It’s nice to meet you.
I’m a new freshman at MIT, a member of the Class of 2009. I was admitted early action and received the news around lunchtime on December 14, 2004. I promptly withdrew my applications to other schools and committed my near future to the progressive locale of Cambridge, Massachusetts. This blog is an effort to share the journey with you as I shed my rural desert roots in search of the rest of my life.
I’m eighteen years old. I’m a carefully sensitive romantic and a sucker for international getaways. I’m also my own best friend; I am a daydreamer. A surefire way to thoroughly embarrass me involves walking in while I’m talking to myself about something or another. I have a propensity for puns and humor that makes people groan. I often stand before the mirror, animatedly relating ideas to an invisible audience with my hands and a myriad of facial expressions. I enjoy fireside conversations with Sexy Nerd Bot and the MIT09 chat crew. And you could say that I’m pretty comfortable with who I am; I wouldn’t change a thing.
I am not exactly a traditional student, though for a while I thought I’d like to be. I am half Macedonian, half Italian; my parents met in Toronto, where they tired of the cold winters and set out for the American Southwest. I was born four years later near the Arizona-California border. A restless curiosity sheltered by walls of mountains gave birth to dreams of what lied beyond, and I guess you could say I’ve happily embraced them. Exploring the avenues of my town from a car seat gave me the gift of reading; I was eighteen months old and finally tackled the words on those street signs, the ones I became friends with during trips to the grocery and the park. And a couple of years later, when I ran out of things to do with action figures, I turned to the newest addition to the family: a computer. While primitive by today’s standards, the 386 model performed admirably and provided a new story, a new window with a simple press of a button. It certainly left Hot Wheels in the dust.
I turned five and went to enroll at the local primary school, where I was deemed a bit of an enigma. I guess my model of learning outside the box didn’t fit well with the proper education I was supposed to receive, one of finger paint and nap time and cooties. The Adults Who Knew Best said that I belonged in a gifted third/fourth-grade class instead of kindergarten… because, gosh (!), I could read and write and click a mouse and all of that. I quietly accepted my fate, and — while stumbling with foreign concepts like the Pledge of Allegiance, school plays, and raising my hand — took on a new hobby that bore some promise. Before school was out in the spring, I had earned a ham radio license from the FCC, inspiring an entire contingent of local citizens with my radio club membership and sustained interest.
Meanwhile, my parents were weathering a rocky road in their relationship and found it necessary to divorce, with my mother moving out of state and remarrying. My father was awarded primary custody, and because he worked all day, a hired nanny moved into our home to take care of me full-time. I was seven. I kicked off the new school year with a custody arrangement that saw me flying to visit my Mom every two to three weeks, year-round. I did make the best of things, and even used my ham radio set over an interstate repeater network as an improvised phone to talk with my Dad. My teachers prepared homework for me and I completed it during my absences and airport layovers; I’d often take advantage of ground time from a delayed flight to catch up on literature, for example. This eventful schedule continued for eight years, and you could say that I accrued a reasonable cache of frequent flyer miles in the process. The nanny moved out after five, and from the age of thirteen, I’ve more or less been by myself all day.
As I trudged through my final years of elementary school, I was the kid who went to the state level with my science fair projects, and who took the lead in the school spelling bees. I was the kid the entire student body stared at, whispered about, as I walked across the playground. I hated every second of it, all of it. I was being steered here and there, nudged by teachers to bring home the win “because I could,” without much regard to how I felt or what I wanted to do. I was an instrument of a force I didn’t really understand: pride. I desperately wanted something I could call my own, a passion, something that wasn’t someone else’s idea of what they thought I should want. I found it in May 1996 aboard an Amtrak passenger train bound for the Pacific Northwest. It was completely different from anything I had ever experienced in my nine years. I had seen airplanes, and the peanut bags and fasten-seat-belt directives were growing old. I had seen trophies and plaques; they, too, were disinteresting and served little purpose. And I really was sick of all the attention, as if I cared to be lauded for a job well done in an endeavor that wasn’t really mine. Though I took to the adventure of travel early in my life, watching vistas and peaks roll past like a real-life motion picture as I lay firmly beneath the covers of my bed was simply the stuff of wistful childhood longings. Here they were, playing themselves out before my stunned eyes. I had found my calling atop wooden ties and steel rails. I was a believer… and nearly forty thousand miles later, I can now affirm that this is what life is really about. Loving who you are and what you do.
I was now tied to two rather disparate things: the practicality and potential of the computer and the Internet, and the romance of train travel, peering out the window at a distant light as the clickety-clack beckons and lulls you to sleep. I wanted to learn about Web sites and how to create them, so when I was ten I made a site about Amtrak train service, adding personal anecdotes gained from train trips as well as photographs and a discussion facility. The following year, I fought a wrathful Amtrak attorney’s cease-and-desist order and allegations of trademark infringement by researching federal trademark law and the concept of fair use. Not long after, word of the site’s utility hit big media and I began receiving a steady flow of five hundred visitors daily. Folks from literally all over the globe would write to me with words of gratitude, praise, and encouragement for my efforts. The site eventually made its way into the Associated Press, USA Today, metro newspapers from Hawaii to Florida, a Sierra Club book, official Amtrak publications, and on CNBC and radio stations worldwide. I was receiving recognition for a cause in which I personally believed and in which no one else was invested on my behalf. It felt good to be making it on my own. This was not a chase for a better grade, or a higher score. This was, simply, a labor of love. Nobody was telling me I had to do it, or that I should do it. And the fact that I was helping so many people made it even more rewarding.
The climax of the story of the preteen concierge came in July 2000, when I received a rather favorable letter from the Chief Information Officer of Amtrak. I remember the day well… I was visiting my grandma in Canada and happened to check my e-mail at an Internet terminal in her basement. By this time in my life, I had seen many things, but I certainly wasn’t expecting either a trademark license or a job offer from a top railroad executive. I had just gotten both. Only minimally interesting was the fact that the same attorney who had directed me to cease and desist my activities was now being instructed to draft a license for the same. After consulting with child labor lawyers for several months, I was issued a contract for work in the information technology department at Amtrak’s corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C. I was just turning fourteen. Four years later, I remain in the department, and have a rich history of software engineering on the corporate Intranet — multi-million dollar projects serving everyone from trainmen to top execs, picking up the pieces when other developers sort of scratched their heads. It’s passion, and it’s real.
As a result of the early placement in primary school, I started my senior year of high school rather young, and graduated a month after turning sixteen. I knew I didn’t want to move away to a university so young, and I decided to stay home for a couple of years to continue working and to keep pursuing the crucial blend of my interests in technology and travel. It came time to apply to universities and I didn’t have the benefit or services of a college counselor, unlike most every other high school-aged student. I did what I had to — I utilized online resources, tracked down my teachers for evaluations (one had moved out of state), and I simply explained everything in writing. I also had a critical dose of faith in the process. It was exhilarating to receive the favorable news from MIT; my passionate approach to life was finally being validated in a very real way. I never cared about that top test score or that competition gold medal. None of that matters — it’s who you are and how you have sought passion that makes you a good candidate for MIT. I am living proof of this. I will also share that neither my standardized test scores nor my grades were perfect. And no, I’m not exercising any advanced placement opportunity for the fall semester classes. I’ve been out of school for two years, and I’m a human being. I have life. And I think you’ll agree that’s more important than just about anything else.
I look to the future with a hopeful heart and I know that there is much to learn and feel. I welcome it all with open arms, and I certainly encourage you to do the same. It’s well worth it.