Help us use our knowledge for greater good
A conversation with Kiara Wahnschafft (May 13, 2021)
By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman (Decade Ahead Project)
Before the pandemic, MIT was “very much a bubble, [with] students taking pride in not knowing what’s going on in the wider world,” says student Kiara Wahnschafft. A typical view was: “I work on my problem sets and that’s it.” But Covid-19 “brought us face to face with social issues that you cannot ignore.” As a result of the year, she says, “People care a lot more and are willing to voice positions.” Kiara tells us that equity, social justice, ethical responsibility and climate change are not just topics for discussion outside of class. “Limiting the scope of classes to just teach you about knowledge is silly,” she says. Addressing social impact and broader relevance: “MIT needs to weave that throughout our courses.”
An MIT junior majoring in mechanical engineering and economics and an officer of the undergraduate student government, Kiara started her first company at age 16. After a classmate passed away from a drunk driving accident, Kiara and two other students created a prototype car key that works only after the driver passes a breathalyzer test, ultimately patenting the product and winning several competitions. In her “odd unforeseeable path through MIT,” Kiara studied computer science until a summer internship at Microsoft left her feeling that CS might not give her the kind of impact she wanted. She then switched to mechanical engineering, working on equitable design and traveling to Nairobi to improve sanitation in urban settlements. Because, “all of these problems seemed surface-level relative to deeper-level systemic problems,” she then dove into economics research aimed toward helping Kenyan workers develop skills needed for digital work.
How did the pandemic affect her year of college? For her classmates, “A lot of people at first went home, then over the summer things shifted a little bit… People started to live with friends, lots of people stayed at home… I thought a lot more people would take gap semesters … but most kept in school to stay on track to graduate.” For Kiara, she used the time to focus on research, her role in the Undergraduate Association (UA), part time work, and a “mish-mosh of other things.” Reflecting on her decision to stay enrolled but take a lower course load, Kiara says “I’m really glad I did it” because of the time it gave her to build relationships. “Ironically, I have built a million more relationships than I would have been able to in person.” She saw a great benefit to connecting online: “It feels that barriers are much lower because you can be on the same plane as people much older [and more powerful] than you are.” MIT also set up a COVID mentor for her. Kiara met regularly with 75-year-old alumnus Kim who pushed her to think of her advisors and professors as more like “life coaches” and mentors than she “would have done otherwise.”
The pandemic also pushed Kiara to rethink what she wants to get out of college. Typically, a student might “go four years without applying what you were learning,” she says. She now ponders questions like: “what’s the impact you want to make? What are the ways in which what I’m doing might potentially be harmful?,” aiming to live every day in a more thoughtful and informed manner. Thinking about her classmates, Kiara says that “MIT students are not judicious about where they should put their talent” and blames some of that on the institution. “When you walk into a job fair, you instantly become a Course 6,” the MIT lingo for CS major. “You aren’t thinking that you could possibly do something impactful by not going to a big tech company.” Kiara laments that the job fair does not offer impactful alternatives like the UN or the World Bank. Citing data about how students’ perceptions change over their four years on campus, Kiara provocatively suggests that “MIT is making people less interested in doing good in the world.” Reflecting further, Kiara challenges the way she sees MIT positioning itself: “MIT sees itself as a research institution” producing only unbiased knowledge and not taking an ethical or advocacy position. But she believes MIT should do more: “MIT can produce research and [at the same time] engage public and private sector actors on goals that they want to achieve.”
What’s the ideal college experience?, we ask. For a lot of people, the college experience is “four years and boom it’s gone,” Kiara says. For her, college should help students answer the more fundamental questions: “Who are you? Who are you becoming?” To help, the university should “create more touch points that get students to think about what they want out of their time there at a university.” Then to help students understand how to apply what they are learning, “get instructors to not just teach content but help students figure out what to do with that knowledge.” Kiara’s commitment to improving MIT runs deep: “I didn’t want to leave without making the institution better.” She seems to be well on that path.