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Water war: East campus versus west

Representing their dorms on campus, students rush to Killian Court to lob water balloons at their friends in an annual MIT tradition.
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The annual water war, an official part of Residential Exploration (REX), began at MIT in the early 2000s.
The annual water war, an official part of Residential Exploration (REX), began at MIT in the early 2000s.
Photo: David Bragdon
Photo: David Bragdon

The idiom “wet behind the ears” may be a good way to describe new MIT students because, thanks to several MIT traditions, students spend their first few days on campus getting soaked.

Many people know about the swim test that first-year students take during orientation, but soon after students dry out, it’s time for another wet MIT tradition — the water war. The annual water war is an official part of Residential Exploration (REX) that began at MIT in the early 2000s. The war pits east campus against west in a battle on Killian Court that combines water balloons with student ingenuity.

The war is a carefully orchestrated event. With the help of the Dormitory Council, REX chairs help to coordinate the event each year. Henry Shackleton and Yanisa Techagumthorn, REX chairs from East Campus, explain that scheduling can actually the most challenging part of the war. “Finding a time for the water war can be hard; there’s a lot of events during REX. But once it’s on the schedule people start to prep,” says Techagumthorn. This prep includes filling balloons, designing catapults, building duck chariots, and creating a contraption known as Hurricane Fred — a long plastic dumpster turned water hose built by East Campus students.

While almost every dorm participates in the war, Shackleton and Techagumthorn say the biggest showing each year comes from East Campus, Next House, and Simmons. “But East Campus always wins,” Shackleton laughs. With serious equipment like water hoses, it’s no surprise that the war usually doesn’t last more than 10 minutes before being called — but it does include some great pageantry. “We usually give a dramatic speech to assemble to troops at the dorm,” Shackleton says. Once all dorms arrive at Killian Court, REX chairs from east and west campus meet in the middle of the court, shake hands, and announce a start to the war. Despite the intensity, the water war comes with some battlefield reunions. “You might see people you haven’t seen all summer. You say, ‘Hi,’ and throw a water balloon at them,” Techagumthorn says.

While the war is for current students, a small audience forms around it each year. David Bragdon ’62 caught the East Campus crew preparing for the war and was intrigued. “He saw what we were doing and followed us down to the war,” explains Techagumthorn. “I was embedded with the troops,” Bragdon says. This embed gave a him a front row seat at how the war ended earlier this year. “At the end, peace broke out with all of us chanting ‘MIT, MIT, MIT!’ It was very moving,” he says

While the water war is friendly combat, Techagumthorn says there are a few casualties each year — in the form of brass rats. “We get a ton of emails about people losing theirs,” she says. Despite the potential ring loss, the war has a big appeal to students new and returning. “I love the water war. It was the first time in my freshman year that I got a sense of some sort of community. It’s a great tradition that I’ve enjoyed,” Shackleton says.

This article first appeared on the Slice of MIT blog.

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