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Conley Encourages Freshmen to Create Legends

Baker House PresidentCatherine D. Conley '96 gave the following address at yesterday afternoon's Killian Kick-Off. Conley is the first student keynote speaker at the event, which launches rush.

Must be thinking you're pretty smart, right? Congratulations, you managed to get accepted and get yourself here. You've finally made it, you've survived two whole days so far! That's plenty. OK, you can go home now.

Excuse me? Did you say you want to stay? Well, all right, but don't say I didn't warn you. Did you all flip when President Vest told you that you were the Class of 1999? You just got done being the class of '95, anticipating that for forever, now another four years! You have the only chance to be the last graduating class of 19-anything. Your class with the 1.5 million cumulative SAT, your AP test scores. You've got those scores, those grades, and do you know what all that means now? Do you have any idea? Automatic A? Survey says : ehh! The #1 answer on the board is: nothing! Whether you were destined to attend or you squeaked in by your amazing charm and wit, you're just in. But look what you've won! A year's supply of Ramen noodles, the college student treat! A hitchhiker's guide to the hallways! And yes, a four year excursion in the exotic paradise of Boston, where you'll enjoy frivolous falls, windy winters, and scrumptious springs on the joy ride of your life as you enter...the college zone. Picture if you will, a courtyard, filled with young minds and fresh ideas, tossed amidst a time and place they've never encountered. The halls are vast, the challenge great, and each one will find a new self within the college zone.

Unbelievable as it may sound sitting here for the very first time, in four short years you'll walk out of this very courtyard with just the thing you came here for: one measly piece of paper - but it holds the words, "MIT Graduate." So how do you get from here to there? We all take different points of view. You got your world view, peeking down on this little elbow of land from a plane and thinking it looks pretty much like land all right. You got your city view, from the top of the Prudential, where the Citgo sign is two inches away and the entire city stretches beyond that. You got your subway approach, where you mysteriously pop up in places that must somehow connect above ground too, but above ground implies scary drivers who have yet to learn the meaning of the turn signal. You got your MIT approach, where the great dome right here in front of us is the most imposing structure, yet somehow jars you to reality. You even have your within MIT approach, where you see your book, your bed, and your computer terminal, exclusively. Don't limit yourself to just one of these. Keep them all in mind. It's important to look around and see not only where you're going but also remember where you've been.

So, just where are you? You made it to Killian Court with the help of your handy dandy R/O Hitchhiker's Guide - guard that thing with your life, I'm a senior and I still carry it in my backpack. And just where did it lead you? I'd like you all to stand up now and take a look around. Specifically, direct your attention over here to your right. This is the great dome of MIT. You've seen its image on application materials, maybe decorated with police cars, but guess what? You are now a little chunk of the pillar which suspends it. Pretty impressive, isn't it? Now sneak a peak at all the famous smart people engraved on the buildings around the courtyard. Each one of you has been accepted into this greatness.

Now turn around and look out toward the river. That's Boston stretching before you, one of the most exciting cities in the world. MIT has carved its own little niche that will shape your life as this city slowly becomes home. Right now that idea probably seems pretty foreign to you. To me, home was my old bedroom, this was just somewhere I was crashing for a few years. But these years determine the rest of your life, so get started. This is Cambridge, welcome home.

Direct your attention back up here. Right now you're excited, you're nervous, you sorta have to pee, you really want another ice cream sandwich but if you drip it on your shirt you'll be labeled Supreme Moron for Life. Look around you. You're looking at the people who will be your partners in crime for the next four years. In the short time you've been here you've already come in contact with a number of unique individuals, and you're sure to find many more.

OK, now jump up and down right where you are. Go ahead. Hey, hey, hey, what are you doing? This isn't Simon Says! You're not in high school anymore! It's no longer a matter of just following directions blindly. What if I'd said, "Go play kickball on Memorial Drive?" OK, please have a seat. Really, I won't make you roll around on the ground. I'm just trying to show you that it's time to start thinking for yourself. Like you told mom and dad, let me go out and live my own life, right? Well, that's exactly what you HAVE to do.

