At MIT, if research and education are the blood in our veins, then service is our heartbeat, the force that drives everything we do. Central to our mission and our culture, service also supplies our students with unexpected opportunities to extend their education — as thinkers and leaders, as inventors and problem solvers, and as young adults intent on defining a life of meaning and purpose.
Not surprisingly, as their service projects blossom, our students do, too. When Justin Tan ’09 was still in high school in Montreal, his grandfather in Malaysia suffered a stroke. As a freshman at MIT, Justin vowed to do something to help. Three years later, this Biological Engineering major had established a chain of stroke rehabilitation clinics across Southeast Asia; his grandfather recently became one of 600 patients in Malaysia who visit one of Justin’s clinics twice a week for therapy.
“I’m an optimist,” Tan recently told SPECTRVM, “but I never thought this project would reach the scale that it has. This is bigger than I ever thought.”
At MIT, service follows no set formula. It can happen here in Cambridge, across the country and around the world. But many undergraduates, in fact nearly 3,000 a year, find the catalyst for their adventures in service through MIT’s Public Service Center (PSC). Students bring their skills, their willingness to serve and the classic MIT spirit of entrepreneurship, and the PSC gives them the seed resources, guidance, confidence, and connections to bring their service dreams to life; Justin Tan launched his stroke rehab centers on the wings of a PSC Fellowship.
Through the PSC and other service opportunities, students find ways to translate the unique strengths of their MIT education into the power to change the world. They establish schools and libraries. They develop new strategies to reduce fuel consumption and design clean energy technologies. They work with children whose parents have cancer, build houses for people who have no homes, and inspire other young people to fall in love with science and engineering.
Pursuing service projects of their own design also allows MIT students to grapple with real-world problems, sharpening their thinking, magnifying what they learn in the classroom and laboratory, and building a strong sense of self-reliance. Often, they learn to navigate new languages and cultures, preparing themselves for global careers ahead. And they come to see that since the world offers very few purely technical problems, confronting the social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions is central to being an effective engineer. In effect, service becomes a leadership training lab.
But perhaps most importantly, students gain from their service experiences the confidence to act. They need not wait until they have earned diplomas and professional credentials; they can start changing the world now. As you will read in this issue, graduate student Aviva Presser Aiden and her teammates won this year’s MIT IDEAS Competition, an entrepreneurship contest the PSC sponsors to inspire new approaches to improving life in the developing world, by developing a microbial fuel cell that can provide enough power to light a house, charge a cell phone, or run a radio. Popular Mechanics magazine recently recognized the fuel cell as one of the year’s 10 most brilliant innovations.
At MIT, the most striking service we offer is the power of our ideas — and I hope you will find in these pages compelling proof that in serving communities around the world, our students deepen their education and advance our fundamental mission.