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Senate presents “First Lectures”

Two Carnegie Mellon seniors recently gave 20-minute speeches about their experiences at the university. Hosted by Student Senate, the inaugural session of the “First Lectures” series took place on Thursday, Feb. 21 in Porter Hall. Senior chemistry major Lukas Ronner and senior chemical engineering major Michelle Ruiz were the two seniors selected to speak in the first installment of the “First Lectures.”

The “First Lectures” was originally the brainchild of first-year economics and statistics double major, Vaasavi Unnava, a member-at-large in Student Senate. The title is a clear allusion to the title of the late Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. In his lecture and subsequent book, Pausch discussed his journey through life and the dreams he accomplished.

The Last Lecture, which is distributed to incoming freshmen at the university during Orientation, had a strong impact on Unnava. According to Unnava, one of the book’s lines made her pause: “It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life.”

Unnava stated she wanted to hear seniors’ first lectures of the rest of their lives, and went to Student Senate with her idea.

In the first part of the event, Ruiz talked about her odyssey at Carnegie Mellon. She talked about how she changed during her time at the university, saying, “Freshman year is when you realize you’re not in high school. And the sophomore transition is about what you’re doing in life. My freshman year, I struggled academically. But I learned I was not the smartest, no longer the most involved student on campus. When I had a GPA below a 3.0, I was shocked. This confident lady was a wreck. I had a low self-esteem of all sorts, and that was not like me.”

But Ruiz did not let her first semester deter her. “I was surrounded by mentors who said, ‘Stop it right there; you’re not alone.’ I sat in the front row and discovered the magic of [Hunt Library].”

Ruiz urged students to take advantage of their time at Carnegie Mellon, saying during her speech, “There’s more to CMU than books; there’s opportunity.” Despite her struggles, Ruiz had three internship offers by the end of her first year.

Ruiz obtained an internship from ExxonMobil, where she met a valuable mentor, Greg. “Greg pushed me for so many semesters,” Ruiz said. “After a couple years, he’d say ‘GPA is really important, but what happens here is more important.’ ”

Ruiz said that her sophomore year taught her to “value in quality not quantity;” that she was “not true to my potential to overextend myself,” and that “quitting is okay when setting long-term goals.”

Ruiz communicated three lessons that she had learned to the audience: “be humble,” “use small hiccups to propel you to where you want to be,” and learn that “every experience is a learning experience.”

Ronner presented to the audience next. When students first come to Carnegie Mellon, he said, "If you were like I was ... your validation depended on your ability to out-compete other people. And that mentality is so absolutely messed up.”

Ronner reflected on where this mentality comes from by looking back to the first grade: "Think about it though. In school, people were separated into two categories only — smart, and dumb," Ronner said. "I look back and I wonder why it couldn't just be, 'oh, physics just isn't his strongpoint.’ ”

Ronner stressed that students do not have to be geniuses to make a difference in the world. He used the invention of the mammogram to illustrate this notion. In the past, doctors resorted to harsh methods, like slowly poisoning patients or performing harsh surgeries, to extract breast cancer cells. Then, German surgeon Albert Salomon proposed that patients be regularly checked to catch cancer in its early stages. Thus, the mammogram was born. "Because it doesn't take a genius to think of that. And it’s no less useful," Ronner said.

Ronner wants to change the grade-driven mentality harbored by students. “When I stopped worrying about the competitiveness, when I stopped thinking about my status in relation to my peers ... the grades came,” Ronner said. “Because a happy mind is an attentive one. Because work gets accomplished best when I’m de-stressed and thinking clearly. Because sleep makes you happy.”

Ronner concluded his speech, "I’m standing up here because I figured out that the world is yours, as long as you learn to look at it on your own terms ... As long as you stop seeing yourself as an absolute."

Ruiz, born in Ecuador and raised in Miami, Fla., is a sister in the sorority Tri Delta and community adviser for Donner House.

She has also served as a Sexual Assault Advisor and a SafeZone adviser for members of the LGBTQ community and has been involved with organizations like the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and Dancer’s Symposium. She will work in Virginia for ExxonMobil after graduation.

Ronner is from Haddonfield, N.J., and has been a resident assistant, Orientation Counselor, and Scotch’n’Soda member in the past, and is currently chair of Student Senate.

Unnava said that it was difficult to choose the seniors who would speak in the lecture series. “There were 31 nominations, which wasn’t expected,” Unnava said in an interview. “We put together a rubric based on novelty, clarity, organization, impact, and depth. We assembled scores and looked at the top 20. It was really hard to make that decision because everyone was really good. And then, we had to find our top six and tried to get the event logistically together.”

For seniors not selected, Unnava said, “We put together a video of things they learned.”

Unnava said, “Kids that are there want to get things done and want to make an impact on their community. They’re not afraid to say, ‘Hey, let’s start something new.’ ”