Cherish Thick Communities

Since graduating from Caltech five years ago, I have gone back to visit on eight occasions, for at least a week each trip. Why? What keeps drawing me back there?

It’s definitely not because of the location; as much as I like In-N-Out and boba milk tea, they aren’t worth flying across the country for. Actually, each visit has driven home more and more to me that I don’t really want to live in LA long-term, with its ridiculous sprawl, traffic, and general lack of a third dimension.

Photo courtesy of Brynan Qiu, who was riding with me in a rental car I was driving.

No, it’s the community that I keep coming back for. First and foremost, I come back to visit Avery House, the dorm-that’s-much-more-than-a-dorm where I lived throughout my time there. On visits my first three years, I actually stayed in Avery itself, sleeping on coincidentally empty beds in my friends’ rooms. Whether I’m staying there or not, I always squeeze in a couple visits to house dinners, and spend time going around and talking to friends.

The biggest draw each year is the opportunity to help some of the seniors out with Ditch Day. Per Caltech tradition, on Ditch Day, seniors are responsible for creating puzzles and activities to occupy the underclassmen for the course of the day. Seniors aren’t “allowed” to be on campus for the day itself, so they invite alumni to come back and help guide the underclassmen around. It naturally becomes a rallying point for recent alums to visit (much more so than official alumni weekend events, at least in Avery).

Some of the students on the “stack” that I helped out on trying to decode a series of Escape Room-style puzzles. Photo by Brynan Qiu.

It’s always exciting to see what the seniors have poured their months of work into, and how these projects (called “stacks”) in some ways reflect their personalities. Personally, I love planning complicated series of activities, whether it’s a birthday party or a softball league, so Ditch Day is right up my alley. It’s also a joy to see the underclassmen having fun, working together to solve puzzles, and just hanging out with them. The last few years, most Avery stacks have ended up at the beach, which also gives us long car rides to get into deep discussions together.

The seniors, alums, and most of the students on the “Calvin and Hobbes” stack at the beach at the end of the day. I’m near the right in the shade. The five seniors who designed the stack are in the front row: Yuka, Gauri, Jenny, Jingwei, and John. Photo courtesy of Brynan Qiu.

One natural question you might be wondering: How do you even know these seniors? Didn’t you graduate before they got there? Well, I’ve visited so many times and gotten to know them so well during my previous visits that they keep inviting me back. It was on the same beach a year ago when Jenny asked me to come back again this year. I don’t know how long my streak will last, but even though I never overlapped with Jenny and the other seniors, this was the sixth time I’ve seen them on a visit to Caltech.

It’s definitely unusual, but also somewhat special to have gotten to know these seniors in this way. When I’m just visiting for a short period of time, the conversations get deeper that much more quickly. Yuka, John and Jenny are all Christians and were leaders in different capacities in the Caltech Christian Fellowship, and I remember talking and praying with them about how it was going. Even Jingwei, who I met for the first time on this trip, immediately started asking me questions about grad school.

Avery House is one of the communities I thought of when I read David Brooks’ fantastic column, “How to Leave a Mark on People” a couple months ago. Brooks contrasts what he and others call thin and thick institutions, organizations, and communities:

Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory. […] A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul.

(Or as MIT’s motto goes, Mens et Manus… et Spiritus!) Brooks goes on to describe many more features of thick institutions:

  • A physical location, often cramped, where members meet face to face on a regular basis
  • A set of collective rituals
  • Shared tasks
  • A sacred origin story
  • Incorporating music in daily life
  • A common ideal
  • An idiosyncratic local culture
  • A shared goal
  • Initiation rituals
  • A sacred guidebook or object passed down from generation to generation
  • Distinct jargon
  • A different moral ecology: People tend to like the version of themselves that is called forth by such places.
  • Intimacy and identity borne out of common love

For me, Avery House was certainly a thick institution, a place that became a part of my identity and shaped me in so many other ways. Most of those characteristics apply, but I think the essence of “thickness” doesn’t come from these particulars, but from an overall feeling or ethos in the community. As I remember one person putting it, some enter such communities looking merely for a girlfriend or boyfriend, but many in Avery seemed to be looking for new best friends.

Avery isn’t the only thick community in California that I go back to visit. I intentionally planned my flights to be there for two Sunday services at my church there, a small predominantly Asian Baptist church called Hill Community Church (when I was a student, it was called Life Baptist Church). Primarily through these trips, I’ve remained close with Pastor Ray Choi, who flew out to Boston for my wedding, and with my good friend Peter Ngo, who was my freshman year roommate in Avery, a groomsman in my wedding and host for my trip this year, among others.

