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Transatlantic Thoughts: CMU students must work to create community identity

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/
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Editor’s note: Transatlantic Thoughts is a weekly column that examines Carnegie Mellon’s student life from a foreigner’s perspective. Find previous installments @thetartan.org.

There are about 13,000 students at Carnegie Mellon. They come from dozens of different countries and have very different cultures. They have lived very different lives, with different experiences. They study different topics and have different passions.
I knew all of this way before my Masters program started. After all, these are well-known facts that you can easily find on Carnegie Mellon's Wikipedia page. The university is proud to hold a large, heterogeneous community, and eager to repeat it in public announcements or Facebook posts. Besides, many universities in the United States or worldwide have an equally rich community. Still, this was a shock.

It was a positive shock, mostly. In the French school where I graduated, only 500 students were admitted every year through a national competitive exam. Before taking it, we studied for two years in classes especially designed to prepare students for this exam, along with thousands of other students throughout the country. All of us followed more or less the same program — it focused on science and a whole lot of math. All of us did the same exercises that we found in the same books. And eventually, for those entering this school, all of us had very similar undergraduate courses despite our respective majors.

In other words, we did not have different backgrounds — each student knew about everything the others did in the school and throughout the two years before. There were some international students, of course — but only a hundred, coming from a small set of countries used to sending students in that specific place. A lot of them even came to France before to do that same two-year training program.

Imagine how new the Carnegie Mellon experience is for me! In my own graduate program in computer science, I have met people who have little in common with me. Some of them are American and come from different states, where they usually had typical undergraduate programs in computer science — but not all of them: one majored in linguistics. In either case their last four years were not like mine. Some of them are Indian, and by talking to them I learned that the Indian selection system for scientific higher education had similarities with the French system — which I never would have guessed before. Some of them worked a couple of years before joining Carnegie Mellon, while my professional experience sums up to two small, mandatory internships. And we came here with different hopes and goals in mind.

And when I widen my horizon to other departments or schools, it’s even way more impressive. I have met MBA students, math students and professional musicians, whose backgrounds have nothing to do with mine — which is great! If you haven’t had the chance yet, I recommend you take any opportunity you have to leave your college or department and meet different kinds of people. And the idea that despite all that separates us we are all Carnegie Mellon students is really amazing.

There is just one small problem. If Carnegie Mellon University students are so different, if we come for such various reasons, to get educations that don’t look alike, then what exactly are Carnegie Mellon students? Let’s imagine that in ten years I meet a fellow alumnus who was at Carnegie Mellon at the same time as me, but I don’t know personally. I honestly don’t know what we could talk about, what common memories we could share and smile about. Obviously what courses we followed or which professors we knew wouldn’t serve as common ground. So only a few anecdotal points remain. How the campus was. What you thought of Pittsburgh. A few funny emails, maybe. And memes on Facebook groups.

I think that isn’t enough. A university should build a community, and a community is built on things to share. Although a less diverse community may not be very rich or interesting, an overly-diverse one has trouble even existing, because it lacks common ground. I am exaggerating, of course: we still have Carnegie Mellon’s motto to share, “My heart is in the work.” Admittedly, we all work a lot — which also has a drawback, as stated in this column’s previous issue. Still, I believe we could share more than that.

But we won’t make compromises on student diversity just to have more in common, will we? Of course not — that would be a terrible and stupid sacrifice. So how do you build common ground when you lack common background? Well, the answer lies in the question: by building it. Actively. Through university-wide events, or non-academic projects we could all take part in.

Such things already partly exist. Orientation, for example, is a great initiative — but is only one week long. There are also a lot of student associations, and a couple of traditions: the Fence, the Spring Carnival, etc. Some day this column will tackle them specifically and reflect on how traditions could be more involving for students. In the meantime, this article’s point is: participate. Build common ground, and if there isn’t enough, make more. And to start with, don’t forget to leave your own college sometimes. Not to enhance your resume, but just because in ten, fifteen, twenty years, this will constitute your Carnegie Mellon identity.