Olin: An “Alien” Perspective

At Olin College of Unspoken Privilege, we don’t have enough open, honest conversations about the culture that makes you feel out of place for feeling out of place. And a lot of people feel out of place at Olin, a lot of people don’t vibe with the conversations in the dining hall, a lot of people feel awkward, left-behind, lonely – far detached from the caring, close-knit community they were promised at Olin. We need to recognize this, and we need to understand why.

We need to talk. Here’s an international student perspective. 

Over a month ago, I interviewed four international students, each from a different country. Those conversations were some of the most honest and powerful I have had so far in my life, and they made me realize that there are so many powerful stories hidden unexpressed behind these inspiring people, each with rich, unique sociocultural backgrounds. 

I suppose that’s why I’m doing this. To raise awareness that at Olin, there is a small community of students legally labeled as ‘aliens’ by the US government. These students leave behind most of what is familiar to them and fly across the world, and many of them struggle. I’m writing this to help unpack those stories, and to help unpack my story.

I don’t claim to speak for all international students. The opinions in this piece are my personal perspective, with reinforcement from my four interviewees, each of whom come from diverse countries and backgrounds and have vastly different views on America and Olin.

Olin’s work culture for example – coming from the hypercompetitive, scarce work environment in India, Olin initially seemed like a dream to me. People were living their life to the fullest and creating space for hobbies, clubs, project teams – things that brought them joy! But three of my interviewees had the opposite take – they felt that compared to their countries Olin, and in their experience, America in general, has too strong of a workaholic culture. One of them called it ‘internalized capitalism’. Neither viewpoint is incorrect. However, the sharp difference in perspectives was eye-opening, and it made me question my generalizations about my international student experience.

But we, international students, do have many shared experiences. One of the biggest challenges I faced when transitioning into Olin was simply being able to hold conversations. I was not at all prepared for how difficult it would be to engage with people. One of my interviewees spoke about not understanding the references from movies, the conversational contexts, baseball – it all fed into the imposter syndrome, the lingering feeling that they didn’t belong here. It’s often difficult to realize that American insularity exists, especially because of the tiny size of Olin’s international student community. While 28% of Babson’s undergraduate student body is international students, Olin is at around 8%. International students at Olin lack the cultural support communities traditionally available at other, larger colleges, and that can make settling into Olin’s environment significantly more challenging. An interviewee even suggested making an America ‘cheat sheet’ – a list of cultural elements international students need to be aware of before interacting in social settings at Olin. It’s important to recognize that the process of adapting to Olin’s cultural space was, for me and a lot of my interviewees, slow, embarrassing, and occasionally even hurtful. An interviewee shared how hurt they had felt when they got attacked for not knowing what Indigenous Peoples’ Day was – all they wanted to do was understand and clarify. They said, “Give us more slack – assume positive intent. We’re trying to adapt to a new way of life, it’s not always easy.” 

Due to the cultural force of the USA in global media, there’s an assumption in the USA that everyone must be informed of US history, geography, and liberal political contexts. That assumption is simply not fair on international students, who, for example, never learned US history or learned an inaccurate version of it. Moreover, that lack of context can make it difficult to understand prevailing attitudes at Olin.

For example, when I first got to Olin, I was struck by the sheer amount of US-bashing by Americans. “Yeah, America sucks,” was assumed to be the default attitude. Why would anyone like this country, with all of its flaws and inequities? Yet my first reaction was, why would anyone not like this country? There’s so much here – money, resources, jobs, dialogue, freedom of speech.

There’s a very American-centered conversation in the US around empowerment. It recognizes that despite the country’s championing of democracy, a significant number of Americans don’t have access to the aforementioned privileges that dominant groups in the country do. Olin has made some progress in creating a space for this conversation, and I also believe that we have much, much further to go. However, significantly more unrecognized is the fact that many international students come from countries that systemically lack the opportunities available in the US. All that US-bashing can get hurtful – yes, the USA has massive, entrenched problems, but there is so much privilege in being able to complain. And yes, while the criticism should not stop at all costs, it is important to recognize this privilege especially in front of students who have left behind so much – family, familiarity, and a sense of belonging –  to attend college in the USA. There’s so much privilege to be fearless; the last time I expressed significant dissent against India in my high school, I was physically dragged aside and yelled at by two high school teachers in front of my entire school for nearly an hour – an experience that left me disgusted, emotionally exhausted, and terrified. It’s still unbelievable for me to hear people at Olin effortlessly and casually criticize the USA.

