When I first got to Olin as a first-year student, I was surprised at the interesting conversations I had. I wasn’t surprised during my visits or Candidates’ Weekend. People have talking points about why to go to their college and easy conversational topics like their recent classes and projects. Other prospective students have a lot in common but we’re all nervous, so conversations are halting and tend towards comparing high school extracurriculars and which schools you applied to.
But as a new college student surrounded by other students starting anew, I was surprised at the fascinating conversational topics cropping up constantly. It was totally unlike high school, where I had to find people with common interests and only a few would be people I enjoyed spending time with or talking to, and then even fewer were people I became friends with. Instead, I was having rich, fun conversations from the get-go and getting along with everyone I met. These weren’t things we had in common like FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) or boring small talk like where we grew up; this was more like philosophical questions with a playful tone.
There’s one that comes up repeatedly, for example, about the meaning of a quote painted on the wall above the library entrance at Olin: “Engineers envision what has never been, and do whatever it takes to make it happen.” Is it a little sinister that engineers do whatever it takes? Engineers have a lot of power, and recently at Olin we’ve been talking more about not only using it for good, but also learning to recognize and prevent harm. We use and reuse more sustainable materials and discuss privacy and ethics, especially in classes like Machine Learning. That means we’re not doing whatever it takes, but whatever is right. There’s a very optimistic aspect of being able to do something new and amazing because of your persistence and engineering skill, and I love that about this quote, so often the conversation turns to workshopping the quote to acknowledge that means are important while keeping the idealism. What would you say instead? This is just one example, though. Topics wander wildly from those I’m familiar with and will talk enthusiastically about to those I’ve never heard about before and am happy to listen and ask questions about.
Here’s a sampler of some of my favorite conversations for your conversational pleasure:
- Mobius strips and klein bottles are kind of the same
- Is a [insert anything] a sandwich?
- Maps (Check out Frankly Speaking, Olin's unofficial student newspaper, for several articles about maps)
- Constructed languages (Justin Kunimune, an Olin graduate who wrote a lot of map articles also made a constructed language)
- Conspiracy theories about Olin’s History:
- Was Milas Hall built sideways? (No)
- Why are the stairs Like That? (Fire code and an architect with a Vision)
- Find the spot where your voice echoes back at you…there’s one in every dorm lounge and at least one in the Oval (Find out for yourself)
- Did they really let the students design East Hall? (They got student input)
- Is East Hall better or worse designed than West Hall? (Depends on your metrics)
- Were the tall dorm rooms on the fourth floor of West Hall a mistake? (No, but they’ve had a lot of strange consequences)
- Did a professor have an office in a bathroom? (Yes)
- Are there tunnels under campus? (No, unless you count water pipes)
- When is feedback for the benefit of the professor and when is it to make the student feel better?
- Time Worms! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perdurantism
- Sometimes Carrie Nugent (Assistant Professor of Computational Physics and Planetary Science) brings guests from her podcast Space Pod to lunch and we get to chat with them
Students here are smart, cool people, and I respect their opinions and like to talk to them, no matter the topic. Enthusiasm about a topic spreads easily in students and we all bring a unique perspective that lends new light and brings the conversation in new directions.
Talking is one of my unexpectedly favorite parts of being in college, and it’s also the first thing I would recommend if you get stuck. People are wise and a variety of perspectives is a huge asset.