In summer 2016, Suzy M. Nelson became the vice president and dean for student life at MIT, where she supports students in all aspects of their MIT experience. Together with Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart SM ’85, PhD ’88, Nelson is working to ensure the Institute’s continued commitment to a well-integrated student life program that values both formal and informal learning. Spectrum asked Nelson to reflect on her first year in the role and share how MIT is working to create the best possible home for students.
How has MIT defied your expectations?
SN: Every school says its students are engaged, but MIT students are really engaged, and that was a pleasant surprise. It’s a great strength of MIT that is aligned with the very hands-on curriculum. Students are partnering with me on a number of projects—an “architectural principles” document for the dorms, the New House renovation and West Campus residence hall planning—and are contributing valuable feedback for a review of our food and dining program.
You often refer to the residential experience as the “other classroom.” How does living at MIT amplify learning?
SN: When students and faculty collaborate outside of the classroom around something meaningful that can be tied back to the curriculum, it can have a profound impact on learning. Consider a student and a faculty member thinking together about improving food and dining. It involves looking at research and data. It incorporates financial modeling, because you have to consider cost, quality, affordability, convenience. And all this can be applied to, say, an economics class.
Why is it so important that MIT students are active in the governance of their dorms and FSILGs [fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups]?
SN: We are so lucky to have a culture here that engenders a sense of belonging, identity, and community. Shared governance gives students agency, which makes them feel empowered, which in turn makes them happier and more invested.
In this time of aggressive expansion of online learning technologies, why does a residential campus still matter?
SN: A residential campus allows for human interaction, and there’s really no substitute for that. Things students learn on campus—how to communicate, how to lead, how to work as a team, how to compromise— help them grow and develop as humans. And these are skills that have tremendous value in the workplace. Important, too, are opportunities to engage with people from different backgrounds—learning more about what ties us together.
How is MIT ensuring that the student living and learning experience grows and evolves, yet remains as robust as it is now?
SN: First, we are investing in the buildings that can sustain MIT’s phenomenal residential system. We want to make sure that these crucial “other classroom” experiences are not an afterthought, which means students have well-maintained spaces where they can feel safe, secure, and comfortable, and where they can work, socialize, engage, and relax. Our students aren’t fussy. They want things like blackboards and wide dorm hallways to gather in. For graduate students, there is a real need for increased support and community building, especially for our international families. We’re thinking a lot, too, about FSILGs, our first living-learning communities. We want to ensure these students are also in safe, well-maintained, and managed facilities.
If I could look ahead 10 years, I would like to see MIT as a place where health and well-being are at the forefront, which is happening now with the MindHandHeart Initiative. We don’t want just to give our students the tools to go out and create a better world, to be kind to others, but also to help them learn how to be kind to themselves. We’re also focusing more than ever on public service and social justice issues, as well as making our campus the most welcoming and inclusive it can be.
My experience at MIT was incomparable.
Through small classes and real hands-on work , I was able to see how I performed, especially in a groups, and grew to understand my strengths that rather surprised me. Of course, teachers were superb, but the general environment of support, questioning and taking chances enriched me enormously. I loved every minute.
Sara Kontoff Baker
SM Vis. Studies, Course IV ’86