Two years ago, Lori and Steve Lerman made a life-changing decision.
After 27 years, they sold their single-family Colonial in a leafy Boston suburb to move into an MIT dormitory to be housemasters to 120 graduate students. Steve says: “Our friends thought we were crazy.”
An MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering for 28 years, Steve was serving as chair of the faculty and was deeply involved in MIT. He knew other housemasters and was familiar with their duties –– perhaps drive a student to the doctor, help a foreign student open a first checking account, or counsel a student about a career.
When Steve heard that MIT was constructing a new graduate dormitory and was looking for a couple to move in, he went home, and expecting Lori to say no, asked: “How would you like to move to MIT?”
“Maybe it was my mood,” Lori says, “but I said, ‘Yes!’ It just struck me as a great thing to do at that particular time in our lives.”
Their youngest son had just left for college, and their two older children already were gone. “The main thing we had done together was raise our kids, and they were off,” Lori says. “We were looking for something that would be fun to do together.”
Giving Up To Gain
The Lermans loved the idea of the move, but what would they have to give up?
They lived in Winchester, 10 miles north of Boston, where Lori taught piano, and where they had strong ties to the community. Lori was concerned a move would loosen her connection to her friends. And she was afraid she’d miss all the greenery living on a city street with no trees.
Steve was concerned that the move would blur his personal and professional life. He was nervous about giving up his privacy and about additional demands on his time. “Responding to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week, worried me a little.”
But despite their concerns, the couple moved into 224 Albany Street, a red brick factory built in the early 1900s, which had just been renovated. “Now we just love it,” Lori says.
Their apartment is 3,000 square-feet of wide open space, great for gathering and conversation. There are cozy groups of black leather furniture in the living/dining area; two oak dining room tables that open to seat 24; and an outdoor terrace with a view of Cambridge.
A big welcome sign hangs on their front door, and the Lermans encourage students to visit often. Regularly, they hold pancake breakfasts, social hours, and dinners. “We try to get to know students as well as we can,” Lori says. “We’re not exactly like their parents,” Steve says. “We’re more like an aunt and uncle.”
Now Lori and Steve see each other more. “After commuting for years,” Steve says, “I didn’t realize how much time I’d save by being able to walk to work.”
And, he says, during their empty-nest stage of life, their adventure brought them closer. “Becoming housemasters gave us the chance to live and work together at a time when each of us might have further focused on our respective careers, and it has given us the chance to work side by side.”
Moving into the dorm has not only been great for them but great for students, Lori says. “We’ve had the opportunity to give young people an idea of what their own lives might be like as university professors, by giving them a glimpse of our life at home.”
“I’ve come to appreciate the wonderful people who work at MIT who aren’t faculty,” Steve says. “The institute is well-served by dedicated people who most faculty never get to know –– the housing staff, mechanics, desk workers, the medical staff. As a faculty member, you can sometimes forget about these people. I’ve really grown to appreciate them.”
“We still see our friends in Winchester,” Lori says, adding that although having a back yard was good, not having to mow the lawn and shovel snow is better.
Steve says: “We have less privacy than we would have had in Winchester, but it’s not a burden. Blurring work and family is actually less artificial than before.
“My work life and social life is connected. There aren’t two separate places. Before my job was only to teach and work with students on research. Now I’m aware I’m educating a whole person. I see that a dorm is not a place just to sleep and then go back to the lab. Students have a social life. Part of the university experience is to shape how students view the world, and if you only focus on the classroom, you’re missing a big part.
“Moving to campus has tremendous benefits. This lifestyle isn’t for all faculty,” he says, “but it is very healthy to live an integrated life.”