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Its interesting how sometimes what you expect the least, is what eventually affects you the most. In the summer of 2005, I was not a particularly forward-thinking person; my mind was much busier dealing with reflections on a freshman year full of awkward transition and an even more awkward middle school career than with thinking of the future. Freshman year was certainly a lot to reflect on: the relationship warming and cooling with my first legitimate girlfriend, the more predictable type of chemistry, memorization and manipulations of chemical formulae, conic graphs, world historical events, ballroom dance, C++ programs and the Spanish language, turbid class politics, the nature of the SCA, and where I really fit in. While I was focusing squarely on the past, however, there were others thinking about the future for me. My parents, in particular were interested in my enrichment and it is by their planning and initiative that, despite my lack of enthusiasm, in mid-July of 2005, I found myself with my father in a dusty dormitory overlooking the small, green, Hanover campus on my first extended college visit.

To be fair, our purpose in being there was not to visit Dartmouth, but rather to strengthen my meager understanding and refresh my father's control of the Spanish language through enrollment in a Rassias Institute Accelrated Language Program, an intense ten day language immersion clinic. Since we were there, however, and since my parents were in a more forward thinking mode than I (what with sending my sister off to college in just a couple short months), my dad scheduled a campus tour for me and a meeting with a member of the Computer Science department. While I was impressed by his entire wall of computer manuals and happy with the Google shirt he gave me, my overall impression of the college was not particularly favorable. Reflecting on this, avoiding speaking English, and otherwise without much more to do, I sat in that same dusty, dorm one evening idly browsing Wikipedia articles.

During this time I idly glanced through a few colleges' articles: Dartmouth, nice but rather tame; William & Mary, no particularly strong computer science curriculum; Stanford, Harvard, UVA, MIT, Yale, Caltech, Cornell, so many options, and three years wasn't really that far off. I mean, I had some ideas: I knew I couldn't go to Harvard or Yale, after all no self-respecting Dartmouth man like my father would pay to send his son to such places (or so he joked, at least). Caltech, MIT, Cornell? I may not have been the most socially adept member of society (middle school certainly taught me that), but certainly I wouldn't be happy at such places. After all, these places were top schools, they were surely full of seriousness, competitiveness, all work, no play. Frustrated with these thoughts getting me nowhere, I placed the thought aside. In any case, I had the subjunctive mood to consider.

The subjunctive mood, while an interesting subject, was not enough to hold my interest the remaining days of the program. Again, tired of Spanish and seeking solace from the internet, I turned to Wikipedia. I started with a search for something I knew I was interested in, “Linux.” From here, as visits to Wikipedia go, I clicked through a series of closely (and less closely related ) articles: Minix, Usenet, Richard Stallman, supercomputers, Cray, the Cathedral and the Bazzar, penguins, Antarctica, projection maps, and many more topics fell under my cursor and bored eyes. In all of this, however, there was one trail that was particularly fateful. In a simple link from Linux to Eric S. Raymond to Jargon File to hacker, I found myself on a now defunct page titled “hacker culture.” About half-way through, I reached a sentence that would have a huge effect on my future. It's a very innocuous-seeming, somewhat aloof sentence—certainly not revolutionary reading by itself. It read simply: “'hacking' also denotes the practice of completing elaborate or sophisticated pranks at MIT[35]”. Now what could possibly be so exciting about this sentence? That little “[35]” was a link to http://hacks.mit.edu, “Interesting Hacks To Fascinate People: The MIT Gallery of Hacks.”

Over the next couple of hours, I discovered the creativity and ingenuity of MIT students. I cannot say exactly why I was so amazed, but suffice it to say that over that time, not only did I read about amazing happenings, but my father was privy to such scintillating comments (which I totally forgot to make in Spanish) as “Oh wow! they turned that lobby into a Chapel and a had a real wedding there!”, “Haha! they have put some crazy stuff on this building like a house, and a police car. They turned the whole dome into a pumpkin, a hat, and R2D2!”, “Look at these pictures! they hid the new presidents office behind a bulletin board!” My dad replied simply and logically “who did these things?”

That's when it occurred to me exactly who was responsible for these creative, hilarious exploits—MIT students. Clearly, they couldn't be the boring, lifeless nerds I assumed them to be. When I had read the hack gallery thoroughly, I took the next steps. I read the Wikipedia article on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While at first it simply gave me a history lesson on William Barton Rogers, a few paragraphs later, it systematically destroyed my remaining prejudices against MIT. MIT is certainly serious about learning, in fact it has the best Computer Science department in the world. Beyond academics, however, things often deviate from a ideal of ever-seriousness —traditions like hacking, independent activities period classes, the symbolism of each year's “brass rat” class ring , and the unique and vibrant personalities of each dorm exude, instead, a “work hard, play hard” ideal. It is not particularly competitive, quite the contrary—there are no rankings, no Latin honors , no merit-based aid, and an honorary degree has never been granted. If you have an MIT degree, it is because you earned it, and if everyone who shows up can make it through, then so much the better! Collaboration is encouraged and is the norm.

The realizations that came in those couple hours made me fall in love with the school. In the process, though I didn't notice, they gave me something to work for, something to dream of, and something to motivate me through the next three years. In a broader sense, the more I learned about MIT, the more I learned that it's entirely possible to be a nerd, be proud of it, and have great fun, all at the same time. Thus, even beyond the college search, the knowledge of MIT's true character helped to define me. And to think how different it could have been without that little link on that obscure Wikipedia page...