Every summer since 2005, I welcome more than a thousand students and family members arriving for the summer Pre-College program at Carnegie Mellon University. With slight variations, my remarks are substantially the same from year to year. Here is the speech I delivered today, retaining some of the punctuation marks I use privately to help when speaking aloud.
Welcome, students, families, and friends, to Carnegie Mellon.
I want to share with all of you some of my perspectives about the summer academic programs here. During the next six weeks as you walk around campus you will see other students your age who have decided to dedicate their summers to becoming finer artists in Architecture, Art and Design, Drama, and Music; who are learning how to design and develop video game technology; or who are focused on math and science. Of course I must also mention the students in the program I direct, the APEA Program, who are taking college classes from across the entire university: through the College of Engineering, College of Fine Arts, Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mellon College of Science, School of Computer Science, and Tepper School of Business.
You will also see people on campus who are not your age. The life of this university, as with every institution, has a seasonality, and summer tends to be a quieter time on campus. I’m also here during the regular year as the Director of the Science and Humanities Scholars Program, and the kind of work I do for that program when most undergraduate students are away from campus is different than in the fall and the spring.
Nevertheless, the relative, apparent tranquility belies a great deal of activity. Undergraduates are taking classes too, sometimes alongside you, as well as doing research, and working on their art. Likewise, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, visiting scholars, and professors are all here on campus continuing to observe / to experiment / to write / to think / to create / to learn.
And now you are going to join them, here at Carnegie Mellon.
Your youthful energy / and your capacity for learning / enliven the university.
Welcome to our academic community.
For some of you, this is your first visit to campus. Those of you who were here last summer can share why you returned: because you enjoyed and learned well here. You recognize the quality of our faculty and staff, who work hard throughout the year to create the finest educational and student life experience we can offer during the summer. We want to be just as good – better – than we were last year. Be careful, however: even when if you are returning here, this summer will not be the same. You will be taking different classes with different professors and different classmates. Most significantly, you are different than you were last year.
Thirty-five years ago, in June 1981, I was about your age, between my junior and senior years of high school. That year I myself attended a summer program to take classes at another great university; in fact, five years ago I attended my 25th college reunion at that same place. For over three decades, I have held a certain fondness for the learning and teaching that can happen during the summer: I have taught, founded and directed summer programs across the country, and this is my eleventh summer here at CMU. Drawing upon these experiences, I have six perspectives to share with you about becoming a student in the Pre-College Program at Carnegie Mellon.
First, there must be a reason you are here, and you have to own that reason.
Earlier in the year, you might have had a number of reasons for applying here. Maybe you thought that succeeding here would be a way to prove something about yourself to yourself: to build a portfolio, to build a stronger academic record, to work towards an eventual career. Maybe you wanted to impress someone else, or maybe someone you know has been a student here in past summers, or is a current student in the fall and spring semesters. Your parents may have thought it would be a good experience for you… Maybe your friends are coming and you decided to be with them. Maybe you thought it would be fun. Maybe you just thought it would be a good way to occupy… your time. Maybe you thought it would be a chance to get away from home.
There may be any number of reasons that you have decided to come here this summer.
All of those reasons can be valid, as long as they can sustain you while you are here.
You need to decide for yourself what moves you, what motivates you to be here. The reasons may shift, but as Aristotle indicates in the Physics, there must be a cause that will motivate you through the long hours of work here, some reason that for the sake of which you are pushing yourself.
I hope for you that you find your summer academics to be challenging but not overwhelming.
Ultimately, you have to want to be here, because at times the work will not be easy.
Now the good news is that everyone here wants you to succeed, from your counselors to your professors. This brings me to my second point: your professors are people too. They were once as young as you were, they have dreams, their own families and friends. Most of us are nerds… … just like you. Get to know us. Ask us about our projects and interests, ask me about sending artifacts to the Moon next year. Our staff are amazing, also with their own lives. We know a great deal more than you do about many things, but we also know less than you do about certain things, such as where you come from and who you are.
This means that one of your primary goals here is to introduce yourself, by asking questions. You are responsible for your education.
You have arrived at an academic institution, where we are in the business of asking questions, of each other and of ourselves, and also finding answers that in turn can elevate us to new questions.
If you don’t understand something that’s going on in your class, ask. That’s the culture of higher education, we are not going to check as frequently as you may be accustomed to in high school, it is your responsibility to ask if you don’t understand.
Is there such a thing as a stupid question? … Yes. Don’t ask lazy questions – when I said the university is in the business of asking and answering questions, I meant that we are in the business of carefully wrought, well-considered questions. Being knowledgeable involves having one answer, but becoming more knowledgeable requires developing good questions.
So. If you encounter difficulty understanding or doing something, ask a good question. But since you are students still practicing how to ask a good question, when in doubt, go ahead and ask your question, keeping in mind there are degrees of quality in asking questions.
Third, make mistakes. Then learn from them.
Just as there are good questions and not-so-good questions, there are good ways to put yourself in situations where you might mistakes and not-so-good ways to put yourself in situations where you might make mistakes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference beforehand. But trust me, it would be a bad mistake for you to sit in front of a glowing screen all summer, rarely interacting face-to-face with students in the dormitory or dining hall or classroom, rarely talking with anyone else. Go out with a group of friends and walk across the bridges on Forbes Avenue, enjoying for free with your ID card the museums, conservatory, and entire public transporation network. Meet other students who are in completely different programs from you.
Good mistakes happen when you take a chance and do something that has not only the potential to harm you, but also to benefit you. If you don’t make good mistakes, then you haven’t taken enough risks, in your art, in your academics. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough… you’re not living life.
If everything is going smoothly for you, talk to your instructors and step up the challenges for yourself.
Inevitably you will make mistakes. Good. Understand and acknowledge your mistakes, then learn from them.
Four, appreciate family and friends.
As you begin here this summer, you will have to let go of the familiar — your family and friends. You should recognize your roots, where you have come from, and you should stay grounded with your family even when you are away from them.
I recognize that this remark may not seem as relevant to those of you who attend prep school as residential students and are accustomed to being away from family, to those of you who have the privilege of living nearby and will be living with family this summer, to those of you who are returning students from last summer.
Nevertheless, this community is a separate place from your old friends and your family, and while you’re not going to stop being a son or daughter, sister or brother, your relationships with family and friends may change dramatically, in no small part because you yourself are at an age where you change so rapidly. Be patient and respectful of your roots, even though, if they are wise, your family will maintain a certain distance from you, to allow you to grow further into your own individual.
In the meantime, you will form close friendships here. At my college reunion, I met friends whom I hadn’t seen in years. But even though so much time had passed, we picked up like it was yesterday. Deep friendships formed around common academic interests can last a lifetime. Get to know your colleagues.
Fifth, be honest with yourself and be honest with others. We encourage you to work together but you must not misrepresent yourself or your work. Several summers ago, two students went home after severe academic integrity violations. I know this is sometimes not as easy as it sounds; I will say more about this when I meet the APEA students this afternoon. Be honest with yourself, and be honest with others.
Finally, appreciate the moment. Set priorities for yourself. Your families can tell you how quickly years go by. Let me tell you, as much as can happen in six weeks, as much as you can learn, it goes fast. Follow your heart, your passion, work hard, play well and enjoy the summer. And one day, perhaps even thirty-five years from now, you will look back on this summer and remember it as one of the most important times of your life.
Welcome again to Carnegie Mellon.