Explain the MIT Undergrads to Me

There’s a totally rational reason for the madness, I promise
JUN 2019
Erika
A.
Biological Engineering

As a newly arrived graduate student at MIT, you may have noticed that the undergrads are a bit… crazy. Don’t worry, I’m your local neighborhood undergrad-whisperer, and I’m here to help. As a current Graduate Resident Advisor (GRA) at the East Campus undergraduate dorm and a former crazy undergrad myself at Caltech, I have a pretty good understanding of why they’re acting this way. Let me explain.

Lifting heavy things

MIT undergrads, the East Campus ones especially, have an obsession with finding large, heavy objects on craigslist or loading docks and moving them/lifting them/owning them. Apparently this practice is mysterious to many people.

Allow me to explain. For a young engineer, the purest, most primal desire you can have is for a thing that’s just Really Heavy. Really Heavy objects are special because ordinary people find them difficult to manipulate. This means that moving something Really Heavy demonstrates engineering ability and (if Really Really Heavy) pizzaz. The heaviest of Really Heavy things require multiple people — all of whom are knowledgeable about winches and ropes and knots — to coordinate, turning what would otherwise be an inconvenient activity into part bonding exercise part team sport. This same primal engineering urge resulted in Stonehenge, the pyramids, and a 1000-lb concrete pillar sitting on the third floor of East Campus, a dorm that does not have an elevator.


Really Heavy things on the third floor of East Campus. Top to bottom:
An adopted traffic light, bigger and heavier than it looks.
The side of a big heavy wooden spool, painted with the hall’s mascot, the “squanch” (don’t ask).
Me, the GRA, 100% muscle and thus Really Heavy.
A 1000-lbs concrete pillar, good for sitting.

Aside from street cred, Really Heavy things have many uses. Consider: when you move a 1000-lb concrete pillar to the third floor, you now have a huge cache of potential energy, and that is just intuitively a good thing to have. Additionally, if you ever need a counterweight, now you have one. Finally, Really Really Heavy things are pretty much always big enough for you to sit on.

Dropping things from high places

In a similar vein, this is also why the undergrads really like taking-things-to-high-places-and-dropping-them, like liquid-nitrogen-frozen pumpkins and pianos. Both practices are ways to achieve ownership of mechanics, the most basic and intuitive type of physics. Lifting and dropping are very fundamental, very accessible operations that are interesting to people who want to manipulate the world around them. Of the two, dropping has more flashy entertainment value. Besides, there’s nothing like re-running controls to convince you that you understand how the world works.

Note that as the undergrads take more physics classes, they tend to develop a more sophisticated palate. For instance, by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they tend to start liking solenoids.

Why the undergrads like to go “hacking”

Hacking is a term that can mean many things at MIT, but in its broadest sense, it always involves visiting locations that are off-limits, or at least not intended for the public. Many times, it’s not because these places are interesting; mostly, they’re service hallways that don’t go anywhere useful or other locations that just aren’t super exciting. Why do the undergrads like to go there?

Consider: When you watch a movie and someone says “whatever you do, don’t touch the red button!”, you know that by the end of the movie, someone will have touched the red button. Marking locations as ‘inaccessible’ or ‘service’ is thus the perfect way to make sure everyone is aware they should be visited.

On top of the obvious reverse-psychology, consider that MIT undergrads arrive on campus full of energy and the desire to have ownership of their new territory. If there are five ways to get from Building 66 ground floor to the top of the dome, then it behooves you to find and traverse every single one of them, for completeness.

Dying their hair

If you see an undergrad at MIT with rainbow/crazy/ever-changing hair color and style, chances are they’re an East Campus student. What possesses these students to constantly make bad hair decisions?

I myself comprehensively explored hair-color-space during undergrad, must to the chagrin of older adults. My mom STILL remembers the picture of green-haired Erika taken with Stephen Hawking and predicts that that picture will resurface someday at a very embarrassing moment. Personally, I think I looked rather fetching with sea-foam green hair.

Consider: the single thing you can do to manipulate your body that has the highest reaction/effort ratio is to dye your nice, normal hair a startling shade of neon green. This sort of WOW factor appeals especially to undergrads: as millennials, they love instant gratification. (Side note: as a GRA, my official opinion is that hair dye is a fantastic way to ask for and receive attention, everyone PLEASE continue ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the hair antics.) Additionally, dying your hair is a fun activity in itself that you can do with friends, akin to painting each other’s fingernails! Finally, a bold hair color is the perfect way to finish off the shoeless pajamas “MIT-undergrad-look”.

So, in conclusion, MIT undergrads have a strong, quirky culture, and it makes more sense than you might think!

If you have any other questions about the undergrads, please contact me, the MIT-undergrad-whisperer, through my instagram @erika.alden or twitter @erika_alden_d.