Olin, by design, is a privileged space. I recognize that my entire ‘American’ experience has been an Olin experience, and Olin, by any stretch of the imagination, is not representative of the USA. And so I spend a lot of time thinking about privilege at Olin, often through many of the traditional American lenses such as race and gender but also about the privilege of simply being American. All of my interviewees expressed frustration at the lack of recognition of that privilege at Olin – the privilege of being able to return home for Thanksgiving, the privilege of being familiar with Thanksgiving in the first place, the privilege of not being branded as an ‘alien’, the privilege of understanding cultural references, the privilege of not being anxious about your limited time in the USA, the privilege of belonging. And yet I recognize that some American Oliners don’t have these privileges either.

When I first thought of writing this piece, I had initially set out to rant all about how international students feel like they’re left out, in a place of privilege where their time is ticking, unsupported in an unfamiliar culture at Olin by virtue of their background. But a lot of American Oliners feel this way too! People of color, people from low-income families, and many others – and we don’t talk about this enough.

There’s value in making connections, so that diversity and inclusion efforts on campus have another voice. Yet there’s also value in differentiating – international students come from a unique, different place compared to other minority groups at Olin. Supporting the experience of being an international student should be both merged with and distinguished from diversity efforts at Olin. The first step is recognizing that international students should be getting more support.

Thank you to all the faculty, staff, and students – both international and American – who helped me with this piece. You know who you are :)

It’s (Still) Time to Talk About Divestment

The following article2 was published in the May 2016 edition of Frankly Speaking by two Oliners (and now alumni), Aaron Greiner and Izzy Harrison. They were part of a group of students who ultimately presented a proposal for fossil fuel divestment to the Board of Trustees in the spring of 2018. The conversation about divestment, mediated by Patty Gallagher (formerly the CFO), ended with students being told to wait until a new president settled into Olin.

Divesting Olin

By Aaron Greiner and Izzy Harrison on behalf of GROW

So, What is Divestment?

According to Wikipedia, “Divesting is the act of removing stocks from a portfolio based on mainly ethical, non-financial objections to certain business activities of a corporation.” One of the first times that divestment was used as a means to promote a social change was during apartheid, the extreme system of racial segregation, in South Africa. Companies, universities, organizations, local governments,  and individuals took their money out of apartheid-affiliated businesses and are partially credited with helping to dismantle the system.

Today, there is a new divestment movement. Five hundred and seven institutions and 3.4 trillion dollars have been divested from the oil and gas industries. The goal of this movement is to put financial pressure on the largest contributors to climate change and other environmental disasters in an effort to get them to behave in a more socially and environmentally responsible manner.  Sixty-one colleges have already divested in some meaningful way, and we hope Olin will join the movement.

Why Should Olin Divest?

Olin was founded on the principle of making the world a better place. Fossil fuels are unsustainable (they will run out), and are the single greatest contributors to climate change, so we believe it is against Olin’s founding principles to support fossil fuel companies  We believe that continuing to profit from the destruction of the environment through knowingly investing our money in companies that are accelerating the pace of climate change is fundamentally against Olin’s core values.

The scientific consensus is clear and overwhelming; we cannot safely burn even half of global fossil fuel reserves without dangerously warming the planet with disastrous effects1. Furthermore, as the market inevitably shifts towards more renewable energy sources, we believe an innovative institution such as Olin should be on the forefront of this change. 

We believe progressive action towards divestment will be a sound decision for the wellbeing of Olin’s alumni and current and future students. We deserve the opportunity to graduate with a future unimpaired by climate chaos.

What Have We Done so Far?

A little over a year ago, we started meeting with our CFO Patty Gallagher and Chair of the Investment Committee Doug Kahn to explore what it might look like if Olin were to divest. They were incredibly receptive, and we formed a close partnership. Over the past year, we have had many meetings and are making positive progress towards a solution that we can all get behind. In addition, we had a meeting with the investment firm that manages Olin’s money to get a sense from them about what divestment could look like while, of course, keeping the best financial interests of the school in mind. 

We are very fortunate that we are at a place like Olin where we can have meetings like this, and our collaborative approach has had positive results. The Investment Committee has begun to have discussions about the topic of divestment. We will continue to work with Doug and Patty to advance the conversation towards a mutually acceptable resolution.

Before we move forward, we want to be confident that this is something that Faculty, Staff, Board Members, and Students, can all get behind.  We are looking forward to continuing the progress in the fall and hope to keep the community updated.

