The real Carnegie Mellon University
Originally published in The Tartan on 08.29.2005. Visit
So you've been here a little less than a week, and you don't know what to do with yourself. Orientation 2005, "Send Me On My Way," should have been called "Camp CMU." You're still programmed to automatically spit out your name, major, and hometown when you meet someone new (which is all the time this week). You've only just rid yourself of the Scarlet Letter of all freshmen — the bright green wristband. You've tossed your Orientation schedule, unless of course you're saving it for the scrapbook you're not going to have time to make. And you're pretty sure you've finally showered enough to rid yourself of all the germs you collected during Playfair.

The rite of passage into the undergraduate body of Carnegie Mellon University is complete, and you can proudly proclaim, a la Pinocchio, "I'm a real freshman!" Only, you're still not completely sure what "real freshmen" do. Or what "real life" is like at CMU. Orientation packs in so many activities into a seven-day period that reading this article is probably the first chance you've gotten to breathe all week, let alone think philosophically about the meaning of your existence as a Carnegie Mellon University first-year.

So now welcome to CMU. Take a deep breath. Hold for as long as possible. Because although Orientation generates plenty of preconceived notions about life at Carnegie Mellon that turn out false, the illusion that time flies — and that time is a precious commodity — is fairly permanent. Life at CMU is nothing less than the cliched rollercoaster ride, an experience fast and intense, filled with ups and downs. To help you figure things out, The Tartan has graciously volunteered to save you some time by clarifying some things Orientation may have made confusing.


Playfair is not representative of life at Carnegie Mellon University. "Playfair was fun because everyone had so much energy and there was so much activity," said first-year Lindsey Snider, a biology major. Another first-year, Amanda DiIenno, a chemical engineering major, chimed in, "It was great because you got to meet all these random people."

Playfair has some good qualities to it; the energy built up in each freshman by the lady behind the mic leads to a lot of in-the-moment excitement and enthusiasm. When that enthusiasm combines with the activities of Playfair, freshmen do get to meet new people. But while all the introductions create an illusion of friendliness and outgoingness, remember that it's the entire point of Playfair. All the activities are geared toward introductions, mostly to people you may not even recognize later without their grey Orientation T-shirt. Which isn't to say the student body is socially inept and incapable of recalling faces; rather, you meet so many people, and under forced pretenses, that it's nearly impossible to remember everyone you "meet" during that hour and a half.

What Playfair has to its advantage is, among other things, the energy and enthusiasm that comes naturally when one is placed in a completely new environment. Playfair feeds off the adrenaline rush coming from each first-year, an energy that wears off by the end of first semester. And when the adrenaline does wear off, you'll find a ton of friendly people, but not quite as many trying to find three things they have in common with you in less than a minute.


If introductions do take place, however, they will not be like the innumerable icebreakers forced upon new students. Both Playfair and activities run by resident advisors and orientation counselors have good intentions, and serve the purpose of loosening up a potentially nervous — and therefore quiet — bunch of kids.

But "the icebreakers get old," noted Katelynn Benton, a first-year in CIT. We know. Everything from "Big Bootie" to "Two Truths and a Lie" exhausts itself after one round. Anything different winds up being repetitive. Besides, when applied to a real-life situation, are icebreakers reasonable? Are you going to turn to the kid sitting next to you in lecture and ask him to play "Big Bootie" in an effort to get to know him better? Didn't think so.

The Food

Thinking about the food you ate during Orientation probably conjures up images of boxed meals; but don't fear, you shouldn't see a boxed meal around campus until next Orientation. But bets are that you will be missing those little packaged lunches sooner than later.

The off-campus rumor mill generally puts CMU's food in the lower ranks, but the greater issue is really a lack of variety. Most people know what's in their soup, but they face a bigger problem: finding a place to eat that they haven't frequented in the last 24 hours. Usually they discover that's not an option. Sure, you'll have fun eating at various on-campus eateries for the first week, maybe even the first month, but eventually you'll figure out what you like and what you hate. And then you'll get tired of the same old same old. Occasionally you'll come across a catered event, presumably run by the same caterers who supplied some of the food at Orientation. Frosted brownies and lemonade anyone?

