Monday, October 8, 2012

NCSSM and how it saved my life

I just got back from my 20th high school reunion and was reflecting on how much impact my high school had on my life and my career. You see, I was lucky enough to go to the North Carolina School of Science and Math, also known as NCSSM, or as we lovingly called it back then, "S&M". NCSSM is a public high school in Durham -- not far from Duke -- for juniors and seniors. Around 680 students live on campus, in dorms -- a lot like college, but with curfews, and students aren't allowed to have cars. To get in, you take the SAT and some other tests in 10th grade, and if you're accepted, it's completely free of charge -- no tuition, no housing fees, even the food is paid for. (The food was not, by the way, one of the highlights of the place.)

NCSSM is an utterly amazing place. Everyone I know who has been there has had their lives deeply touched by the experience. Although it has a well-deserved reputation as a school for, well, nerds, it is also full of some of the most interesting and creative people I have ever met. Twenty years later, it is amazing to see what my classmates are doing today: Doing high-end CGI for Hollywood movies; numerous professors and research scientists in areas as diverse as political science, planetologyintegrated science and technology, and sociology; working for the Department of Health and Human Services while doing regular club and radio DJ gigs; even serving as an Episcopalian minister. Many of my classmates are not doing "science" or "math" in the conventional sense.

Prior to NCSSM, I lived in a small town called Wilson, about an hour east of Raleigh. (If you're from North Carolina, the correct pronunciation is "WILT-sun".) It would be understatement to say that I did not fit in in Wilson, which is surrounded by a rural tobacco-growing community. There were not a lot of people there like me, and my horizons were severely limited. The main pastime of high-school kids in Wilson those days was driving in circles around the mall parking lot. There were a few great teachers in the schools, but I really needed more than Wilson had to offer.

Coming to NCSSM I found a community of people like me -- a school full of outcasts, geeks, free spirits, lost souls. Not everyone was socially maladjusted, of course, but there were plenty of people there all pushing the boundaries of their humble (often rural and low-middle income) backgrounds. The faculty at NCSSM were (and still are) stellar. I could take Russian, quantum physics, photography, t'ai chi. It was like opening a vista on vast opportunities that I had scant awareness of when I was in Wilson, and I mean it seriously when I say that NCSSM saved my life: there's no way I'd be where I am today without that experience.

For one thing, my exposure to computing was greatly expanded at NCSSM. Along with some other students, I ran the school's VAX minicomputer which powered the school's "intranet" (although it was really a bunch of VT-100 terminals scattered around campus, tied to the single computer). The students and faculty all had primitive email and chat accounts on the VAX -- this was the days before the Internet was widespread. We also had an IBM RT, a high end (at the time) UNIX workstation with 3D (!!) graphics support. A few of us managed to get this machine on the Internet, over a slow ISDN connection, so we could use FTP and email, and the IBM RT was my first UNIX "root" account. At one point, I dusted off an old, unused Data General mainframe sitting in the corner, figured out how to boot it from tape, and set up a series of terminals in the adjacent computer lab, giving any student who asked for it an account, with the provisio that they have no password -- a tribute to RMS' similar practice at the MIT AI Lab. I got to do an internship at nearby Data General, and a volunteer from NC State taught a C programming class after hours. It was incredible.

Outside of conventional academics, NCSSM has tremendous resources for exploring music and the arts. It has the most unbelievable art studio, where we would spend countless hours: in the darkroom, screen printing, making stained glass, paintings, sculptures, ceramics. My major creative outlet there was the electronic music studio. Back then it was a somewhat modest affair: A couple of synthesizers, a drum machine, 8-track reel-to-reel, effects units, MIDI sequencer -- more than enough for me to produce and record two full-length albums (and no, I will not be posting MP3s). I spent hours in that studio every weekend, all thanks to the dear late Ray Church, the music teacher who let me and others run roughshod over "his" gear. The best aspect of this was that the studios were open all the time, and the students were trusted, and encouraged, to make it their own space and use the resources to explore their own projects.

It's important to keep in mind that NCSSM is a public school. It's paid for by the taxpayers of North Carolina, and can only exist because of a state legislature, and state university system, that recognizes the importance of having a high school like this. I can't imagine what my life would be like had I not had the opportunity to go there, and I know a lot of my classmates agree.


45 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It should inspire applicants and current students. I know you said, "I can't imagine what my life would be like had I not had the opportunity to go there," but, if you had to imagine it, how do you think your life might be now? Creating a credible "contrast" between the two life paths gives food for thought to applicants, especially those who do not gain entry into NCSSM no matter how much they want it.

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  2. Your post resonated with my thoughts (although we couldn't attend the reunion) - both of us gained an appreciation for technology, for learning new methodologies, and for independence that has continued to guide the way we do stuff. Nice post.