Right now being here seems like you're at summer camp. The difference is that when you go to summer camp, you eventually go home and tell everyone there all about it, then settle back in to home life. Now at this camp, you aren't going home in a week, and these camp friends aren't just for a few days, we're talking integral parts of life for a few years. You'll go back this Thanksgiving and tell your home friends about MIT friends. Eventually you'll find yourself waiting to come back here after breaks to tell MIT friends about home. All in time.

Now you're probably taking this in one of two ways. a) You may be feeling a little shaky, thinking maybe that state school an hour away from home is looking pretty good right now. Or 2) you may be thinking that you're ready to live up to the greatness, the tradition, the life at MIT, and that you spotted a corner over there between Galileo and Kepler that your name could just fit into. Hate to break it to you, but I know both of those feelings will go away eventually. Now you're thinking, "And just how do you know all this?" I guess I haven't really introduced myself. I'm Cathy Conley, proud to hail from Lansing, Michigan. That's right here, for those of you who didn't realize Michigan is shaped like a mitten, hello! Anyway, I'm now a senior, but three years ago I came from being valedictorian of my high school, having spent my summer doing goodbye partying with my friends. I made it to Killian Court and found a bunch of other people who had been at the top of their class. So... they were each the smartest person where they came from, but I was the smartest person where I came from. What does that tell you? Well, um, I can count, and that means we can't all be the smartest people at MIT. Can you say competition, for many of us for the first time? But look at it in a different light. If I don't understand something, I have a whole bunch of really smart people around to help me! After all, what do you call a doctor who graduated last in his class? Doctor. So I began to realize that being number one is not what's important. I'm at MIT, and why did I come here? I wanted to know if I could hack it against the best and brightest in the world. So you may not know everything better than everyone else, but that doesn't matter. You will find your own strengths. MIT doesn't even have such a thing as class rank, because everyone here is top rate. Yes, we want to do well in classes, we strive to achieve high goals, we expect success, that's what makes us MIT students. What got you in was not just your SAT scores or your state championship math team. It was your drive and ambition that brought you here, and that will see you through.

I want you to shatter the myth, and create your own legend. Think about that. Every one of you has come here with some myth, some apprehensions about college and preconceived notions about MIT. You may have delusions of grandeur or delusions of a bunch of nerds. There's a distinction between just attending MIT and really being at MIT. It's the difference between history and legend. Your attendance is evidenced by facts like your major, your extracurriculars. Make that come to life! It's contributions you make to campus, your sense of style, whether you say pop or soda - that's what makes a legend. Blazing a trail doesn't mean doing everything differently or even doing everything. Rather, it's giving yourself the freedom to fail in order to find out what you're good at. This is your legend. You have an impression of MIT, but now, why not make an impression on MIT.

I know, I know, you're raring to set out on this journey. Sure, you all have the same dream as everyone, that college is the key to happiness. That's all well and good, but this key to happiness isn't something you get after standing in line and telling your name, rank, and serial number. You don't even know what doors you want to open.

We're going to start building this key, so we need to figure out first where it's taking us. Freshman year, time to check out all the different doorways. Peer in one, find out who's in there, what they do and why they like it. It could be another student, an advisor or TA, a coach. Move around and talk to different kinds of people this year, find where you might fit best. That's the keyhole in the door you pick. You're going to need access to it, so start forging the key.

Sophomore year is when you start welding things together, basic classes, your real advisor, classmates with similar interests. Strengthen the foundation with bits of wisdom and a bit of relaxation too. Welding's the hard part, but it's really starting to be concrete now, take on some sort of recognizable form.

Now the art begins. Junior year is the time to carve specific grooves in your key. Get a close relationship with a professor or supervisor. Audition for a solo. Become editor of the Tech. Exploration is the path to education. Find what exactly it is you like about what you're doing, how to personalize it like those cheesy air brushed T-shirts at amusement parks. Not saying you have be cheesy, but in the end, no one else's key will match yours exactly.

