Alyssa Napier ’16
MIT chemistry major
41st Annual MLK Leadership Award
Senior Alyssa Napier '16 is a chemistry major with a minor in linguistics. She received the undergraduate MLK Leadership Award for her passionate activism on campus since the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, MO. Napier was recognized for organizing a dialogue between local/campus police and the students of Black Lives Matter, and initiating conversations about what MIT culture means to students, faculty, and staff.
“MIT has been wonderful in helping me accomplish all of my academic and professional goals," she says. "But there’s also the flip side of what MIT culture is, and I feel like I don’t fit in.” Recognizing that others might share that feeling, she has spent a lot of time working to shift certain aspects of MIT culture.
In 2015, she served on the committee that planned MC2, an annual conference that gives MIT students a venue for talking about multiculturalism and diversity. “We basically have really difficult, uncomfortable conversations about identity and how these different categories fit into our identity, and it’s wonderful,” Napier explains.
The planning committee chose the theme “People before P-sets” — shorthand for problem sets, a mainstay of teaching at MIT — to ask whether MIT’s culture needs to shift. Napier doesn’t feel that people always come before coursework at MIT. “Mostly in practice we see people putting academics or their professional lives before relationships,” she says. “And it just doesn’t work.”
The MC2 conference, attended by about 50 students, initiated deep conversations about MIT culture, which Napier and the committee then worked to bring to the larger MIT community. One approach was to set up tables where MIT community members could record their impressions of what the Institute values, and what they personally value. The exercise revealed some mismatches between MIT values and individual values; in conjunction with the Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO), Napier is now working to raise awareness of these mismatches so the community can make progress.
Napier describes how difficult some MIT students have found it to deal with tragedies — such as student deaths, and the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent killing of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier — in an intense academic environment. “It’s that feeling that I can’t take a moment to pause because if I do, I will get behind,” she says.
She commends President L. Rafael Reif’s efforts to transform MIT into a place known not only for science and technology, but also for its humility, compassion, and caring — as well as this semester’s Community Conversations, organized by the ICEO to make MIT a more compassionate place. Napier hopes MIT culture will continue to become more focused on people and interpersonal relationships.