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  3. Thanks so much for posting this. My husband was the NCSSM connection with Data General at that time. He was touched to read your post.

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  4. I'm so sorry I missed you at the reunion (though I'm not entirely sure you'd recognize me -- I worked in the communications office while you were at S&M). Would love to catch up someday -- every time I see your Linux book on the shelves here (at Red Hat), I think of you!

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  5. I was at the (5 year) reunion this weekend and I'm sorry that I didn't get to meet you. I am also from Wilson and I too look back sometimes and think about all of the awesome experiences I've had in the past 7 years that wouldn't have happened or would have been so different had I not gone to NCSSM. I'm still in graduate school, but I hope to be as accomplished and enthusiastic as you in 15 years and this post was a good reminder that none of us should minimize how much of our future was determined by NCSSM.

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  6. Luke - I have no idea what my life would have been like had I stayed in Wilson. I would have likely gone to college at NC State (instead of Cornell), probably not gone on to do a PhD at Berkeley and almost certainly would have not become a professor. Ironically, I might have ended up working at Google in either case :-)

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    1. Thank you, Matt, for taking the time to respond. It corroborates one of my long-standing positions. Most of us who attended NCSSM had a certain vision for our lives and would have striven to achieve that vision by whatever means available. Just as you suspect you would have ended at Google regardless of high school attended, so I suspect I would have ended at NASA for the same reasons. We would, however, have had completely different experiences along the journey which would have consequently shaped us quite differently for better or for worse. My point is that those on the fence about attending NCSSM or despondent about not gaining acceptance into NCSSM should not view NCSSM as a panacea or a "sole path" to achieving their goals. To them I say, "Always 'keep your eye on the ball' and you will succeed regardless of whether you take the 'high and rough ride' of NCSSM or not."

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  8. Fellow Wilsonian NCSSMer here (co '97). I totally agree. The culture of NCSSM opened up a lifetime of learning for me.

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  9. Matt, my account reads a lot like yours, with the exception that I had lived down the road in Smithfield.

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  10. A friend just posted this on Facebook, and I must say that this is still true today (c/o '12). Everything that you said in this post and the speech you gave at our senior year convocation (one of the few times we had a quality speaker) rings perfectly true no matter what class you were in. With NCSSM being my 9th school, I can say that I have seen a lot of what different school systems, some very highly regarded, some not, had to offer. I have to say that while, by some stroke of luck, I always had the best teachers at those systems, my brother and friends did not. It is for this reason that NCSSM exists, and it opens doors for people of all backgrounds, humble or not. For this reason I must also say that we need to continue to support it in times of budget cuts and the like, as most legislators do not understand the kind of opportunity it presents. We have to continue to make people aware of what NCSSM does and what it stands for. As our graduates continue to move out and assume more and more major roles in society, we need to use this influence to spread awareness about NCSSM (and schools like it) so they continue to get the funding and respect they deserve.

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  11. Great perspective from a fellow Wilsonian. Let's hope the state legislature recognizes the high-impact role of a proper science and math education.

    Parris Smallwood
    NCSSM '09

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  12. NCSSM was an awful experience for me. It completely deprived me of all iconic high school traditions (i.e. the football, parties, time with parents) and replaced it with sub par living conditions, authoritarian babysitters (called SLI's) and a student body full of the strangest people I have ever met. There were some good experiences but it was by far the wrong move. I just graduated in 2011.

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  13. I totally agree with this article. I am a current senior at NCSSM, and though I'm not able to see the benefits it will bring me in the future, I already like myself better as a person for coming here. That being said, it's not for everyone, but I would definitely encourage others to apply!

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  14. NCSSM's unique character is a property of the community and a consequence of the selection process. It is not the result of state funding. I loved NCSSM and would agree that it changed my life for the better, but make no mistake: It does not need the budget that it has. Exorbitant administrative salaries and obsessive nannying of the student body constitute wasteful spending of tax-payer dollars. On a per-student basis, NCSSM costs more than universities that provide substantially more resources to the students.

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    1. I disagree with the assertion that universities provide more resources to students than NCSSM. The students have access to cutting-edge science (or did in '90) far ahead of what you see in a bachelor's degree. I didn't see that level of equipment again until I got an industry internship in my Junior year. From those observations, I would argue that the resource allocation per student is proportional to budget per student.

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  15. Loved your account of Smath. I do miss it immensely!

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  16. Thank you for posting this. As a recent graduate (c/o 2012!), I can now look back on my experience and see truly how much it changed my life. As I transition into college, I am excited to see where my life and the lives of my fellow smathers will go. I also thank you for posting this because as I am missing NCSSM and all of my amazing friends and this reminded me that we are all connected now and for many years to come.

