Less than 15 minutes after fellow MIT math majors Stephen Berenson ’82 and Matisse Peppet ’20 first met, the conversation turned to time travel.
To be fair, “almost like time travel” were Berenson’s exact words, describing a potential mechanism for rewinding cells to their pre-malignant state. He’d been sketching his career for Peppet: three decades at J.P. Morgan, then a new direction with Flagship Pioneering. Working with biotech entrepreneurs, he explained, he’s been able to roam broadly through frontiers of scientific research that have always fascinated him.
The point of Berenson’s story was to assure Peppet that, her own path as yet unmapped, the future holds any number of possibilities. Reflecting on their encounter afterward, she says it also affected how she thinks about the present. When the two discovered they’d studied with the same professor, “it made me realize that, years after I graduate, I might remember some of the classes I’m taking now with the same fondness he showed for that algebra class,” says Peppet, a junior from Ohio who is double majoring in math and philosophy. “I’ve kept returning to that glimpse of perspective through the busy mid-semester haze, a reminder that this time is treasure.”
The meeting came about because Berenson has endowed a scholarship of which Peppet is a beneficiary. She is one of thousands of undergraduates whose time at MIT is, in a very real sense, a gift made possible by donors who trust students will use this opportunity to transform their lives and the world around them. Time and again, they’ve been proven right.
“Now my future looks very different”
James Li ’19 remembers Pi Day 2015—the March 14 release of MIT admissions decisions. Steeling himself for disappointment, he shut himself into his bedroom to log on and learn his fate. The moment remains vivid in his mind. “I read the words. I couldn’t believe it. Read them over again. I walked across the room to my bed and just lay there face down for a bit. I didn’t think that would happen. And now my future looks very different than I thought it would.”
Born in China and raised in California, Li says he nearly didn’t apply to MIT, which “seemed like a whole other world, something kind of mythical.” There was another consideration: “I don’t think I would have applied had MIT not had need-based financial aid. Even if I got in, I wouldn’t have been able to go. Knowing it would be financially possible was definitely a factor in applying, and in accepting.”
For Li’s fellow senior, Kalyn Bowen ’19, MIT was a goal she was determined to pursue. “All of my friends ended up at the University of Hawaii, but if I had stayed in Hawaii, I feel like I would never have left. MIT was where I really wanted to be.” She adds: “If I didn’t get a scholarship and had to take out loans, I think I still would have come, but I would have been so stressed.” A first-generation college student who emigrated from Japan as a teen, she says p-sets provided ample stress as she struggled to catch up with classmates who’d had access to more AP classes and other advanced academic opportunities in high school. During a tough first year, she was “relieved that financial burden wasn’t a factor.”
Neither Bowen nor Li have a single person to thank for their scholarships. Instead, each has a whole group of supporters. They are supported by funds established, respectively, by the Classes of 1979 and 1989. Hundreds of alumni have donated to funds like these, often to mark their reunion years, giving a collective boost to undergraduates for whom need-blind admissions paired with guaranteed need-based financial aid puts MIT in reach.
Bowen still has academic stress in her life, she says—but now she also has what she calls a happiness journal. “Every day for two years now, right before going to sleep, I write at least one happy thing that happened to me that day. There hasn’t been a day at MIT when I couldn’t think of a happy thing. It’s usually more than one thing. It’s usually like a five-bullet list.”
The richness of the MIT experience has led Li and Bowen, both set to graduate this spring, in unanticipated directions. Li’s major is mechanical engineering, but sampling classes across disciplines has shaped his aspirations as have hands-on research experiences at the MIT Media Lab’s City Science group, a robotics startup, and an R&D division at Ford. “My hope is to do something at the intersection of transportation, mechanical engineering, and urban planning,” he says. After discovering the Department of Anthropology, he has also gained an interest in how culture and technology interact. “I’d like to end up in a role where I can use my engineering skills to build something meaningful, but also think about how people use it and react to it, how it will affect communities.”
Bowen’s own arc has shifted since her first year. A computer science major with a love for learning languages, by junior year she found herself looking for ways to incorporate her growing passion for education. She interned at companies building apps for tutoring and for teaching children with no English language background how to code; assisted with intro classes in her department; and worked at a nonprofit supporting students from low-income backgrounds. “Teachers are some of the people I admire and appreciate the most. They’re the reason I’m here at MIT today,” she says. “I feel like they should be paid more and get more recognition. I started thinking about how I can change that. Majoring in computer science taught me math and logic I would need in any career, but after I graduate I’m planning on getting a master’s in political science and then going to law school so that I can become an educational lawyer.”
“It’s the giving of themselves”
It was raining on the day Gloria Wong drove with Shivani Chauhan ’18 and her roommate to the beach near Wong’s home. Even so, Wong recalls, the two young women grabbed an umbrella and strolled along the ocean’s edge.
