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The Real MIT

Confessions of a student tour guide

Every time I lead a campus tour, someone in my group asks me how I got into the business. “I used to do musical theater,” I tell them. “But after a couple of Off-Off-Broadway shows that never caught on, I left my job as a waitress and decided to come here.”

MIT tour guide Sarah Proehl ’09 gives pop quizzes to keep visitors on their toes.

It usually takes a few seconds for people to realize I’m kidding. But that’s why I give tours. Those who can’t do comedy, guide.

As a tour guide, it is my job to convey that MIT–a place where students work harder than they have ever worked in their lives, where there are nights when we don’t sleep, and where we learn that we are not actually the smartest people on this planet–is indeed a good place.

I started leading tours the spring of my freshman year. After my first, someone came up to me and said, “I didn’t realize people like you went to MIT.”

“What do you mean, people like me?” I asked.

“You know, talkative people.” My heart sank as I thought about how often the media portrays MIT students as socially challenged freaks. (This was before the movie 21 depicted us as high rollers whose vocabulary did not contain the phrase problem set.)

It seems that the general public associates “MIT” with “smart,” and beyond that, impressions are fuzzy. Before I got here, I had no idea whether people even socialized. I pictured MIT as a cement jungle, filled with faceless beings. And equations. But after I arrived, I found people who had biked across the country, a student who started his first company when he was 15, and a Scrabble master. These kids weren’t just smart; they were extraordinary, and they had all congregated at MIT.

I was determined to present this more accurate picture of MIT to visitors, so when I became a tour guide, I vowed to wow. I remember attending horribly generic college tours, shuffling along the sidewalk hoping to catch every third word of the guide’s spiel; five years later, everything has blended into one blurry speech about diversity, study-abroad opportunities, and flexible meal plans. To make sure that ­people would never forget my tour–or MIT–I designed a script containing stories, jokes, and scientific quizzes.

I start out with a brief history of MIT, pointing out that we have a long tradition of coeducation that dates back to the early 1870s–unlike some schools belonging to an elite group named after a creeping plant. We then head to Killian Court, where I mention that we are often able to get out of our rooms to play flag football in our letter sweaters. On one tour, a note taker, intent on asking intelligent follow-up questions, wrote that down. I explained that I was joking and requested that he strike it from the record.

We continue through Building 2 toward Hayden Library, where I discuss the humani­ties at MIT, and then out to the Green Building, where I talk about how the Time Travelers’ Convention made it into the New York Times. I also tell a great rendition of the Caltech cannon story, during which I manage to talk about Campus Preview Weekend, the brass rat, free printing on campus, and the MIT Police.

This, however, is probably not as memorable as the story I tell about my quest to make some extra money for my caffeine fund, which starts with a job at the front desk of my freshman dorm and ends with me in a human centrifuge experiment somewhere near Building 37. Next we head to the Stata Center and then Barker, where I offer a thorough explanation of the significance of the Möbius strip.

As we reach West Campus, I spring my quiz. The first question is to guess the number of stories in Simmons Hall–someone once guessed 96–to win a high five. The second question has two parts. During part A, people raise their hands if they have taken physics. In part B, I ask those who have taken physics to volunteer to answer a simple question about the properties of reflection (the answer is “angle of incidence equals angle of reflection”), and then I lead them past the moat.

I end with the story of the Smoot–one that I think proves you can enter MIT as an ordinary person and, if you so desire, become a legend.

If not, there’s always tour guiding.

Chemistry major Sarah Proehl ‘09 can be seen on Friday afternoons walking backwards through the Infinite. She plans to attend medical school next year.

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