Profile on Michael Stevens for CMU Today
Every outlet teems with electrical cords, and the bedroom has a constant humming sound. Michael Stevens has so many computers and electronic gadgets powered on that he has to leave the windows in his room open, even in the middle of a Pittsburgh winter. Just for fun, he takes apart hard drives so he can reprogram and rebuild them. He has other toys, too. Whenever his parents bring home work-his dad is a systems analyst and his mom an attorney-they lug along their offices' latest technology, which their son explores.
The youngster's technical and mathematical abilities don't go unnoticed. By the time he is 13 years old, his school counselor recommends that he accelerate his education by applying to Carnegie Mellon's pre-college program. Although he would be three years younger than many of the other students, his counselor and teachers are confident he can handle the academic rigors of the program. Thinking it's a really cool idea, Stevens applies and, to his delight, is accepted.
Back then, in 2000, laptops were a luxury. But the Pittsburgh campus did have a wireless network, "which was something unheard of," Stevens recalls. Students could buy a wireless card and get service in the middle of a classroom, or in the library, or in dorm rooms. Some of the computer science students made antennas and pointed them toward their off-campus apartments miles away. These were certainly Stevens' kind of people.
He attends the pre-college program for a second summer; by the time he is a senior, the university seems like the ideal choice for him after high school. He worries about the cost of tuition, though, and knows that, even if he is accepted, he will need financial help. The mail brings good news. He is accepted, and nearly 50% of the tuition will be covered through Carnegie Mellon scholarships and sponsored grants. In the fall of 2003, he begins his college career in the School of Computer Science. After he moves all of his computers out of his family home, the monthly electric bill drops by $100.
It doesn't take long for Stevens to confirm he made the right decision. Within the first few weeks, he witnesses students just as passionate as he is about their studies-actors rehearsing on the Cut, Tepper students holding debates outside the University Center, computer science whizzes tinkering with robots well past school hours in Wean Hall.
It isn't just the students who make him feel at home; the professors, several world-renowned, patiently help him with supercomputing and dual core systems. He learns some programming that isn't even available to the general public.
Like most college students, Stevens doesn't forget his childhood friends. During one long weekend, he visits some buddies at another college. During one of the nights there, the students seem to be rushing around just before 9 p.m. Stevens wants to know what is going on. Turns out they are rushing back to their dorm rooms to watch a TV show. At Carnegie Mellon, he can't recall even seeing a TV. He and his classmates simply stream their entertainment on their laptops, which, like the programming he learned, is "ahead of its time."
Back on campus, Stevens likes to hang out in the computer science lounge. It's meant to be a quiet study area, but most of the students end up bantering about problem sets or anything related to computers and math. One night there, a friend of Stevens tells him what went down the previous evening. Three of Stevens' classmates left campus for some fun. A few hours later, Mark Stehlik, the assistant dean for undergraduate education in the School of Computer Science, received a phone call. It was from the students. They were in a hospital in Sandusky, Ohio. Stehlik, who was heading home from an adult-league volleyball practice, had a change of plans. He drove 185 miles. When he arrived in Sandusky, he was relieved to find that the students, shaken up in a car accident, were fine. But their car wasn't drivable. They called Stehlik because there was no one else. Their families are scattered across the country, and Stehlik had given his students his phone number in case of emergencies. The three students, exhausted, piled into the assistant dean's back seat. Stehlik got them safely back to campus by 5 a.m. Everyone made it to the next morning's classes on time.
The story about Stehlik's late-night, early-morning drive stays with Stevens. So do some of the other stories he hears from alumni during his job as a Carnegie Mellon telefund solicitor. Good memories seem to far outweigh the bad. Amid the yes's and no's, he finds himself reflecting on what the university means to him, how tuition assistance helped make it happen, and why alumni support is so important. In his final year, he decides to join the Senior Gift committee, which works to get alumni involved and to promote annual giving. About one month before graduating, Stevens makes his first gift to the university.
The Gates School of Computer Science was just about to open, and people were buying honorary chairs for notable professors to place in the auditorium. Stevens joined other classmates in donating money for a chair in name of the unsung hero to his three friends: Mark Stehlik.
Stevens earned his degree in 2007, with a major in computer science and a minor in economics and as a member of high standing in two university programs:
- GOLD (Graduates Of the Last Decade), which honors graduates of the last four years and current students who contribute at least $250 annually; and graduates from the last five to nine years who contribute at least $500 annually.
- Andrew Carnegie Society, comprised of alumni, faculty, staff, and friends who contribute $1,000 or more annually to support the university.
Today, Stevens is still tinkering with computers, only now he gets paid to do so as a member of the technical staff for Network Appliance, one of the largest non-financial companies on the NASDAQ market. He also continues to support his alma mater. Less than three years after graduating, he funded a $10,000 legacy scholarship to the university.
Molly McCurdy (A'10) is based in Los Angeles, pursuing a career in screenwriting and production development. She has been a regular contributor to this magazine since her senior year at Carnegie Mellon.