Student Chapter Highlight: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Kirby Ledvina
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

INFORMS student chapters around the United States have been forced to adapt to a “new normal” of remote social interaction amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. We spoke with the leadership team of the MIT INFORMS student chapter to see how one organization is navigating this change. In a Zoom interview at the beginning of the fall semester, Leann Thayaparan (President), Léonard Boussioux (Vice President), and Dan Killian (Treasurer) shared their team’s challenges and new approaches to foster a sense of community during the pandemic.

Q: Tell us a bit about the MIT INFORMS student chapter.

Leann: Most of our membership comes from Ph.D. and Masters students in the MIT Operations Research Center (ORC). I would say we have around 100 members though there is no formal membership process. Largely, we just try to create as much community as possible within the people who are doing operations research at MIT. We also try to foster relationships with the alumni group and provide opportunities for the alumni to connect with students.

Léonard: We could describe our roles as social officers because we have to create links and bonds in the community, and we plan several events to do that.

Dan: I would agree. Our organization tries to encourage people to mingle, whether it's across cultural lines or across research interests. Getting people to break out of their comfort zone, especially at a place like MIT, is really important.

Q: What are some activities that your chapter used to organize pre-pandemic?

Léonard: Traditionally, the INFORMS officers organize lunches or afternoon snacks, and often we have a theme. For example, around Christmas, we organized an event where we asked people to build a gingerbread house. I never knew about gingerbread houses before coming here, but I heard it's a very American thing, so we organized a group competition to build the nicest house. A lot of us international students actually loved building this house!

Dan: My personal favorite was a French pastry event where several of the French students introduced us American students to the classic French breakfast. I will say they have it right in France with the waffles. I mean, it was like dessert for breakfast.

Leann: We also planned a bunch of activity-based events. During the MIT open house for admitted students, we would have an event for current and new students to meet each other. Then in the fall, we used to host a retreat where we'd take everybody to Maine and go camping and canoeing and just give people a chance away from school to bond with each other. And even though these events didn't have immediate academic implications, people would form connections and then be able to approach each other later on.

Léonard: And to build on this, we can now see how important these events were at the time. With the pandemic, we cannot organize in-person activities for the new students, so they actually have had a lot of difficulty making friends and forming groups to work together.


Gingerbread houses from a pre-pandemic chapter event.

Q: So how did you shift your activities in response to the pandemic?

Léonard: We had to change everything. The first thing we witnessed back in the spring was that we no longer had a physical place where we could just interact and say hi to people. So we decided to create times, especially Friday night after 5 p.m., to provide opportunities for people to meet over Zoom. During these meetings, we make breakout rooms to separate people into groups of seven or eight, and then every 15 minutes we change the breakout rooms so that you can meet other people. However, after two of these events, people wanted to do something new, and we needed to provide something that would attract those who don’t like Zoom events. Dan, do you want to describe what we did for the open house, for example?

Dan: Yeah, so normally for the open house for admitted students in the spring, we would host a dinner and happy hour at one of the local restaurants. It's just a very informal way for people to ask your student opinion of the program. But with all on-campus events canceled, we needed some other way to give people a sense of the ORC community.

So instead we organized a virtual scavenger hunt where the INFORMS officers compiled a list of different group tasks that could be completed remotely and assigned points to these tasks. It was things as simple as, take a Zoom picture with everyone wearing their favorite hat, or videotape someone on your team eating an entire banana peel, stem included. Another one was, take your favorite book title and try to write it in emojis. We assigned teams of about six to seven people with a mix of current and potential ORC students, and teams uploaded everything to a website so that everybody could see each other's submissions.

At the end, the INFORMS officers picked out the highlights from the event, and we had an awards ceremony to reflect on everything that was done. That got a ton of really positive feedback. People enjoyed being able to kind of act silly with some of their classmates, and I think it gave the potential students hope that when things are back on campus, there is a supportive, engaged community of students that are willing to help them on their journey through MIT.

Leann: Then this fall, since we didn’t have the student retreat, we were very concerned that people would start the school year more or less alone, especially the first years. So we organized a tournament similar to what Dan just described but with a focus on sparking conversation and extended over two weeks. Example tasks were things like, recommend a book to somebody, and if they took the time to read it and you guys had a conversation about it, you would get a certain amount of points. Or figure out where every first year is located right now in the world. Things that would encourage people to reach out to each other and find out how they're doing.

Another thing we're organizing is a buddy system for our first years. We’re forming small groups of about four first years and then one or two second years who are essentially mentors and in charge of getting the group together every month or so for an hour to just chat. We're really hoping that people will find study partners and bond in a way that would have happened naturally if we were all physically in the same location.

Q. Have you had any trouble keeping people engaged despite these virtual events?

Dan: I would say definitely. Some people enjoy being in a Zoom meeting or breakout room with new people, but plenty of people in our department don't have a desire to do that. Our approach has been to try to create events that are welcoming, and we try to highlight the importance of networking and getting to know your fellow students.

Leann: A big challenge in the pandemic is that it's very hard to have variety when your only way of connecting with people is over Zoom, which is why we've been focusing on different types of events, like events with different numbers of people, activity-based things, or maybe tasks where instead of calling someone over the phone, you can just text them.


Group picture from a virtual tournament at the beginning of the fall semester. The two-week long event included individual and team challenges to help students meet and reconnect.

Q. Has it been challenging to navigate newly instituted COVID policies?

Dan: A big challenge has been figuring out funding. There was a lot of uncertainty about how to justify funding or manage reimbursements for remote events, and early on, we did not know whether we would be on campus in the fall and if we could plan in-person events.

Leann: Right, a major challenge we faced in the spring was planning long term. For example, we had to reserve our fall retreat location in February, and there were a lot of contract negotiations in the spring and summer as we were figuring out plans for the fall. But in July or August, the hammer basically came down that we're not going to be in-person, and things became a lot easier to plan.

Q. Have you made any changes that you hope future officers will keep once in-person activities resume?

Léonard: I think the buddy program at the beginning of the year since it helps first years make connections earlier in the semester.

Dan: And I like the idea of continuing Zoom calls in the summer, when you have students doing internships around the world, and being able to make sure that they're included in events. In the past, I think all of the summer events were in-person events.

Leann: I agree that Zoom can enhance some interactions, so I’m excited to see how the balance will be struck between the accessibility of remote events and the opportunity to meet in-person when we have that option.

Q. Any final thoughts that you would like to share with other student chapters?

Léonard: Take advantage of the remote connection. People across the world can access Zoom, and especially with the breakout rooms, it's easier to meet and interact with different people. Also, keeping the sense of community is important whether we are remote or on campus. It feels good to see people happy to reconnect after maybe they felt alone in the first few months of the pandemic. So don’t abandon the community, and always try to reach out!

Note: Interview has been edited for clarity and length.