Jul 15, 2019

High Tech in The Steel City

By Mr. Thomsen-Wolf

I still remember the day in November 2017 when I received the acceptance email from the German Fulbright commission vividly—first, the unbelieving double checking (quintuple actually, but I’m not going to admit this officially), then the happiness and sending screenshots of said email to friends and family, and finally the start of frantic planning. Initially, I prepared to apply to a number of interesting, well-known universities, and spent most of November madly scrambling to get everything in order until the deadlines in December. After barely making the December deadlines, solely based on a gut-feeling, I decided to apply to one more university with a later application deadline in January—Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, The Steel City.

As it turns out, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) of all places became my host university, and Pittsburgh my home, for the next year. Arriving in late August, I was stuck in Newark, NJ, for two nights due to bad storms in the region preventing air traffic. Next, I was greeted by typical hot, humid Pittsburgh weather, carrying my suitcase around campus to find my house mate in some well-hidden corner of a pretty much brick-shaped building. After acquiring the key and getting further directions to our house, I was introduced to yet another Pittsburgh thing: a sudden downpour that came out of nowhere and disappeared as quickly as it arrived. At that point, I wasn’t particularly thrilled about my decision to go to CMU. Spending the next week frantically running around campus to find the different offices (which tend to be hidden for some reason) and buildings (which are mostly known by their short codes, except for Google Maps) did not help to improve my mood either. Ironically, things started taking a turn for the better once the semester actually began. CMU excels at interdisciplinary education and research, something I always emphasized in my own education. In stark contrast to the more traditional engineering education in Germany, many graduate courses of CMU’s mechanical engineering department focus on the intersection of computer science and mechanical engineering. Furthermore, the classes are very small, the professors readily available and encourage discussions, and the theoretical concepts of the lectures are applied in homeworks and projects. While all these things make courses much more time-consuming, they also allow you to directly apply the lecture content. Almost inevitably, you start discussing and collaborating with other students, comparing solutions and helping each other with particularly tough problems. Even finding your lecture room isn’t as strenuous anymore if you get lost with a couple of friends instead of alone. The campus suddenly becomes all the more interesting because there are always new events happening, things to see, and places to study at.

Similarly to CMU, Pittsburgh also takes time to grow on you. Historically, Pittsburgh grew together from multiple smaller cities on the different river bank regions. Until today, it consists of 90 different neighborhoods, each with unique names and a very distinct character. Pittsburgh once was a fairly wealthy city, with most of its economy centered around the massive, thriving steel industry. Once the steel industry collapsed due to international competition, Pittsburgh was quickly becoming deserted and many (if not most) neighborhoods were struggling financially. After years of economic decline, the success of the two major universities (CMU and the University of Pittsburgh), and the subsequent interest of the tech industry are currently reviving the city. Now, Pittsburgh exhibits characteristics of both, its past and what will (hopefully) be its future. Many neighbourhoods still consist of old, sometimes rundown, apartment buildings and township houses. Simultaneously, old industry areas are attracting big tech companies, such as Uber, centered around robotics, artificial intelligence, and engineering in general. Furthermore, with UPMC, Pittsburgh and the surrounding regions attract various companies and industries related to the healthcare system. This unique combination of the past economical struggles, and the vibrant research and tech industries permeates all of Pittsburgh. Students, professors, and young professionals from all over the world shape the different neighbourhoods in their own ways, giving each of them their unique character. Once you look beyond the often dreary weather and usually old buildings, Pittsburgh offers a diverse culture, great food, many different areas to explore and an exceptional quality of life.

Throughout the last year, this is one of the central themes of my Fulbright experience. Just by approaching things with a different mentality, exploring actively—CMU and Pittsburgh, but also other cities and regions—and being spontaneous about events you encounter by chance, you can shape your experiences. Over New Year’s Eve, I spontaneously visited a close friend (a current Fulbrighter who I met by chance at the Berlin Seminar) in San Francisco, and experienced one of the best weeks of my life. During spring break, I met my father and my sister in New York City At the end of the spring semester, another close friend from Aachen came to visit me and together we went hiking in Ohiopyle, explored Washington D.C., and tried various craft beers (the number shall not be mentioned) in Winchester, Virginia.

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