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  17. I am only a local parent..but have maintained a connection with the school. Parent Council, Hall Parent and parent of a Graduate '02 all were great experiences. We felt we were needed, wanted and privileged to be involved. I drove the loop bus for a year and then began taking students to Duke football and men's and women's basketball games back in '04, I think. The proceeds go to a local high school scholarship named for our daughter, whom we lost in '03.
    I'll never forget the huge card that came to us signed by many NCSSM students shortly after her funeral. I will also never forget the amazing students I have met and continue to meet every year.
    I still play b-ball with many current and past facility members at lunch on Fridays. Of course, Coach Brown and his family are my favorites. The current Chancellor, Mr. Roberts, is proving to be a positive and unifying force at the school and I have never seen the atmosphere more positive than today. He was once the vice-principal at 2 of our children's schools here in Durham!
    I can't imagine my life without NCSSM...and I never even attended...except the year I went to the Halloween Dance dressed in an awesome 'Sponge Bob Square Pants' costume...Go Unis and thank you to an entire school...students and staff!

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  18. The couple of comments observing the negatives of NCSSM illustrate a statistical fact of any environment, namely that emotional responses will fall across a bell curve for a sufficiently large population. Between those extreme negatives at one tail and the extreme positives like Matt's at the other tail falls the rest of us, a majority somewhere in the middle. I wish there was a way of better helping applicants to experience NCSSM before the fact. It would lead to a shifting of the whole bell curve to the right in terms of positive responses to the school. If you do not know yourself before entering NCSSM, you will after leaving it.

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  19. As the parent of a SMather - one who thirsted for a similarly stimulating experience 30+ years ago when I was a nerdy-but-artistic high schooler that really didn't fit in - your post helps me understand how my daughter will feel about her experience at NCSSM 20 years from now. And it validates that my decision 9 years ago to move us all to NC (one of few states that truly supports gifted education) from MA (where a great education is available only in the wealthy towns) was the right one. With a lot of hard work and a little luck these next 2 years, my younger daughter will be accepted to NCSSM too. I just shared your post with her; it'll keep her motivated ... thank you!

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  20. While I had a lot more academic and artistic opportunities at Science & Math than I would have at my previous school, it was the social element of being there that had the biggest impact on my life. Growing up as a geeky girl in a rural county was isolating, so moving to a fairly controlled environment that was full of people like me gave me confidence that I'd never have built up otherwise.

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  21. I'm a fairly recent graduate of S&M, class of 2010. By far, one of the most difficult experiences of my life. But I wouldn't trade it for the world. I feel like once one graduates, it's en vogue to bash the high school experience, be it at Smath or a "regular" high school. I myself have been guilty of this. But no experience has shaped me more as a person than my two years there, living with thirty other girls, studying hard for tests and quizzes that seem insurmountable, and every new experience. When I look back now, I am happy with the time I spent there and proud to be a Smather. Thank you Matt for reminding me of that.

    -Emma Hawkins
    c/o 2010

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  22. Thank you for this! I cannot imagine the SMath experience put better.

    Class of 2011

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  23. I was privileged to be a part of one of NCSSM's newer programs, the Online program, class of 2012. Originally, I had applied to be a Residential student, and although I was waitlisted, I never got the call. In the long run, though, Online turned out to be the better option for me, while still allowing me to experience a lot of what the school has to offer in academics and the arts. Since I live nearby (about an hour away) I spent a lot of time at NCSSM meeting people and occasionally staying overnight for weekends at a time with other Online students. The experience was inarguably one of the best I've ever had, and the classes I was able to take have shaped who I've become, the way I think, and my career prospects (it may sound strange to say a school known for Science and Mathematics turned me towards a career in Education, but it's true!). Although I didn't get the 'full' NCSSM experience like so many, I still feel like it drastically changed me, and I wholeheartedly agree with this article.

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  24. Having graduated from Smath in 2011, I have to agree with everything you've said. Though it was a hard transition (and without a doubt the most stressful pair of years in my life), I can never regret attending that school.

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  25. I could not agree more with everything you have said. I am currently in my senior year of undergrad and I can honestly say NCSSM played a huge role in making me who I am today. From the rigor of the courses to the completely eccentric students I met, I would not change a second of my two years there. It's amazing how much NCSSM prepared (arguments could be made for 'over-prepared', but I am NOT complaining) me for college life. I made lifelong friends there and I cannot wait to see where everyone will be in their lives once our 20th reunion comes around! :)

    Volina Noriega
    NCSSM '09

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  26. When did people start calling NCSSM "Smath"? Everyone from my class and those adjacent always called it "S&M", and yes, the double entendre was intentional. Nobody ever called it "Smath", and I'd never heard that nickname until I visited there last year. I have a hard time believing that the "S&M" monicker could die out so abruptly.