Oh, and the free food all the frat barbeques offer may seem like a great deal — who can deny free food? — but it generally doesn't work to your monetary advantage. Meal plans tend to offer an abundance of meal blocks you can't use in a two-week time period, and a minimum of DineX you can only spend on over-priced items, so our advice is to use your meal blocks when possible.

There is some hope for food on campus this year, as several restaurants have been switched around, added, and moved. Pepperazzi's spot in the gallery has been taken over by a new restaurant, Bento Bowl. S? Se?or has moved over to CK Pretzel's spot, and Sí Señor's old spot has been taken by Pepperazzi.

The Time Factor

Did you think that after all the Orientation activities you would have time to relax? Guess again! As Snider added, "In Orientation, there was no free time; there was so much we had to do with our dorms." Well, the beginning of school certainly won't change the amount of free time you'll have.

Ethan Jackson, a first-year mathematics major, said, "The team building exercises were kind of silly;" but let us be the first to tell you ? you will wish you were playing the name game when you have a desk piled high with work to do.

The Sleep Factor

Yeah, partying late at the frats during Orientation and then having to wake up for an essentially mandatory 8:30 am breakfast is less than pleasant. Getting less than ten hours of sleep? Who does that? You do. Starting now. As a matter of fact, you can cut that ten hour sleep time in half, multiply it by three, add five, subtract the quantity two times two, find the square root of that number, and consider that your newly allotted amount of sleep per night. If you're lucky.

Okay, so if there's no free time, and you use your free time to sleep, where does having a life come in?

You mean, academics aren't your life? They don't make you jump for joy? Lectures and studios aren't where you planned on spending most of your time? Granted, you did choose Carnegie Mellon for a reason. You probably recognized and were even somewhat excited about the excellent academics offered here. But friends are important, and you'll find them in your classes. Study groups are your new hang out.

Jackson anticipates the melding of two different worlds on CMU's campus, saying, "I hope that math majors and art majors can spend time together." They can, and some do; it depends on how they meet. There is a saying that floats around about Carnegie Mellon though, regarding the "fruits and vegetables": it refers to the somewhat physical campus divide between the College of Fine Arts and, well, the rest of campus.

So maybe we have painted a somewhat exaggerated picture of life at CMU. We will admit that you can have a life at Carnegie Mellon University. But, just like all the classes you have and the grades you want, you'll have to work at it. Extra-curricular activities are terrific places to meet people, and when you do have time (probably at the cost of sleep, but that's the way the cookie crumbles), the mirage that is "a life" will materialize. Take a bus to the Strip or South Side, wander around Oakland or Squirrel Hill, go to the Conservatory. Pittsburgh has potential.

As do classes and professors. Some professors spent Orientation's "Academic Day" using the scare tactic (hard work) and others spent it being overly nice and portraying an academic atmosphere and life as pleasant as a romp through tulips and daisies. Both versions of classes are realistic to expect, although tulips and daisies do die during cold weather. And what about all those department heads that talked on Academic Day, and at Convocation? Their appearance was probably just a fluke; we're pretty sure they're actually quite reclusive. Unless you're one of those remarkably involved campus folks — you know, the kind who can survive 48 hours without sleep — the chances of seeing those people again, or hearing from them in any sort of way, is slim to none.

Just don't be like those hermetic figureheads. Don't dwell in your dorm room all day; resist the 24-hour-plus Dungeons & Dragons marathon. Choose your food wisely (and your friends, too, of course). Don't expect life at CMU to be like Orientation at CMU — college is not a summer camp. Make an effort to wring out every spare minute of the day, and use those extra minutes wisely. Buckle up for the proverbial ride of your life.
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