Exploring the Power of Community and Cultural Bonds

Grace McMillan, a senior originating from western New York state, was raised in an all-female intergenerational household. Her grandmother and mother sought refuge from the USSR in the 1980s, and they were the sole Ukrainian family in their semi-rural community.

“My mom shared the hardships she faced growing up,” McMillan reflects. “Her stories taught me that I control my destiny and can achieve anything with determination.”

Fascinated by space from an early age through movies, McMillan delved into the academic requirements for becoming an astronaut on the NASA portal. “Realizing I needed a bachelor’s degree, I set my sights on MIT,” she recounts.

Securing Early Decision placement with a full scholarship via QuestBridge, an initiative linking accomplished, low-income high schoolers with elite institutions, was a dream come true for McMillan.

Moving to MIT was a significant shift, especially adapting to urban life in Boston as a first-year student. “It was overwhelming. The skyscrapers towered over me, and the city buzzed with activity,” she remembers. Concurrently, her autoimmune condition flared up, leading to multiple hospitalizations that spring. “The staff at MIT Health were exceptional, always attentive and referred me to the appropriate specialists,” she recounts.

Enduring her health challenges, McMillan remained focused on her well-being while excelling academically. Presently, she plays an active role in enhancing on-campus healthcare accessibility as a student representative on the MIT Health Consumers’ Advisory Council.

Marriage of Humanities and Engineering

In a decisive turn, McMillan shifted her passion from space exploration but maintained her pursuit of excellence.

Opting for Course 21E (Humanities and Engineering), a challenging dual degree program offered by the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, she embraced the humanities.

“My love for literature was so profound that before joining MIT, I knew I would delve into the humanities,” McMillan acknowledges. Although writing didn’t come naturally to her, she enrolled in literature courses that emphasized writing to hone her skills and boost her communication expertise.

Her humanities studies encompassed learning Russian—a language spoken at home but never formally taught. Under Maria Khotimsky’s tutelage, a senior lecturer instrumental in shaping MIT’s Russian curriculum, McMillan received unwavering support. “Her classes were transformative, refining my Russian speaking abilities and fostering personal growth,” she adds.

Encouraged by Khotimsky, she participated in a Russian language immersion program in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, residing with a local family for eight weeks in the summer of 2022. The experience evoked memories of her simpler upbringing in upstate New York. “Boston, with its reliance on technology, sometimes neglects simple solutions,” McMillan observes.

“Effective Communication in Engineering”

Embracing this global outlook, McMillan steered it towards a collaborative capstone engineering project centered on developing a computer-free laser-powered cutting machine for artists.

Explaining the concept, she states, “Users draw on the material, and our device performs the cutting automatically. Equipped with a built-in camera and program, the laser functions sans computer interaction.”

Attributing her improved teamwork skills to her humanities studies, McMillan emphasizes the importance of communication for engineers. “Even if you possess exceptional intellect, articulating your ideas effectively is paramount,” she highlights.

In her junior year, McMillan joined the Sigma Kappa sorority, seeking to counterbalance her digital confinement during the Covid era with human interaction. Residing in the sorority house ranks among her top collegiate decisions, fostering an environment of mutual support for academic and personal growth.

When not engaged in academic pursuits or sorority activities, McMillan dedicates her time in the library preparing for the Law School Admission Test. Committed to leveraging her legal expertise in education policy reform, she aims to provide equitable opportunities for all students. “My mentors and teachers advocated for me during my childhood. I aspire to pay it forward by advocating for every student’s access to quality education,” she asserts.

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