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Life lessons from the climbing wall
MIT NEWS OFFICE, Life lessons from the climbing wall, Nov 09, 2016

Charlie Andrews-Jubelt loves to climb. A rock climber since childhood, he finds that the sport can profoundly connect people, even those who may not seem to have much in common.

“On a fundamental level, we are trying for something very basic and human, which is to ascend a rock,” the MIT senior says. 

At its heart, climbing is also about looking out for our fellow humans.

“You save each other’s lives every time you catch your partner on the other end of a rope, and you go through this highly personal experience with them. When you step up to a climb that you are not sure that you can do, you may fail in front of them or succeed with their encouragement,” he says.

For Andrews-Jubelt, this “we’re in this together” mindset extends well beyond the climbing wall. During his time at MIT, the mathematics with computer science major has taken on multiple leadership roles to help empower his peers and foster a supportive community on campus.

Motivated by empathy

When Andrews-Jubelt first came to MIT, he had an injury that made it impossible for him to climb. He remembers feeling frustrated and confined, like someone who used to walk and was being asked to crawl again.

In retrospect, he says, this experience pushed him to become involved in activities he never would have had time for had he been training and competing as a climber. He started volunteering with Violence Prevention and Response (VPR) in MIT’s Division of Student Life, and the group Students Advocating for Education and Respectful Relationships (SAFER). He also became the CEO of Lean on Me, a text-based, anonymous, suicide-prevention peer-support network.

SAFER was an entirely student-run group that ran workshops on preventing sexual assault, and it has now been incorporated into broader effort known as Pleasure (for Peers Leading Education About Sexuality and Speaking Up for Relationship Empowerment).

“I grew up in a household with just my mom and my sister, and I saw that they faced a great deal more sexual harassment and discrimination just as a matter of course, in their everyday lives, just by virtue of being female-bodied,” Andrews-Jubelt says. When he found that sexual assault is common on college campuses, he knew he wanted to do something about it: “I felt that I had the responsibility to, as someone who has a lot of gender privilege.”

“It meant a lot to me to be able to make a difference, even at a grassroots level,” Andrews-Jubelt says of SAFER, whose objectives were to “share ideas that help people feel empowered, and help people prevent gender-based violence from happening. Or react when they see it happening.”

Andrews-Jubelt is also part of the Pleasure student advisory board assembled by Vienna Rothberg, a peer education and prevention specialist at VPR, which helped develop new student programming. Pleasure focuses on issues “upstream” of SAFER, “bringing cultural change to promote an environment of respect in which violence is rare,” says Andrews-Jubelt.

Pleasure facilitates a clinic for sexually transmitted infections so that students can get tested in the same way they might get a flu shot. Every dorm at MIT has a student who has been trained on topics from sexual health to identity politics, and who provides fun, related educational materials and answers questions from other students.

A process of self-actualization

Last April, Andrews-Jubelt joined Nikhil Buduma, Linda Jing, Amin Manna, and Andy Trattner at Lean on Me, a peer support network that was born at the 2015 HackMIT hackathon. Lean on Me was chosen to participate in the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator (now known as the delta V startup accelerator) at MIT over the summer of 2016. Though he did not have much experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to the summer, Andrews-Jubelt has become the CEO.

Lean on Me provides immediate, anonymous peer support to people on college campuses. Users text a number, and their text is answered by a trained responder. Lean on Me is spreading to other campuses across the U.S., most recently the University of Chicago. “I like to think that we are reaching a tipping point, beyond which it would be feasible to sustain a full-time team with this,” Andrews-Jubelt says.

While he wasn’t a founder, Andrews-Jubelt tries to bring a personal touch as CEO. “My goal has been for working on Lean on Me to be sort of a process of self-actualization,” he says. “Instead of being assigned a task, I want [my teammates] to feel like they are given an opportunity to move closer to who they want to be. That is the leadership style that I strive for.”

Since his recovery, Andrews-Jubelt also co-founded the MIT Climbing Team with fellow students Amelia Becker and Aditya Bhattaru. He thinks their team is on track to becoming as competitive as Northeastern University, a school with a recently founded climbing team that has hundreds of people show up to tryouts each year.

He is also competing on “Team Ninja Warrior: College Madness” this November. After applying to be on the regular season last year, Andrews-Jubelt was invited to try out for the first season of College Madness. Very excited, he sent around an email to look for teammates and found several students who were willing. He and his team finished competing and filming in August, and the show will air at the end of November. Viewers will have to wait until the show airs at end of the month to learn the results.

Computer science as a bridge

As a junior, Andrews-Jubelt worked in the lab of Pawan Sinha, through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), on a project to test whether autism is a disorder of prediction. This hypothesis suggests that the fundamental difficulty for people with autism is an inability to predict events, or a person’s behavior based on their past actions.

If proven, Andrews-Jubelt says this hypothesis would offer a useful, predictive, and empathy-building understanding of a wide array of symptoms that seem otherwise unrelated, such as impaired sensory habituation and difficulty interpreting social cues. He set up and analyzed experiments that used body trackers to characterize how prediction impairment affected ball-catching in neurotypical children and in children with autism spectrum disorder.

After graduation, Andrews-Jubelt wants to build technologies that will solve problems for underserved communities. He sees computer science as a bridge between the abstraction of math and something that can directly impact peoples’ lives. “I think there is a reason I came to school to be a technologist. But I’ve also discovered that solving a problem that I don’t emotionally connect with is less motivating to me,” says Andrews-Jubelt.

While he is encouraged that he has been able to help other college students grapple with mental and sexual health, he wants to work on larger, maybe global problems, outside of what has affected him and his immediate community.

“I have considered working in social entrepreneurship or academia — ultimately I think I will seek out a combination of both. I think they both have advantages to addressing these kinds of problems, and their own drawbacks. I think ultimately I’m going to draw fulfillment from working on a problem that really matters to people.”