It has been over four years since the article above was published. Since then, divestment from the 2003 holders of the most carbon reserves has been soundly rejected. Now, the Board is considering incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in our investment strategy. While a step in the right direction, this is essentially the bare minimum and is becoming, or has already become, standard practice4,5. This minimal acknowledgement of social and environmental realities casts them as mere externalities impacting our financial viability. Treating social and environmental issues as distinct and separable from economic issues in this way neglects the interconnectedness of the three. Olin, by continuing to profit on the climate crisis, is abjectly failing in its purported mission “to do good for humankind.” Olin is certainly not a leader among academic institutions in operational sustainability, nor in a holistic view of engineering. It’s time for Olin to recognize the contradiction of espousing leadership in integrating ethics into engineering while failing to take the action that so many of our peers (including Wellesley) already have.

Since the original article was published in 2016, the following U.S. schools have made commitments to divestment:

Interested in continuing Olin’s divestment movement? Questions, comments, or concerns?

Reach out!


Reply to Swing and a Miss: What are you Swinging at?

As I read your article this morning, I looked up and took a glance at several eager interviewees at the career fair this morning. I considered your plight: many of us aspiring engineers were drawn to the field in hopes of mastering powerful tools that will someday allow us to make enormous, tangible positive impacts on the world. Excited and a little disoriented, we took our swing—a first internship—and saw a terrible twist to our original vision. A lot of fellow engineers are working hard and building powerful tools, but many of those tools are ambiguous in impact to the world or perhaps seem detrimental long-term. A swing and a miss!

As engineers, we live to make an impact. This is our heart. Ethics often comes second. Even Leonardo da Vinci made his money by advertising and selling plans for his easy-build bridges to warlords. The distinction for da Vinci was that his bridges weren’t his biggest contributions to the world. After he had secured some money, he trusted his wits and transitioned to designing aspirational flying machines, studying biology, and making art. At the end of the day, many people will make decisions, even pivotal and life-changing ones, depending on how easy that option is to choose for them at the time. Right now, it seems that most engineers are finding it harder to build their future while holding on to their ethics, or perhaps easier to get straight into building their future if they let their ethics go. But that decision isn’t permanent for any of us. It just may be easier. Paradigm shifts happen as a whole society works to make ethical decisions easier for everyone. It is during those times that ethically conscious builders have it easy. They have a wide variety of opportunities to build a change they can be satisfied with in the world. Right now does not feel like a paradigm shift is happening. Nonetheless, we can sacrifice some amount of ease (or perhaps some amount of salary) in the name of good. Today, I also noticed stickers advocating a broader movement for engineers to refuse to build systems that they consider unethical. Refuse to Build may also become a tool for us to stabilize our direction and work towards good as engineers. 

This summer, I skipped my opportunity to work an internship and instead worked with a crew of 10 dedicated, smart people at a backcountry outpost at Philmont, a Scouts BSA camp. The work wasn’t easy and it didn’t pay well, but all of the people I met shared an eagerness to act straight from the heart. Our camp director, Ben, left his job as an engineer at Intel to work at Philmont one more time. He explained that he left because he didn’t feel like managing the 2000-step production process for Intel’s largest FPGA would get him anywhere in life. From 18 months of work, was able to pay off his student loans. He now works as a math and finance teacher. He lives in a souped-up mobile home with ‘bold and brash’ hung over the fireplace. He is a better rock climber than I will ever be, but in a way, he has put down the powerful ‘bat’ that we pick up when we become engineers. He is not the professional builder that can make an enormous impact on the world with his work. As an engineer, you’re still holding the bat. Now what are you going to do with it?

Cool or Good

A favorite pastime for me is to lay on the bare paint-chipped wood of my mom’s back porch and gaze up into the sky. When I stare at birds, planes and clouds as they breeze by, I can’t help but be fascinated by the way they move. And a lot of people feel similarly, which is why a fundamental motivation behind aerospace is that we can unlock such freeing and fascinating methods of movement with our minds. Other things in the pro column are the potential benefits like connecting the world, discovering new technologies, and a bunch of other cool things. But let’s emphasize that these are all cool things, not inherently good things, a distinction that I don’t think is made often enough. And this brings us to the key problem with aerospace: it’s too cool.

Aerospace is so cool that people are willing to ignore the con column for the sake of the pro column, and that makes it both cool and dangerous. We talk about these pleasant sounding pros like they are the main driving force, but in reality the main driving force is to continue consolidating power. The biggest indicator of this is the distribution of aerospace technology around the world. Looking around, we see the same nations that have been gaining influence through imperialism boasting the most success in aerospace and using that success to further their imperialist reach, which is riddled with violence and conflict.  And the nations on the other side of this reach are coincidentally the ones that benefit the least from the technological developments we, as engineers, make in aerospace.

