Burchard Scholars gather to network, connect, and learn

The Burchard Scholars dinner series helps create conversations between academic disciplines.

The  Burchard Scholars Program  pairs expert faculty with promising MIT sophomores and juniors who have demonstrated excellence in the humanities, arts, or social sciences. Launched in 1986, the program continues to demonstrate the importance of an integrated approach to scholarship and education. 

Administered by the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), the program features a series of dinner discussions between student participants and experts and thought leaders from across SHASS disciplines. The scholars, with the support of guest speakers and faculty fellows, develop respectful and adaptable approaches to engaging in complex intellectual discussions. The program is named in honor of John Ely Burchard, former dean of SHASS.

MIT students chosen to be Burchard Scholars are consistently among finalists for  Rhodes ,  Marshall , and other major scholarships and fellowships.

About 35 MIT undergraduates are selected each year for the competitive program. Each cohort of scholars participate for one calendar year, from February through December.

Willow Huang, a biological engineering major, just wrapped a year as a Burchard Scholar, and calls it a valuable experience. "I’m glad I applied," she says. "We had thought-provoking talks over the course of the year." 

Huang also praises the program for helping her improve her comprehension and communication skills. 

"These will undoubtedly help me in my career," she says. "Attaining a level of knowledge in fields like art, history, and literature is an essential part of our education, as it broadens our perspective and helps us make more sense of things like cultural phenomena and political issues."

Margery Resnick , a professor of literature  and women’s and gender studies , is the Burchard Scholars program director. Resnick launched the faculty fellows component of the scholars program 15 years ago.

"These faculty members provide a consistent presence at the Burchards, since they attend the dinners and events and get to know the students well," she says.

The faculty fellows, chosen by the dean, select the Burchard class and help create a valuable support system for students.

"By the end of the Burchard year, students know a range of faculty, not only the fellows, but also the speakers who come from different programs in the school," Resnick says. "Most importantly, over the course of the year, students get to know each other and the faculty fellows well."

The final Burchard Scholars dinner of 2023 was held Nov. 1 at Catalyst restaurant in Cambridge.

Before the dinners, faculty mix with students and come to know each other beyond the classroom. The faculty fellows then sit among the students, and, over dinner, exchange ideas based on the presentation.

"Conversations over dinner are lively, fun and engaging," Resnick says.

"The scholars represent a diverse swath of studies across the Institute," she adds, "But all are curious about fields other than their own." 

Martin Beraja , the dinner’s guest on Nov. 1, is an MIT economist who studies the role of government policy in stabilizing business cycles and responding to the challenges posed by new digital and automation technologies. He presented "Artificial Intelligence and Governments: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" during the Burchard Scholars dinner.

The variety of presentation topics is a highlight for students chosen to be part of this year’s Burchard Scholars class.

"We’ll move our world forward by combining disciplines, not by staying in silos," math and computer science major Laker Newhouse said after the dinner. "With highly capable AI on the horizon, it is important to build diverse, broad coalitions to secure a bright future."

Benjamin Lou, a double major in math and physics and a philosophy minor, speaks highly of the opportunity to explore ideas outside his academic area. "Burchard shows other SHASS disciplines are valuable," he notes.

Senior Iana Ferguson, a physics major, enjoyed this year’s dinner series. "It’s a setting where you hear topics you wouldn’t otherwise get," she says. "Connecting disciplines has value outside physics."

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