The final frontier: Senior year. You've tackled all the choices, made all your own cuts. Make sure it's solid enough to withstand time and weather, but flexible so it won't snap easily. This key is yours. It might even let it take you to somewhere new. The key is complete, ready to unlock all your dreams.

I have three ideas for you as you head in. They're short, so whether you're set on winning the Nobel or the Lotto, hold on to these three. Here goes: No regrets. No excuses. Don't waste time. Let me start backwards.

Don't waste time. You have four long years ahead of you, right? Well, I'm going into my fourth and I can't quite say where the others have gone! Make yourselves aware of every opportunity and don't miss out, whether it be an a capella singing group or a trip to New York City. Get done what needs to be done then go for what has to be done to make you a balanced person. Live every minute that you're here. That doesn't mean you can't be a bum on a Saturday afternoon, but pretty soon all the nice Saturdays are gone and you didn't go to Boston Common for a picnic. Make a list of things to see and do before the year is up and make time to do them! Moving on.

No excuses. You are at MIT. You made it. You're good enough, you're smart enough, and doggone it, there must be someone out there who likes you! Each one of you is blessed with extraordinary talents, have confidence in that. Yes, it's going to be tough. So what? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, "Never give up." Actually, that whole speech was, "Never, never, never, never give up." Pretty much says it, doesn't it? We are all capable of so much more than we imagine, just try.

Most importantly, no regrets. You only have one chance to be a freshman, one chance to make important decisions and not-so-important decisions. Try that new sport. Audition for a musical. Run for student government. Whatever! I want you to come to me in four years and say, "Cath, you know, I think I really had a full experience. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't change a thing. Except maybe my ID picture, what, did I gain four chins that day?" If you can say that, you're going to be just fine in life. If you find yourself in a world of if-onlys - "If only I were smarter, if only I could type faster, if only I hadn't snarfed those burritos" - come on back to the world of consequences and move on. That's it. That simple. No regrets. No excuses. Don't waste time.

Take all this wildness in stride. Stephen Wright puts it all rather eloquently: "You know when your leaning back in a four legged chair so you're just resting on two legs and then you hit that point where you know you're gonna fall and you reel back but then somehow catch your balance and sit up right before it happens? I feel like that all the time." Well, welcome to MIT! The ability to laugh at yourself comes in pretty darn handy. Laugh first, beat everyone else to it. You will wonder if they let you in by mistake. But then you find out that pass/no record is more than just something to brag about to your friends at other schools. It's your chance to get your feet wet and realize that the range from here to here, whether it be A or C, it's a P, and it means you belong.

OK, going from MIT to real life is something I know nothing about. But, for the next four years, MIT IS real life. So, make it a life! Life is not just an experiment, it's an experience. It's listening to the "Ooga Shaka" song when you can't do your physics. It's buying a frappe - not a milkshake, mind you, in Boston they like harsh words like frappe - when you do. It's watching people juggle in Kresge Oval on Sunday afternoons. It's going to Fenway to cheer for your home team while everyone else cheers for the RedSox. You get roommates and find out that toothpaste brands can become a knock down, drag out fight. It's deciding who gets to put the message on the answering machine, and if it's going to be generic or stupid funny. You and three thousand other people decide to "try crew" and feel pain in muscles you never knew you had. You e-mail friends from home because it's so cool and quick, keeping up on their lives as you make a brand new one for yourself.

Realize that you come here with a clean slate. You have nothing to lose and everything to prove. "There is a time to let things happen, and a time to make things happen." Well, make it happen. You have this week to make a brave, crashing start. I challenge you to meet as many people as you possibly can. They may turn out to be roommates, classmates, someone who gives you an extra dime for the bus to Harvard Square. In fact, meet three new people before you leave this court. You feel like an idiot at first, "Hi, what's yer name, uh huh." Go with that! If you're gonna look like an idiot, do it well. Expand those horizons, not too tough with people here from all over the world. My roommate's from Australia and the guy downstairs is from South Dakota. How's that for diversity? Remember: No regrets, no excuses, don't waste time. You're young, you're free, you're at MIT. You're ready, so shatter the myths, go out and start creating your own legend.