So, if we continue to pretend the biggest pro for aerospace today isn’t the military power it enables but instead the great solutions aerospace could offer humanity, we must at least accept that the only people that will be experiencing the benefit of those solutions are the ones that live in privileged and comfortable countries. Two prime examples are the internet and GPS, two technologies that are born from innovation within the aerospace industry. 

Internet and GPS are incredibly convenient technologies that have made information available to millions almost instantly. I use the internet almost hourly, GPS daily, and both have become a cornerstone of humanity’s technological developments. But does the benefit we have from this small subsection of aerospace really offset all of the oppression that aerospace as an industry has contributed to over the past 80 years? I say no, based solely on the fact that many more people have been hurt or inconvenienced by aerospace, as an extension of the military-industrial complex that drives it, than those that have benefited from the internet and GPS. The internet and GPS are luxuries that can be acquired through a paywall, how can a luxury offset all the oppression?    

And what does it look like to offset this oppression? What’s the conversion rate from civilians killed to Google searches and directions to the nearest open McDonalds? I know that these technologies contribute much more than the mundane, but even considering all of the research and discoveries that the internet enables, how can we begin to quantify offset? Especially when it comes to environmental impact, a field that we could probably quantify if we put time and resources into learning how, or lives lost, where each is invaluable.

So while I stalk the birds as they fly above and jump from perch to perch, I quickly become overwhelmed trying to understand and think about aerospace’s role as a tool for humanity. There have certainly been an unignorable amount of lives lost and oppression due to the aerospace industry that continues even today. And while I agree there is a lot of potential, does that excuse the unignorable? It’s a lot to think about, and I wish that my experience in the classroom helped me think about this stuff but there are only a handful of classes offered that bother to touch on this for at least one class session. Why don’t professors teach us how to think about this stuff? I can count on one hand the number of class sessions I’ve had that covered these critical topics, and my schedule has not allowed me to take either of the two MatSci classes that critically discuss systemic oppression in our engineering supply chains. 

We need to have these conversations and introduce frameworks to think about these real and pervasive problems. As an ECE student, why is there no required class that teaches me about the impact of electrical engineering? That teaches about where our rare earth metals and other materials come from, and whose hands mine them from the ground, and how we contribute to that system. Is it not critical to understand how dirty your PCBs and components are if you are going to try to make something good out of them? This is a specific example, but one exists for every major and every class, regardless of how technical the subject is. If we don’t incorporate these crucial conversations into the classroom, then are we problem solvers or just consumers?


Aries – Never forget to love Feet or kick yourself. xoxo. Your podiatrist is waiting on your call. xoxo. He will purr loudly. xoxo. Keep your paws clean. xoxo. Do not be afraid. xoxo. 🐈

Taurus – Cheetos won’t live forever. But you will live as long as the balance between church and state remains stable. *awkward!* You’re definitely mortal. Keep an eye out for the slippery fish in your life.

Gemini – He (domestic) squeezes with force until there’s no muffins left. Add flour until thiccc. Stir in chocolate to desired chalk. Serve hot with milk and LOVE!!! <3

Cancer – Wipe your shower with your desires. Cleaning spray is not the same. Squeegee the negative energy out of your life. Charge your soap in the moonlight.

Leo – Stay alive with all tables and children upright tonight. Take a left turn, and then a right one. Arrive at Hogwarts. What’s the secret house? We’ll let you decide. Text us your thoughts (LEOs ONLY: TBD)

Virgo – Begin with your vegan chives you pretentious little b****. I love you. Call me back. Dog is mad. Did not like your chives. Get basil. EAT FAST IT”S TIME TO GO

Libra – Think hard. Submerge yourself in the words of your elders. Take a trip. Lying won’t help you, boo. Crying will. Reject her. Sorry it didn’t work out. Better luck next time. I love your smile. 

Scorpio – Keep your dreams hidden from me. Share your startup ideas with the person to your left (yes, that one!). The doctor watches from Olin’s clock tower. Be strong.

Sagittarius – Sit down and relax your beans on the iron. Then be quiet. < laughing crying emoji > You’re being too quiet. Say something. Are you mad at me? Please just tell me what’s wrong. Your beans are burning–

Capricorn – Solution and mind will survive the century. Will you? We hope so. Sit on/at top of the 3rd table in the dining hall. You got this. Mortality relies on simple arithmetic. 2 + 2 = 2 2 tango. Have fun! If you can.

Aquarius – Be brave in long banana boats. The water can’t touch you if you don’t let it. The floor is lava. Oooh! Ouch! You’re burning! Burning hot, that is. Call me! Did you get your flu shot?

Pisces – Grow them until they’re flourishing and then cut ties. Use child-safe scissors. Safety first, when applicable. You will become huge on MySpace. Hey! That’s my space! Scoundrel!