HCC is small, but it’s very close-knit. As I got to see, Pastor Ray and other members of the church frequently hang out, drink boba, and/or get work done together on Sundays after the worship gathering and Wednesdays after their weekly prayer meeting. One thing that initially drew me to the church was the fact that they enjoy a meal together after every Sunday gathering, provided by the church. Beyond the appeal of free food, I also could tell that they wanted to go beyond a bunch of isolated vertical relationships with God to live together in a thick community. I wrote more extensively about that community and my friends who stayed in the area to support it in a similar reflection to on my sixth visit to Caltech two years ago.

The last couple years, there’s even become a third thick community that I’ve enjoyed getting together with every time I visit LA. Two years ago, two of the couples from my community group at my church here in Boston both moved to LA as the husbands, close friends in the AeroAstro Master’s program, took jobs in the area. Last year, a third couple from our group joined them, moving in with one of the other couples. We found a good day to get together over dinner at the Original Farmer’s Market on this visit, and I got to hear about their lives.

My LA friends all from the City on a Hill Cambridge community group, from left to right, top to bottom: Sam Schreiner, Caleb Schreiner, Christiana Jedamski, Jordan Conway, Becca Schreiner, Matt Conway, Devon Jedamski. (Though I guess Caleb wasn’t in the community group yet.)

In that community, as you can probably tell from the pictures, babies are the hot new thing. This was my second opportunity to meet Caleb, and Becca and Christiana were both pregnant with the same due date later this year! We only had that one evening to catch up, but it was great to hear and see all of the new and exciting developments in their lives and careers. Definitely worth the one-way 76-minute Uber ride in LA traffic to get to them.

When I read David Brooks write that many thick communities “experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink,” I think about that community group. For the first three years, we were led by a couple who knew they were graduating from MIT and the area at the end of the year, and had no plans or even hopes for how our group would even last another year. Sam and Becca were the last of those three couples to lead the group, and our current leaders Eduardo and Lisa moved to the area in November of that school year. They fortunately have no plans to leave, so we’ve exited that perilous cycle, but with that stability has also come a degree of complacency that wasn’t present before.

Here’s another story to drive home how close that community was: In February of the year Sam and Becca were leading, we got the heaviest snowfall Boston has ever experienced. It seemed to snow every Sunday or Monday, and it was so bad one Sunday that the entire public transportation system shut down. Naturally, our church and many of the others in the area cancelled services. Undeterred, Sam and Becca invited us over to their apartment that Sunday to have a mini church service together. We sang a couple songs and shared a meal together, and it’s always stayed in my mind as an example of the fervor and passion that made that community group so close.

Yet even in the midst of my trip, for me primarily a celebration of these three thick communities I’ve been blessed to be a part of, I was reminded of how fragile and precious they are.

This was most obvious with the community group friends now — they all graduated and moved away to LA, essentially putting that community on hold. As I caught up with them, I learned that some had found great communities at their churches in the LA area, but it hadn’t worked out for all of them. The natural question to ask was whether their new churches were similar to CoaH in terms of preaching, setup/teardown, and other externally visible features, but the more important question was whether there was a thick community there they had plugged into.

Visiting HCC also brought that fragility to mind. Numbers aren’t nearly everything, but there was no getting around the fact that far fewer students were there the two Sundays I visited than had been when I was a student. I had to count attendance at one point when we needed to coordinate rides for the 30+ students who were coming, but for the two weeks I was there, it was down to less than five each week, and most of them were seniors. The community among non-students seemed as close as ever, but Caltech students didn’t seem to be attracted in the same way that I had seen in my time there.

Even in Avery, which has better institutional support, the upperclassmen are perpetually in a state of dismay over the continued cultural evolution of the house. This might actually be somewhat of an illusion: As you age, if you take on more qualities of your house, the freshmen will always seem to be less representative even if the culture isn’t changing. On one of the car rides, I quizzed a couple of the underclassmen on the distinctive qualities of Avery, and they seemed basically the same as they had been during the time that I was there.