Love of the water is something Chauhan has in common with Backman Wong ’48, Gloria Wong’s late husband, in whose name she established the scholarship that supported Chauhan throughout her undergraduate education. Backman earned his degree in mechanical engineering in three years, learning to sail in the process. He commuted to campus, remaining a helpful presence for the three of his nine siblings still at home in Boston. “The times were so different,” Gloria Wong comments, noting that while his career as a director of research and development involved plentiful travel, in college her husband did not have the farflung internship opportunities MIT students now enjoy through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives program. Wong was struck by Chauhan’s enthusiasm and confidence as she described learning experiences in locations such as Israel and California. Last year, Chauhan also completed a yearlong SuperUROP project for her computer science major, doing intensive research on communications networks. “She had a very clear sense of how she was going to approach her plans for the future,” Wong remembers of their conversations.
Now a master’s of engineering candidate at MIT, Chauhan is designing machine learning technology to improve diabetes screening in India. She says getting to know Wong during her undergraduate years—through campus events, correspondence, and that seaside visit—has created “a connection I cherish to this day.” Attending MIT first captured Chauhan’s imagination when, as a Colorado high schooler, she participated in a competition using the Institute’s App Inventor platform. “I’d like to think I would have found a way to make my dream of going to MIT possible no matter what, but the financial aid package was so generous, it helped me be fully happy with my decision, knowing it wasn’t putting a huge burden on my family.” She found a way to pay the opportunity forward through outreach with the Society of Women Engineers, encouraging girls in local schools to consider a future in STEM. Wong has met several of the students that the Backman (1948) and Gloria Wong Fund has supported since 2008. The decision to honor her husband’s memory with such a gift followed his quiet lead: “He was always eager to help out in MIT’s fundraising events. I know that he treasured the education that was given to him. It came through not so much in what he said as what he did.” She was pleased to recognize that quintessentially MIT quality in Chauhan when hosting her and her friend in her town. The students joined Wong at a church event, “and I didn’t expect them to help in the kitchen or to serve, but they did. It’s not so much asking or telling, it’s the giving of themselves.”
“Nothing would have made them prouder”
Among Backman Wong’s fellow 1948 graduates in mechanical engineering was another Massachusetts native named Bill Russell. The Institute played “a leading role” in Russell’s story, including a career at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory and its successor, the Draper Lab, according to Jeffrey Rosensweig PhD ’85.
Both Russell and Rosensweig met their wives through MIT. Russell married his classmate’s sister. And Rosensweig married Russell’s daughter, Rita Lenore Russell Rosensweig ’78. Rita was working at MIT as an architect when Jeff arrived to study economics under such influential faculty members as Rüdiger Dornbusch and Stanley Fischer PhD ’69. With so many family links to the Institute, it was a natural fit in 2007 for the Rosensweigs to establish the William Arthur Russell Jr. (1948) Fund. “We wanted him to know that he would have a legacy that would live on forever at this Institute he loved so much,” says Jeff, who is now a professor of international business and finance at Emory University. Through his final years, he says, his father-in-law enjoyed reading letters from his scholars: “He always was proud that MIT would accept the best regardless of their background.”
When Jeff faced tragedy last year, losing Rita to breast cancer, he was moved to honor her in the same way they’d chosen for her father. He has established a charitable remainder unitrust that will fund scholarships in her name. “One of the things that inspired Rita was reading about students making practical inventions that are enhancing people’s lives,” he says. “I think nothing would have made Bill or Rita prouder than to support students who will go out to do the great works so needed in the world.”
Jeff adds that during the era when they met, his wife volunteered as an advisor to first-year students, many of whom were the first from their families to attend college. That’s an experience with which current Russell Scholar Maxwell Freitas ’19 can identify. At a recent gathering with scholarship donors, Freitas spoke frankly about his background as the son of Brazilian immigrants seeking a better life for their kids.
“I grew up seeing them work harder than absolutely anyone I know,” Freitas declared. “They were unable to go to college. They were just trying to make ends meet for my brother and me. My dad was a painter, and my mom was a housecleaner. Most people would probably see these as lesser occupations, but I have learned to see my parents for the way they truly are: for the heroes that society needs. It’s not because of what they do but how they do it. We didn’t live a luxurious lifestyle, but there was so much my parents offered my brother and me … We’ve learned to value life and use our skills to serve the world. Through all of high school I internalized this and worked my butt off. Clearly, I don’t come from a background where my family could help me with my advanced homework. I didn’t get much talk about scientific or academic topics at the dinner table. And I came from a pretty urban public school. But I had a dream to give back to my parents and make everything worth it.”
Since arriving at MIT, Freitas has fallen in love with biological engineering: “I came to realize that life science has so much beauty in it and so much untapped potential in making our biology work for us in better ways than it has for thousands of years.” He has worked in labs focused on leukemia research and the regeneration of heart cells. Having never left the US before college, Freitas will graduate this spring with 17 countries in his passport, including Brazil, where he visited hospitals to learn more about public health, and India, where he helped to develop prosthetic devices for amputees. “All of this is just a testament to how much MIT has done for me. I’m confident I can redefine the boundaries of what the world knows as the status quo, and I’m confident I can make my parents proud.”
“It was the generosity of strangers investing money in a nobody that made me realize I could be a somebody,” he told those assembled. “My life would be radically different if I didn’t have the means to come to MIT.” Exactly where he’ll go from here, no one in the room could know—but it’s not hard to see the promise in a story with such a strong beginning.