It's no secret that MIT celebrates differences and diversity. Different interests, backgrounds, working styles, expertise, ambitions, perspectives, voices … the list is endless. As an outsider, before I joined MIT, I was amazed and attracted to this deeply interwoven fabric of differences.
But MIT is also a place of contradictions. As an insider, i.e. after having spent 2 years in a place that seemed like an incredible melting pot of ideas, I also began to experience the exact opposite. I was spending the majority of my time within my department and within my sub-group of the cohort. In other words, barely 8-9 people. We were taking the same classes and were only working with each other. I also realized that this experience was fairly common in grad school - being confined to your labmates or classmates. The pro is that you build strong relationships, but the con is that you miss out on the incredible learning experience that comes from interacting with people across schools, departments and labs. While there were events and opportunities for interaction across campus, I still found myself unsatisfied with my limited interaction with the life outside of my lab. And time was running out. I was at the end of my program.
Then, GSL happened.
I received a forward email regarding a new GSL (Global Startup Lab) program being launched this year in Mauritius; the committee was searching for interested students. Like any other grad student with a FOMO for free travel, I could not resist. Mauritius!!! Who would not want to spend a free summer on this gorgeous island? I confess, that was my sole motivation for responding. But what followed was a life changing experience that I was seeking all along - experiencing the differences of MIT. Ironically, I experienced them away from MIT.
Six of us were chosen as the GSL instructor team - an undergrad from Biological Engineering, an MIT alum from Computer Science working at Microsoft, a PhD Student at the Media Lab, a postdoc in genomics lab at MIT CSAIL, an MBA student from Sloan and myself, a grad student in architecture and design. What a weird, unfathomable team! Together we represented not just 5 different departments and 3 schools, but also 5 countries - Mauritius, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, China and India. This was intriguing, yet intimidating. From project manager to start-up founder, from scientist to actuary, from designer to physicist, we came from such different worlds. Not only were our interests, expertise and backgrounds diverse, but so were our personalities! From creative dreamer to directive leader, from energetic facilitator to meticulous planner, we all had such different styles of working and vocabulary for communicating. I figured this was going to be an intense experience outside of my comfort zone. “But at least the discomfort zone is by the beachside!”, I convinced myself.
Despite our differences, something united us all. Deep down, we all knew that even though we all represented a different subset of MIT, together we were the ambassadors of the values of MIT. Away from home, in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean, on the small island of Mauritius, we were the slice of MIT! It was almost as if a secret silent oath was taken by us all - to show the students of the GSL program in Mauritius what MIT stood for: excellence. We had the privilege of carrying the mission of MIT with us. I wondered if this was the feeling soldiers and veterans carried in their hearts on foreign lands. We were the little beaver soldiers of MIT!
The 8 weeks that followed felt like nothing less than a battle. But an MIT-style battle. From the classic firehose-style teaching to highly ambitious project expectations, we gave the students a full-fledged exposure to the MIT energy. Every day the students went home exhausted, only to come back the next day, energized and hungry for more. This was strangely surreal and satisfying. This is what MIT professors must feel like every day of their lives! A part of me secretly envied that life!
Besides the experience of teaching and representing MIT in a foreign country, I learned a great deal from my MIT team. I learned about the undergrad dorm culture that I did not know existed; I learned about the cultures in different schools across campus, from Sloan to the Media Lab; I learned about the struggles of different professions, from being a startup founder to being a manager in one of the top companies. Our morning drives to the venue and evening cooking dinner sessions soon turned into conversations about our experiences living on different continents, our ambitions after grad-lives, our goals for making a difference, and our ideas on how we would impact the world. (Of course there were plenty of conversations about our students too!)
Before we could realize, we became a part of each other’s side projects and startups. Not only were we teaching the GSL students about building a startup of their own by identifying team strengths and weaknesses, but we were also teaching ourselves to do the same! We had slowly begun investing in each other’s dreams, encouraging and pushing each other to achieve them. We now had a startup with the postdoc from CSAIL, a Course 6 (EECS) alum, an architect and a Sloanie - working from a gorgeous exotic island! It was a dream scenario that probably NO class or event at MIT could have facilitated!
If not for a program like GSL, a diverse group like ours would not have a reason to spend so much time together. But I am glad we did because we shared each other’s successes (weddings, PhD defenses) and each other’s diversity (celebrating Diwali and Eid).
Two years later, as I write this post about my GSL experience, I can’t help but reflect on how my time away, with this slice of MIT, built lifelong friendships and relationships I always thought I would build on campus. :)
I dedicate this post to my awesome GSL Mauritius team - Zehreen, Awa, Bayo, Zhizhou and Dhaval. And of course, to the 50 Mauritian students who taught me so much about teaching!