardless of major, to thrive in their careers.

“We are always working to enhance the academic experience for students. It is an exciting challenge to find more ways to infuse personal and professional development opportunities, public service, ethics, and teamwork into an already rigorous education.”

Ian A. Waitz, Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate and Graduate Education; Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Opportunities for students to empower themselves and their peers through key leadership roles in residential governance have also grown exponentially in recent years in undergraduate and graduate living communities, FSILGs, and among student governance bodies including the Undergraduate Association and DormCon. “I really enjoyed my time in DormCon, so much that I ran for and was elected president,” says Nonye Ikeanyi ’19. “It gave me a bigger avenue to advocate for what students really care about in dorm culture…. It made me feel like I’ve made some impact in the student experience at MIT.”

Graduate students benefit from taking on leadership roles within the Graduate Student Council and from governance opportunities in their residential communities. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when many graduate students were isolated—especially international students who could not return to their home countries—residential leaders rose to the challenge of creating new avenues for community support. “We wanted to still have students feel a strong peer support structure and provide opportunities for leadership and involvement,” says Geeticka Chauhan SM ’19, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science and president of Sidney-Pacific. “We like to think of our community making the MIT graduate experience more empowering, exciting, and transformative.”

A Strong Vision for the Future

During the Campaign, MIT significantly bolstered its student support network, helping many students to unlock their full potential, both on campus and after graduation. But there is still work to be done.

As MIT’s new chancellor, Melissa Nobles has said that she will continue to work with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends to expand MIT’s approach to educating the whole student by strengthening wellbeing facilities, education, and programs and creating dynamic spaces that prompt student health and wellness. “MIT students have an enormous amount to offer society,” she says. “They also have an enormous amount to learn from society. We have to prepare them for both, for a life-long journey of learning.”

Joelle Carson

This article was originally published in August 2021.