Sometimes one new idea can weave separate strands of experience into strong ties among people. A good example is the Big Sibling Program @ MIT, which pairs adopted youngsters with MIT students who share their cultural or racial background.
David Nguyen, a graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences, was born in Vietnam in 1977. His family immigrated to the United States in 1979, settling in Methuen, Mass. In fall 2002, he received an e-mail from Diane Tavitian, co-founder of Adoptive Families at MIT (AFMIT), inviting him to participate in the Big Sibling Program @ MIT. Inspired by her enthusiasm and his own desire to explore new things, he volunteered.
Nguyen is now a big sibling to Tavitian's six-year-old son Dillon, who was adopted by Tavitian and her husband when he was just 14 months old. Nguyen and Dillon come from the same area in Vietnam.
"In Vietnam, a certain day is designated the 'Giving and Receiving Day,' when adoptions are finalized. At our ceremony, the Vietnamese officials said, 'Don't let him forget his country. Make him proud of where he's from.' I'll never forget that," Tavitian said.
Tavitian, a senior events planning assistant in the Community Services Office, had heard about a program similar to MIT's Big Sibling program, organized by Phillips Exeter Academy, near Tavitian's hometown of Hampton, N.H. She set the MIT program in motion in September 2002 with help from AFMIT co-founder Kristin Gunst, the Hosts to the International Students Program, and the Graduate Student Council. Sally Haslanger, associate professor of philosophy, created the Big Sibling program's web site.
Tavitian leaped at the chance to meet Nguyen. "My husband is Armenian. I'm German and Finnish. We don't know much about Asian or Vietnamese culture. It's so important for us to maintain a cultural connection for Dillon," she said.
When Dillon and Nguyen met, "there was an unspoken, immediate connection between the two," she said. For Nguyen, his relationship with Dillon has been a positive experience made up of everyday pleasures, including scientific exploration.
"We just hang out. The first thing I brought for Dillon was a microscope. Initially, Dillon didn't speak to me much, but we opened up the box to the microscope together and I showed him how to use it," said Nguyen. "Since then, we just really hit it off. One of the most memorable days was when we made a volcano out of vinegar and baking soda. Dillon was really into volcanos at the time, so he was excited to see lava flowing down his driveway.
"The best part of being a big sibling is that the rewards of spending time with the little sibling just keep coming," Nguyen added.
An IAP course taught by Clarence Williams, ombudsperson and adjunct professor of urban studies, provided a very different strand of experience to Ayanna Samuels, a graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics and the Technology and Policy Program. Yet it led Samuels to the Big Sibling Program @ MIT as well.
Samuels, a native of Kingston, Jamaica, has four younger siblings back home. But it was Williams' course, "Bridging Cultural and Racial Differences," that motivated her to commit herself to "one of the most rewarding experience you can undertake at MIT," she said.
"In the IAP class there was an African-American [student] who had been raised by Caucasian parents but never introduced to her heritage. She experienced a hollowness born out of a lack of a true linkage with her identity. When the opportunity came around for me to ensure history was not repeated for another child in the same position, I gladly took it up," Samuels said.
Like Nguyen, Samuels has become a big sibling through the MIT program and is involved with the child's whole family. And like any family member, she has high hopes for her new young friend.
Samuels wishes especially that her little sibling appreciate herself as a "beautiful African-American woman who has a heritage and a past she can be proud of. My dream would be for her to be comfortable in her own skin, in her own hair, in her own body. I want her to know she can always count on me," she said.
Angelica Osorno, a junior in mathematics, shares Samuels' vision for her little sibling, a boy from Colombia who was adopted by American parents.
Osorno, who grew up in Bogota, volunteered in hopes of sharing the "great things about my country. I hope he gains an understanding of the Colombian culture and will eventually want to go to Colombia," she said.
Nguyen summed up the advice of all three big siblings for anyone interested in participating in the program:
"Be patient and allow the big-sibling relationship to take its own course. Stay in constant communication with the parents. Be yourself, and be the best big sibling that you can possibly be," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 28, 2004.