The Sidney Pacific graduate and East Campus undergraduate communities have a new head of house and associate head of house, respectively.
Julie Shah '04 SM '06, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and head of the Interactive Robotics Group in the Computer and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has been appointed head of house for Sydney Pacific (SP) after serving with her husband, Neel, as associate housemasters since 2013. Julie holds bachelor’s (2004) and master’s (2006) degrees from MIT, she and completed her PhD in 2011. Neel is a physician, a graduate of Brown University and Harvard University, and is a practicing obstetrician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School. The Shahs take on their new role after previous housemasters Andreas Schultz and Berit Johannes departed MIT for an appointment in their native Germany last year. They had been housemasters since 2013.
“Transitioning to heads of house has been easy for us,” says Julie Shah. “After two years in SP, including a year as the interim housemasters, both the role and the community are integrated with our lives.” In fact, the Shahs dedication to supporting MIT students dates back to their days as graduate residence tutors (GRTs) in Baker House.
“Sidney Pacific is really incredible. The students hooked us early on, right from our interview for the associate housemaster role,” Julie says. “In my entire academic career, I’ve never seen a committee as well-run as that search committee. Right off the bat we were impressed with the residents’ thoughtfulness, organization, and community spirit.”
That spirit has been tested recently as SP’s HVAC system undergoes renovation. The work closed down one half of the building starting in August 2015, then the other this past January. “The student government handled this tough situation very well,” Julie says. “They prepared for closure and contraction of residents. Now they’re doing a great job preparing for the expansion, and welcoming students back into the community this summer.”
Across campus, associate professor of literature Sandy Alexandre began her new appointment as East Campus (EC) associate head of house in March. Alexandre is a faculty member in literature within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). According to her SHASS biography, Alexandre’s research focuses on “Black-American literature and culture, race and visual studies, women’s and gender studies, performance studies, and material culture studies.”
“After being awarded tenure, I reached a stage in my life where I found it necessary to tailor how exactly I wanted to belong and contribute to MIT as a community,” Alexandre said. “Tenure is huge and I wanted to make it more manageable by being more reflective about how I’m situating myself as a colleague, professor, and community member. The end result of that reflection was deciding that I wanted to make sure I not only kept my fingers on the pulse of the lives and struggles of the undergraduate population, but that I also helped to strengthen that community.”
Alexandre added a musical analogy. “You could say that I came to a Whitney Houston moment of believing the children are the future but also wanting to be proactive about practicing that belief outside the confines of the classroom,” she said. “A lot of life is lived and a lot of thinking hatches outside the classroom, and I wanted to be a part of cultivating those things somehow.”
Alexandre will move into EC later this year, but the process of connecting with residents has already started. “I have been attending EC houseteam meetings and host office hours every Friday. I listen, talk with them, offer perspectives as they share about their own lives,” she said. “It’s as educational for me as I hope it is for them. Even in this short time I’ve learned something new: how to grill burgers! I was at the grills for [Campus Preview Weekend] and had never grilled a burger a day in my life.”
And Alexandre is all about building community. “At MIT we build amazing technology, better and better machines. At the same time, great communities enable people to interact and learn from one another, and that adds purpose to life,” she said. “I’m very excited to help build community in EC, because it’s an important way of ensuring that we have a brighter future.”
Heads of house (previously known as housemasters) at MIT are faculty who reside in the undergraduate and graduate residential halls and fill an important role in each house’s community. Part advisor and advocate, part mentor and neighbor, heads of house work closely with their area director, graduate resident tutors, their house’s student government, and the Division of Student Life to advise students, provide leadership for the house, and foster community life at the Institute.
“The Institute is fortunate to have the Shahs, experienced and knowledgeable about their community, ready to move into the Sidney Pacific head of house role,” says Chris Colombo, dean for student life and head of house in Next House. “At the same time, I’m delighted that Sandy Alexandre has agreed to take on the associate head of house role in East Campus as her first experience of live-in student support. Being a head of house is a tough job, and I have no doubt Sandy will be a terrific addition to the EC community.”