But still, over the years, there have been some definite changes of policy which signal a change in culture (in particular, the introduction of biweekly dinner announcements and wet Interhouse parties) that show that Avery has lost some of its initial distinctiveness. The time capsule nature of visiting every year makes some things apparent; at Avery’s alumni weekend gathering, we got to watch the Avery house videos from 2006, 2009, and 2016, and beyond knowing the students, I definitely found myself particularly identifying with the Avery that put together that 2009 video, which ended with this music video:

On top of the general evolution of the houses, in my experience there is always a hint of administrative displeasure at the distinctiveness of these houses, and a desire to make them all the same. Caltech is remarkable in the extent to which it grants sovereignty to the students to decide what their houses mean to them, even giving the students wide leeway in choosing which freshmen join their houses.

Yet they still can’t resist meddling in even the most well-behaved houses. In at least one year, Avery was given a cap on the number of Asian students we could admit, out of concerns that we were becoming too homogeneous. As a non-Asian who thrived in Avery, I want to say that I really appreciated the exposure I got to Asian American culture through living there. Avery provided the environment where I discovered that part of myself, and even today, many of my friends at MIT (and my wife!) are Asian or Asian American. In other words, Avery helped me discover that I’m something of an egg: white on the outside, yellow on the inside, and it wouldn’t have been the same without the high percentage (~80%) of Asian and Asian American students there.

The debate these days at Caltech is over the new dorm called Bechtel being built to the west of Avery, which will be twice as big as Avery, and together with current housing will allow all undergraduates who want to live on campus to do so. One proposal, which has been under discussion for at least four years by now, is to turn that dorm into an all-freshman housing, leaving the houses to be populated by upperclassmen only. This proposal is rather unpopular with both students and alumni, who point to the value of having upperclassmen present to help the freshmen navigate the challenges of Caltech.

But at the center of this debate is also a core question about the Caltech House system in general: Does it help students to have upperclassmen giving them advice and influencing them, for better or for worse? In the debate over this freshman housing option, it’s seemed to me that those who support it tend to think of Caltech transactionally, in terms of providing necessary skills and providing positive influences, while those who vociferously defend the current and historical House system see their college experience as much more formative than that. In other words, the debate seems to be entirely about whether you see Caltech as a thin or a thick community.

MIT’s administration unfortunately seems to be taking the same perspective of college-as-thin-community. After demolishing Bexley Hall a couple years ago with no attempt to rebuild the community elsewhere, just last Friday, MIT announced that it would be attempting to gut the culture of Senior Haus, the edgy MIT equivalent of Caltech’s Ricketts. No freshmen will be housed there this fall, and the administration essentially seems to be trying to give it a forced culture makeover.

I don’t personally have any connection to Senior House — now that Bexley is gone, it’s actually the only MIT dorm I haven’t set foot in. We could argue all day about the various causes behind its low graduation rate or frequent drug problems, but I’d like to point out that the tendency of administrations like MIT’s and Caltech’s is to focus on those transaction-level characteristics and ignore the question of the thickness of the communities and its importance to students there. Given some of the student reactions to this action (e.g. this and this), it seems that there has indeed been a thick community in Senior Haus, an important factor which the administration seems to be ignoring.

Taking a step back, how do you find thick communities? This is a good question, and an important one. When you move to a new area, as Grace and I will be doing when we move to Singapore, how do you find these thick institutions to join?

Some have it relatively easy. For Caltech and MIT students, it’s often very natural to plug into your house community when you get to college. Others will find thick communities on a sports team or other club. Upon getting to grad school, the first thick community I found here was the Graduate Christian Fellowship. It’s the community where I ultimately found my wife (although some do treat that search like a transaction), and I’ve been encouraged by the numerous examples of my fellow graduate students choosing to stick around the Boston area after graduating to stay a part of this thick community.

But what about after we leave the cocoon of college? For Christians, this often means that you find a good church. Through our softball team and volunteering with the church in various capacities, I’ve gotten to know another thick community of core church members, which overlaps with but is definitely distinct from my community group. Many of these members have young children; for instance, I’ve heard of a Facebook messenger group or e-mail list for new moms among this crowd.

At the same time, churches don’t always provide such opportunities. The consumerist mindset that has made church into another dispenser of services makes some communities thin. In my experience, at the very least, there needs to be some avenue outside of the Sunday gatherings to build that community, like a community group or prayer meeting. For many of my friends at churches without such depth or who personally have chosen not to seek that depth, church is simply a thin community where they simply sing God’s praises and receive biblical instruction.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a fully general answer for how to find thick communities. But I have learned to recognize their existence and value to those who are a part of them, even if administrations and consumerist mindsets ignore them. And as my repeated trips across the country show, I’ve learned to cherish them.

4 responses to “Cherish Thick Communities

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