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    1. Matt, per the Facebook NCSSM Alumni Association list, the term "Smath" displaced "S&M" several years ago to make parents and other visitors feel more comfortable. I agree with you that "S&M" suits the school experience better. But the school belongs to others now.

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    2. Wow, well I can attest that "Smath" hadn't started as recently as 2005, and "S&M" was still the moniker of choice. I'm guessing the ultimate frisbee team is no longer called "Whips and Chains"?

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    3. I can believe it died out abruptly, especially when I consider how serious those of us in New Dorm were about keeping the name New Dorm and making sure the juniors that came after us knew it. With only two years of students, it is very difficult to keep a tradition. I'd be surprised if they still roll the gym at the first point in the first home basketball game.

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    4. Truth be told, I don't think I understood the double entendre until at least a few years after graduation...despite all the Velvet Underground I listened to at the time. Hi Matt!

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  27. This is my first year as a student at NCSSM but I attended Labs 4 Learning, a summer camp at the school for students in north-eastern NC in grades 6-9, 4 years straight before applying. That camp was the reason I came to the school. It helped me to come out of my shell, being with students who were so similar to me and who lived so close to me. It also exposed me to new things and gave me opportunities I wouldn't have had otherwise. I loved it so much that the last year I cried at the thought of not coming back(thus I applied)! Being a student at the school has only continued helping me grow personally and academically(as I hoped it would). I love every aspect of Science and Math. The academics and social aspects are great as well as the artistic opportunities and the various events that happen on campus. This school has already changed me so much(for the better) and I can't wait to see what it will help me do in the future. I love this account of SMath and I feel that it captures it very well!
    Katie M. c/o 2014

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    1. Katie, you had the good fortune to experience NCSSM over several formative years and so did not experience the culture shock many others do. Imagine if you had hated Labs 4 Learning instead of loving it. That experience would have forewarned you not to pursue NCSSM further and saved you massive heartache. So I am glad you confirmed my contention that applicants need some way to experience NCSSM before the fact much as people need to experience each other through dating before marriage. Even so, just as dating and marriage differ considerably, so does a brief summer commitment versus a two year commitment. I appreciate your comment.

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  28. Hi Matt, thanks for the post. I went from Goldsboro to NCSSM, graduating in 1995. I'm now a professor at your alma mater. Looking out my window, the leaves are changing and winter is coming to Ithaca.

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    1. Hello! What do you teach at Cornell? I am c/o '09 from NCSSM and currently completing my senior year. Would love to connect with a fellow Uni

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    2. S&M alums are everywhere. I teach courses on the Middle East and Islam in the Govt Dept. I might see you in class next semester...

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  30. I would like to reiterate the sentiments echoed by numerous posters that attendance at Science & Math was a life-changing experience. Although I was socially and academically involved at my previous high school, it was not until I enrolled at S&M that I became acquainted with such a creative and diverse student body. Coming from a very rural high school with very limited academic opportunities, I was extremely grateful for the extensive range of options available to us at S&M. Not only was I able to move straight into higher level math courses despite having only been able to take Algebra I and Geometry in 9th & 10th, I also got the opportunity to learn French, German, Esperanto and Russian. Needless to say, I am now a World Language instructor. I will continue to donate to S&M's annual fund to help support future generations of talented students! c/0 1996

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  31. Hey Matt -- remember this:
    http://marypat.org/stuff/pics/mp_python.jpg
    heh.

    NCSSM was a very fun time.

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  32. Actually, Matt, I recall your music made in '90 was actually quite good. If some mp3's were to make it on the internet, you'd have at least one listener.

    - Mike Dodds '91.

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  33. I appreciate this post quite a bit as I experienced similar recollections when I returned from my 10 year reunion last year. I truly believe S&M was a unique and powerful opportunity in my life that probably has impacted me more profoundly than any other two years.

    Unquestionably the academic rigor at S&M was a tremendous advantage. I don't think I encountered the same level of academic discipline and difficulty until years later in graduate school. And although I was fortunate to previously attend what I considered a very good high school in Raleigh, S&M allowed me to learn and experience things I couldn't anywhere else often because of fantastic, motivated faculty.

    But what I think S&M did to 'save my life' or at minimum dramatically change it forever was expose me at a critical age to a rich, diverse group of people. For two years I worked, learned, lived, and shared with people from a plethora of backgrounds, traditions, religions, sexualities, races, and ethnic groups. S&M is a rare institution for that and it changed forever the way I appreciate and value difference.

    For that reason in particular S&M without a doubt changed my life for the positive and I am forever grateful for the opportunity and for the taxpayers of North Carolina that funded it. S&M is an institution worth supporting because it provides tremendous academic opportunity but also because it does so in a unique environment that crosses social boundaries in an important way.

    --Rob, '01

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  34. Hey Bro you are working for Google....How much Salary they pay you ?

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