Inside the first-floor lobby of Senior House, a group surrounds a table admiring a large anniversary cake. It was made as a replica of the century-old, L-shaped Senior House, and atop it sits the number “100” embedded in butter cream frosting. The group is made up of current Senior House residents, alumni who lived here as far back as half a century, and others who care deeply about the history and culture of this unique building.
Senior House, the first dormitory on the MIT campus and the second-oldest residence (after Gray House) celebrated its centennial on Saturday, Nov. 5 with a birthday party filled with music, dancing, art, food, and a strong sense of togetherness.
“Senior House is a very special place,” says senior and house historian Anvita Pandit, “and its 100th birthday is a good time for the community to reflect upon what we’ve created over this span of time.”
House historian looks back
Pandit says many of the remarkable stories of Senior House involve creative expression, or what Head of House Jay Scheib calls the community’s “punk aesthetic.” Senior House has a long tradition of colorful murals on its walls and doors, with hallways and rooms often painted by several hands spanning multiple years and artistic styles, notes Pandit.
She further explains how radio station WMBR was created in the basement of Senior House back in 1946, with equipment built and operated by students. The station initially played music three nights a week, working its on-air schedule around student class schedules.
Music was again at the forefront on April 21, 1990, when future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Nirvana played in the basement of Senior House as part of their first U.S. tour. During the recent centennial party, a rock band called The Executives, made up entirely of MIT students, rocked the Senior House courtyard while covering songs from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Mayer, Aerosmith, and more.
Culture and community at Senior House
House Manager Kenneth Wolff, who has served in that role since 2001, notes that “students regard Senior House as both their home and their community. They have a deep, innate respect for each other regardless of background.”
Senior House reflects diversity in its many dimensions. Current Senior House co-president Sarah Melvin explains that the dormitory “is home to students with diverse perspectives, beliefs, and academic interests, all of which are respected. We have a saying in Senior House that the only thing we don’t tolerate is intolerance.”
Current senior Hane Lee describes a community that doesn’t just “tolerate” difference but celebrates it. “We have a community here at Senior House that says, ‘Okay, so you’re different, that’s a beautiful thing. Let’s develop your uniqueness.’” Lee’s own search for community offers just one example of the Senior House experience: “I’ve always struggled with being different and not belonging anywhere,” she says, “Senior House is the first community I’ve ever felt I belonged in.”
Advancing wellness through the “Turnaround Team”
The Senior House community provides a strong sense of acceptance, and also supports residents as they struggle with studies, personal issues, or anything else. “The students care deeply about one another,” says Scheib, who also serves as MIT’s director of theater arts, “so if something is awry, they go shoulder to shoulder. If the issue is not something where a friend’s guidance is enough, they reach out to GRTs and mental health, whatever support is needed.”
In recent months, the Senior House community and MIT administration have come together to form the “Turnaround Team” in order to make the academic and wellness support networks in the residence hall even stronger. Students, faculty, and staff are developing goals and specific projects to advance academic and personal wellbeing, community building, and self-governance. Kristen Covino has joined the house team as associate head of house, and Student Support Services and Mental Health and Counseling now have permanent offices in Senior House in order to hold drop-in hours and offer programming for residents.
Suzy Nelson, vice president and dean for student life and member of the Turnaround Team, describes the ongoing turnaround process this way: “I’m really encouraged by the students’ involvement in the turnaround,” says Nelson, who joined the MIT community on July 1. “They are involved in every aspect of the process, which is the MIT way of doing things. At the same time, their perspective is critical to ensuring that any turnaround effort fits with their culture.”
Nelson emphasizes that collaborative turnaround efforts have been guided by a deep respect for the culture and community Senior House has fostered: “Everyone involved has dedicated themselves to building on the best aspects of Senior House — their creativity, innovative spirit, and mutual acceptance and support of one another — to shape a wonderful community for themselves, future generations of students, and the whole MIT community," Nelson says.
As Senior House enters its second century, the community — both past and present — is proudly assessing what Senior House means to them, and looking forward to a bright future.
Senior House alum Leslie Dewan ’06, PhD ’13, a member of the MIT Corporation and co-founder and CEO of Cambridge-based Transatomic Power, says of her time in Senior House: “You could fail a class, for example, and your peers wouldn't judge you for it. They would instead tell you how to pick yourself up, and how to get your act together for the next term.”
Dewan has applied those life lessons during her flourishing career as an entrepreneur and innovator. “Innovative business ideas, almost by definition, happen at boundary conditions when you're a fine line away from failure,” says Dewan. “You need to be unafraid if you want to pursue the most interesting opportunities.”
Wolff, the house manager, has high aspirations for Senior House’s next 100 years: “My hope is always that the idea of being an accepting community that trusts and respects each other continues on for the next 100 years. These values go on to be important in life. When you work with other people and are accepting of them and their ideas, it helps you succeed.”