When my friends and I heard that we were all being kicked out of East Campus for the rest of the semester, only one thing still seemed certain in a world falling apart: we were staying together, no matter what.
It seemed like a pretty simple decision. East Campus was home to all of us in the deepest, truest sense; we renovate our own rooms, paint our own walls, cook our own meals, and build our own sense of family with each other. Even though I’d only been an MIT student for a few months, I’d found one of those families pretty quickly. It was devastating to even think of leaving each other behind, so we just … didn’t.
Cut to about a month later and here we are, nestled in a 100-year-old farmhouse in the middle of the Maine woods! We found out we had to leave on a Tuesday. By Sunday, we’d managed to find a house, acquire my car from Wisconsin, pack up all of our rooms, rent a 20-foot U-Haul, and transport the clothes, pets, plants, food, guitars, 3D printers, drones, soldering irons, fungal cultures, half-operational electric scooters, potassium nitrite, and bodies of 14 MIT undergrads to rural Maine. And although we can’t paint the walls or install our own flooring, we’ve created a sort of ad hoc version of the East Campus we know and love.
It’s hilarious to me how we automatically transplanted our dorm conventions to the new space, assigning “comms” — committees, in dorm-speak– for different duties in the house. We have classic EC positions, like birthdayComm, which makes any treat you want on your birthday just so you can destroy it with a can opener or a butcher’s knife, and Kitchen Czar (that’s me!), who ensures that the kitchen and fridge aren’t absurdly disgusting. We also made some new ones, like Quartermaster. The Quartermaster made her own website to keep track of our food stocks, grocery requests, and communal expenses. You need an MIT Kerberos ID to log in. I didn’t know you could do that.
We’ve also brought some EC quirks just for the fun of it. We’ve named our two living rooms “G-lounge” and “Walounge,” after the two lounges in the Goodale and Walcott wings of the East Parallel. We transformed a walk-in closet into a maker space. A few of us have put MIT-like signs by our doors–amazing drawings, posters declaring the room’s “name,” lists of hobbies and academic interests. Sure, some of it’s a little pointless, but so is changing out of your PJs when you’re stuck inside all day. It just makes everything feel a little more normal.
The unfortunate part is that even though we’ve kept lots of the traditions that framed our daily lives at MIT, none of us can hide from the fact that all this is so, so far from what our “normal” really is. Back at MIT, I was never crippled by the extreme awkwardness and anxiety of attending virtual office hours. I never had to worry about working around egg and meat rations. I didn’t have to negotiate with landlords, or drive 18 hours from Milwaukee to Boston completely alone, or use my “adult voice” so the people at the town office would take me seriously. Last weekend I walked into Walmart wearing a full-on respirator and nitrile gloves, and no one gave me a second glance. Everyone gets it; I can’t risk bringing the virus home to the 13 people I loved enough to basically run away with. Although I can’t always consciously feel it, it bubbles up in these kinds of bleak moments: I’m always living in a little bit of fear.
When I tell people about my living situation, they generally say “It must be so hard to do your work with 14 people crowded into one house,” and yeah, it is. Quiet spaces are nonexistent, our Wi-Fi situation is a mess even with the help of IS&T, and there’s nowhere to be alone except for my car (which–trust me–is less than ideal). But for me, it’s not the number of people that makes every assignment feel like a battlefront; it’s that fear. Fear is exhausting. I used to take hard p-sets and poor test grades in stride, but now either one of those can send me reeling into despair. Having almost no structured schedule, no physical freedom, and no clear end to the pandemic can be so overwhelming to all of us that some days the best any of us can do is just watch a movie, show up for communal dinner at 7:00 p.m., and forget that 6.009 or 18.03 or JLab even exists. We’re all slowly learning that that’s okay, and maybe even necessary. I remind myself every day how lucky I am to weather these academic and psychological stressors with my friends; most MIT students are far less fortunate.
Like everyone else, we find a way to exist with uncertainty looming. For us, that means cherishing a good amount of the one thing we didn’t have before: time. Every morning, I curl up on the same little blue couch in G-lounge to do my work, but only after I go on my morning run in the woods and make a nice breakfast. I explore beautiful hiking trails in the White Mountains. I sit by the creek to do physics p-sets. I write music for hours on end. One of my friends and I go on long drives late at night to look at the stars and remember to breathe. And I chat with my housemates about the things that keep them sane: writing books, painting, observing bacterial cultures, building drones, becoming doomsday preppers, all kinds of stuff. These conversations are usually the best part of my day, the same way they were back in Cambridge; they remind me that we will always find a way to hold onto ourselves, even under the weight of a 60-unit course load, or a new housing policy, or a global pandemic. Nothing, not even coronavirus, can sever us from who we are.