Regardless of your initial or current motivation to go to college and your initial or current reason for attending CMU, I would argue that the following should be at the core of your experience here - you've come to college to grow intellectually and socially and, in the process, take charge of your life. And CMU is a tremendous place to spend the next 4 years doing so (plus 1 if you're an architect). Now I don't expect you to come to this realization because I said so, but I hope that you come to believe this over the course of your stay at the university. Enough, though, about why you're here. You're here and we're happy that you're here and now the real question is: What are you going to do with this opportunity? Actually, I should say "opportunities", as that is more accurate.
Let's start first with academics. I choose to start with academic opportunities because you're here to get an education. Whatever your extracurricular interests, you're first and foremost a student. So what does this mean, "to get an education", especially a university education? To me, it means to stretch your mind, to learn about new things in your chosen field of study as well as new things in other disciplines. Both are equally important! To do nothing but take courses in your major and complain about distribution requirements misses the whole point of coming to a university - you would have been better off going to a trade school.
Yes, you need to be excited about the prospects in your major, but you also need to look for the growth opportunities outside that major in other departments. We have a tremendous faculty with some world renowned programs here, so go exploring. You'll be a better artist if you understand multiple cultural references; you'll be a better computer scientist if you know something about design, especially if you're writing web pages; you'll be a better engineer if you understand about public policy and environmental tradeoffs; you'll be a better teacher if you understand something about the psychology of how people learn; you'll be a better writer the more varied your experience.
For many of you, this is your first real opportunity to make choices about your curriculum. Use those choices to experiment intellectually. Your undergraduate years are really the last chance that you'll be able to do so. After you graduate you will never have the time nor the breadth of opportunity that you have here to learn different things. Here is where you can and should take a course in Shakespeare, a course in computer programming, a course in decision making, or policy analysis, learn a foreign language, play the bagpipes. And don't be put off if you can't get into some of these courses right away - you have 4 years to explore these avenues. It doesn't all have to happen this semester.
In addition to the curricular opportunities that are here, I encourage you to look around. Some of the smartest people you're ever going to come across in your life are sitting to your left, your right, in front, and behind you. This is a fundamentally different peer group than the one that you had in high school. These people are both a tremendous resource and another tremendous opportunity that CMU offers you. Learn from each other; get to know your peers, both in your major and outside your department. It is probably the case that as much is learned from student-student interaction as from faculty-student interaction. There are students who leave CMU and form their own companies. Now is the time to initiate those contacts and form those networks and the broader they are, the better.
The intellectual opportunities don't end at the classroom door, either. CMU is a research institution - take advantage of that. Almost every department affords its students the opportunity to do independent study. If you come to CMU and just go to class, you miss some of the best learning opportunities that the university has to offer. And you don't have to wait until your senior year to do this, either. Start thinking now about the things that you like to do and try to find faculty with similar interests. Many faculty will take freshmen and sophomores on research projects.
Another area of opportunity is extracurricular activities. You heard it here first - if all you do is go to class, you're ignoring other important areas of growth and you're missing out on an important piece of your intellectual development. For those of you who have played sports, we have lots of organized and intramural athletics. (Of course, we're a Division III school, so don't expect 80,000 people to come and watch you, but all of the athletes I've known play because they love the game, not because someone's watching.) If you've never played a sport, there are physical education classes that can teach you how. I took a volleyball class last Spring and it really improved my game (to say nothing of the visceral thrill that certain of my students had when they spiked the ball at me). We have a brand new University Center, or as someone characterized it just today, our new playground. Use it. If you're a racquetball player, send me some e-mail and we'll play.
There are many non-athletic activities as well - the radio station, newspaper, clubs, fraternities and sororities, and if you can't find anything to your liking, start a new organization - just yesterday, a student asked me yesterday to be the faculty sponsor for a new volleyball club that's forming. We also have a tremendous performing arts program on this campus, with performances by students. If you leave here without seeing a performance in the concert hall or Kresge theatre, you're really missing out. These are all avenues by which you can extend your social circle beyond your major and explore common ground other than academics.
Of course to do all these things requires making choices and you're going to be making a lot of choices over the next few years. Make sure that you find the time to get your work done, but also make sure that you find time to have fun. There has to be a balance between the two. A friend of mine, quoting an orientation speech that he heard at Berkeley said a good measure to use in deciding that balance is, "When you feel like you should be working, work; when you feel like you should be playing, play." The gist of this is that if you need to work, you might as well do so, since you won't enjoy playing with a nagging feeling of guilt gnawing at you over what you should be doing instead of playing. Similarly, if you've put in your time on a task, you deserve to give yourself a break and walk away from it and do something fun.
For many of you, managing your time will be a new experience. You're used to a high school environment where the curriculum is set, the bells ring every 50 minutes, and there's usually someone looking over your shoulder to make sure that everything you needed to get done got done. That's not going to happen here. And what complicates matters is that the classes are going to be harder and there's going to be more to do. Borrowing a line from Aladdin (can you tell that I have an 8 year old?), "Awesome intellectual responsibilities, itty-bitty oversight." You will need to manage your time in ways you've never had to before and you'll be working harder than you ever have before. I encourage you to find reasonable ways to make this work. All nighters should be the exception, not the rule. Finding ways to cut academic corners should neither be the exception nor the rule. It is far better to admit to a professor that you didn't get something done than to take someone else's assignment and turn it in as your own. Your personal integrity is a precious commodity. Do not compromise it under any circumstances.
This entire experience is not meant to be a passive one - it is meant to be a challenge. We will challenge you and we expect you to challenge yourselves. This is no place to say, "I just want to get by." Push yourself, both in class and out. Demand the best of yourself and demand the best from your classes. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity from yourselves or your professors. Now understand that you're all not going to get 4.0's and that's not what I'm asking of you. What I'm saying is to reach as high as you can and achieve as much as you can. Also understand that you are not doing this alone. You have your classmates and friends, and the faculty will be there right beside you. As a matter of fact, we want you to challenge us. I've learned any number of things from the students in my Introductory Programming class (like how to get my computer to sound like a hyena - I didn't say I learned useful things). This is an active partnership - we are excited about what you bring to the table and we will do everything we can to make things work.
In closing, I'd like to borrow (and modify) a line from a favorite movie of mine, "Dead Poets Society":
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