Life on Main Street

Without its more than 6,800 graduate students, MIT would not be MIT. Grad students keep the Institute’s labs and classrooms humming, and are an essential part of the Institute’s efforts to answer important, complex questions. One of the first questions they face when coming to MIT, however, is: Where will I live?

As Kendall Square comes into its own as a 24-7 innovation neighborhood, more students than ever will make it their home base for success. Among the structures rising in Kendall now is a new residence for the Institute’s graduate student population. Under its roof will be roughly 450 units that will house (for the first time at MIT) a mix of single students, couples, and families. On the same site, MIT’s new Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub will offer the building’s inhabitants immediate access to five floors packed with resources—including multiuse spaces, potential mentors, and likeminded innovators—that can help them deliver their ideas to the world. And just beyond their doorstep, residents can traverse city blocks teeming with local centers of industry and research.

“Having these resources right next door will help bolster the connections that will be necessary to get a job once you graduate, and it helps you make better collaborations,” says George Chao, a PhD candidate in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, who served as co-chair of the Graduate Student Council Committee on Housing and Community Affairs in 2016–17 during a pivotal time for the planning of the new residence. Chao’s own research is aimed at tissue engineering for transplantation. “You can’t do six years of graduate school without being passionate about the topic you’re researching,” he says, “and when you encounter someone equally passionate about that topic, it gets the juices in your mind flowing.”

Community and connections

While proximity to Kendall Square will be a major draw for the new building, connections students make down the hall could be just as important—as residents of other graduate housing can attest.

According to Eastgate residents Grace and Will Kimball—a married couple who came to Cambridge from Washington, DC, so Will could pursue his PhD at MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research—grad students tend to have a different and in some ways more limited social experience at MIT than undergraduates. Coming from all stages of life and career, often they must balance their academic pursuits with a range of existing networks and commitments. The specialized nature of graduate study can make it harder to meet students outside their program. A large segment of MIT’s graduate students—42% in the 2017–18 academic year—come from other countries and may face cultural and linguistic barriers; for their spouses, many with visa restrictions prohibiting employment, the sense of isolation can be even greater.

“Having these resources right next door will help bolster the connections that will be necessary to get a job once you graduate, and it helps you make better collaborations,” says George Chao.

Residential life can help to overcome these issues, turning classmates into neighbors. “It’s important to reach out and engage with our fellow residents in ways that might not happen through our academic work,” says Will Kimball. To help promote such interactions, he and Grace recently assumed the role of Eastgate copresidents. With the rest of the house team—which includes associate professor of biological engineering Katharina Ribbeck as head of house—they find ways to bring residents together to socialize and to share struggles and successes.

“It’s enriching and inspiring for me to see all these great minds living together,” says Ribbeck, who feels that her experiences not only as a researcher but as a parent and international transplant “put me in a good position to mentor and motivate students.” In the year since she moved into Eastgate, she has also recruited her colleagues to attend house brunches.

“We had a physics professor help us make waffles for two hours,” she recounts. “It exposed students to a faculty member in a nontypical situation and catalyzed interesting conversations.”

MIT’s associate dean of graduate residential education, Naomi Carton, spends much of her time planning educational and social activities that will enrich the lives of students and their families on campus. Cooking and exercise classes are popular programs, as are programs focused on cultural understanding and English as a second language. Among MIT’s current graduate residences, Eastgate and Westgate serve another constituency: the more than 160 children who, with one or more parent enrolled at MIT, call this campus home.

For them, offerings range from infant music classes to summer enrichment programs provided at a drastically lower cost than traditional camps. “It’s not always about the program as much as it’s about the community,” says Carton, who lives at Westgate with her own family. “It’s about making students and their families feel that they’re part of something bigger at MIT.”

For this reason, Chao says that during the planning of the new Kendall Square residence, he and his housing committee co-chair Huma Gupta MCP ’11, a PhD candidate in the Department of Architecture, advocated strongly for abundant gathering spaces. “We see how much that space is utilized in current dorms,” he says. The new building’s layout incorporates two floors of common areas, including quiet study rooms, a family lounge, a playroom adjacent to laundry facilities, terraces, and multipurpose rooms.

Quality of life, quality of work

Given the intense competition for desirable apartments in Boston and Cambridge, many graduate students look to MIT to provide a range of housing options. “Any progress toward meeting that need is important,” Chao says.

Coming from DC and unsure where to begin their apartment hunt, the Kimballs gravitated to Eastgate as an affordable, low-risk option. They figured that, once familiar with the area, they might move off-campus; two years later, they’re preparing to transfer with their new baby to a larger unit in the same building, which is perched at the edge of Kendall Square and just steps from MIT Sloan. “For us, it’s a perfect location,” says Grace, who is a staff member in the Department of Chemistry.

“It’s not always about the program as much as it’s about the community,” says Naomi Carton. “It’s about making students and their families feel that they’re part of something bigger at MIT.”

Like Eastgate, the new residence will be directly adjacent to public transit, and a quick scenic stroll across the Longfellow Bridge into Boston. In addition, the new building will offer students brand-new facilities with modern amenities, ranging from dishwashers in family apartments to air conditioning for all units, along with on-site childcare that will serve the entire Institute community. “These may seem like little things, but they make such a huge difference in quality of life,” Chao observes.

Will Kimball, whose pre-MIT research dealt with work-life balance, is keenly aware of that dynamic. “A PhD program at MIT is tough and very demanding. 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,” he says. Grace adds that their recent transition into parenthood was eased by the support of fellow Eastgate residents. “That makes our quality of life much better, in turn making the quality of work much better too, because there’s less stress all around.”

Whether they are concerned about the cost of housing or knowing their loved ones are happily settled, as Carton puts it: “When students know they can go home at night and everything there is all set, they don’t have to worry about that aspect of life and it really allows them to focus on their work.” To focus, in other words, on the questions and challenges that brought them to MIT in the first place.

And to bring their ideas and solutions to fruition—“to get to market and start benefiting people,” as Chao puts it—there’s no better place to be than Kendall Square. “It requires so many people,” Chao says. “No one person can do it. Having all of these people in one place, people who can bridge each segment of the process, is huge.”

This story was originally published in January 2019.

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