Five days before this year's freshman orientation began, 85 freshmen from all over the country gathered at MIT to participate in the Freshman Leadership Program, a student-developed pilot program that aims to build leadership skills for first-year students.
The program, which was held in Rindge, NH, gave students the chance to meet each other before the hectic residence/orientation period, according to Pardis Sabeti, the program's developer and coordinator, a senior in biology and president of her class.
Focusing on diversity issues, the program took students through exercises to encourage discussion of race and gender with upperclass counselors serving as facilitators. Discussions were interspersed with singalongs, a talent show and games.
"The upperclass counselors quickly made the incoming students feel safe enough to be who they are-to be themselves," said Dean for Student Life Margaret Bates in the Office of Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs.
"Freshmen here may not get an extensive experience across a diverse group," Ms. Sabeti said. The early self-selection of housing limits a freshman's ability to affiliate with the whole freshman class, she said. A paper she wrote for 11.023 (Bridging Cultural and Racial Differences) entitled "The Effects of the Current Housing System on the Quality of MIT Student Life" was the foundation for the Freshman Leadership Program.
"This is an excellent example of students shaping the kind of community they want to live in," Ms. Bates said.
Ms. Sabeti explained that many students come to MIT looking to create a new identity for themselves. However, "within a few days [of their arrival], they're judged. That follows them through their four years here. Three years later, some of them still talk with bitterness about that." Consequently, one of the goals of the Freshman Leadership Program is to offer a more unity-oriented introduction to MIT.
Many of the activities encouraged the students to look at relationships with others in new ways. In one exercise called the "privilege line," students took either a step forward or backward depending on their background as they were asked questions. For example, "If your parents have received a college education, take a step forward. If English was not your first language, take a step backward. If you studied your culture in school, take a step forward. If more than 50 percent of your school was a different race or culture than you, take a step backward." When students ended up in vastly different places, they then discussed how they felt about their new position on the line and whether it affected their ability to achieve the "American Dream."
While she did not feel MIT was particularly segregated, Elsie Huang, a freshman from West Lafayette, IN, said she thought the Freshman Leadership Program will have an impact on how the class of 2000 will interact. "We were able to see how things were before being separated by the river and a little by race. We need to have class unity," she said. Ms. Huang, along with Aron Qasba, successfully ran together for freshman class social chair.
Although it's too early to tell whether the program will have long-term success, participants were well represented in the recent class election, as about three-quarters of the candidates and the majority of the victors took part. A total of 120 students applied for the program, which was supported through fees paid by the students and by the Committee on Race Relations. Applications were mailed to students over the summer, and financial aid was offered to those who needed it.
On the program's last night, the students gathered in a circle, each holding part of a long string. They described what they got out of the program and cut a piece of the string to keep as a reminder of what they had learned. Several of them still wear that string, a symbol of the connection to the classmates they met and learned with in their first few days at MIT.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 23, 1996.