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Reinventing the graduate student community during a pandemic

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Reinventing the graduate student community during a pandemic

A year since the pandemic upended the day-to-day lives of the MIT community and in-person instruction turned into virtual Zoom classes, students have gone above and beyond to create and nurture connections with one another through creative and interactive programs and initiatives.
For the Sidney Pacific graduate community, members of house government have steadily and successfully developed their own virtual community — to connect those who are physically away, as well as those who remained on campus.
“We wanted to still have students feel a strong peer support structure and provide opportunities for leadership and involvement. We like to think of the SP community making the MIT graduate experience more empowering, exciting, and transformative,” says Geeticka Chauhan, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and president of Sidney Pacific.
Sidney Pacific’s house government
Sidney Pacific is MIT’s largest graduate on-campus residence, housing nearly 700 graduate students. The community prides itself as an inclusive, diverse, and multicultural dorm where more than 50 percent of the community are international students. The Sidney Pacific graduate community is powered by a group of over 60 graduate student volunteers and other community helpers to ensure the culture and student-driven community continues well beyond this year, but sustained for the future.
This group considers itself the “SP machine” that powers programming throughout the residence building and supports the resources residents heavily depend on. Over the past year, their theme was to empower each other, emphasizing the community’s togetherness and inclusiveness to support residents through organizing various residential well-being activities. “Through the demonstration of leadership, energy, and kindness by the executive council, it has empowered the rest of our community to follow their example and thrive in all our organized events,” says Nuria Jane, Sidney Pacific’s associate head of house. “I am always in awe when I see how this community overcomes every challenge it faces and exceeds all my expectations.”
Julie Shah, Sidney Pacific’s head of house, adds that this community is made possible by the efforts of many residents. “Leading this new sort of distributed community was a new challenge for our SP leaders, but they met the moment,” says Shah. “I have few other examples of better teamwork — we are very grateful to our Sidney Pacific Executive Council, especially, who never had the opportunity to all meet or work together in person, for navigating us through this challenging year and inspiring future leadership and service.”
Apart, but together
When the pandemic hit back in March 2020, many graduate students among the Sidney Pacific community departed campus to be with loved ones or families, while others chose to stay in the residence due to various travel restrictions in their home countries. With MIT Covid-19 restrictions in place — closure of shared campus spaces like study rooms, lounges, common kitchens, music rooms, and relaxation rooms — it limited residents’ options to socialize and gather with friends and other community members.
The house government team was handed the challenging task of reinventing their customary in-person programming into new, safe, and engaging formats. In addition to finding ways of maintaining traditional events like coffee hours, brunches, Thanksgiving dinner, and the new resident welcome dinner, members were committed to designing new events that would continue to provide a sense of community for residents. Officers also came up with creative ways to leverage Sidney Pacific’s ”helper culture” to safely distribute food across the building. Thanksgiving dinner was a prime example of this. The brunch chairs, Dousabel Tay, Mingyu Yang, and Jatin Patil, with the help of heads of house and student volunteers, helped make close to 200 individually-packed, custom meals to deliver to residents in the community.
Reimagining community programing
Despite a complete deviation from traditional events, members of Sidney Pacific were committed to maintaining the warm and hospitable sense of community. Through rapid prototyping of events and resident feedback, Sidney Pacific officers were able to develop dynamic virtual activities like coffee hours with a fruit delivery, origami-making sessions, cookie decoration events, and writing letters or notes to loved ones distanced by the pandemic. “Being involved to help shape these events kept me, and I know many others too, connected to Sidney Pacific and the broader MIT community … these online events were crucial to feel part of MIT on a daily basis,” says Belén Saldías Fuentes, a graduate student in the MIT Media Lab and Sidney Pacific hall chair.
Sometimes the best and most impactful interactions occur through casual conversations in the hallway or sitting and chatting together in a common area. To simulate this feeling, the community utilized a very popular platform called gather.town, a virtual space that can be designed to replicate Sidney Pacific’s first floor, including all the places for virtual socializing like the gym, courtyard, and aquarium.
Welcoming new students to the Sidney Pacific community has always been a priority of the house government. This has been typically done through orientation events, but this year the orientation brunch, dance party, and cultural festival were divided up into five or six additional events in order to bolster a strong virtual presence and focus around gift-giving instead of face-to-face interaction. In addition, inter-hall coordinators Michelle Ramseier, Cassandre Pradon, and Plants Chair Susana Hoyos assembled and delivered 70 care packages — filled with Covid-19 safety supplies, SP swag, room essentials, self-care items, and small succulents — to the doors of each new resident. “When I moved here in August, it was heartwarming to experience and help organize virtual and socially distant events,” says Jatin Patil, a graduate student in materials science and engineering and a Sidney Pacific’s brunch chair.
A silver lining for the Sidney Pacific graduate community has been the tremendous engagement of residents. Despite a challenging year, it has provided a wonderful opportunity for graduated alumni to also participate in community events or reconnect with each other in the virtual first floor of Sidney Pacific’s gather.town. For many alumni, Sidney Pacific was their main source of community interaction during the isolation of the pandemic.
While there’s anticipation to resume “normal” in-person activities as soon as the pandemic is over, the Sidney Pacific community will continue its virtual programming, with additions of new seminar events organized by the Committee on Scholarly Interactions, an Earth Day plant-potting celebration coordinated by the Environment Office, and hosting a book club.

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