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Artificial intelligence expert took scenic route to graduation

STANFORD -- When Roy Nordblom III walks through Stanford University's 100th commencement ceremony on June 16, his parents will look on with joy, pride . . . and perhaps a sigh of relief.

Nordblom has taken the scenic route to his bachelor's degree. Now 32, he first came to the Farm in 1977 but stopped out at the end of his sophomore year to earn some money and see the world.

During the next 10 years, he lived out of a van in the Santa Cruz mountains, hitchhiked repeatedly across the country, held jobs in 15 states, joined the Marine Corps and traveled to the Far East. He also learned to sew.

"My parents were very displeased at the time," he said. "They wanted me to graduate and be a doctor or something like that."

Part of the trouble was that Nordblom's academic interests were ahead of his time. Since he was a high school student, growing up on the lonely fringes of Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, Nordblom had been a computer whiz.

However, Stanford, like most schools, didn't offer an undergraduate major in computer science in the 1970s, so Nordblom declared a physics major.

"By the end of my sophomore year I had taken most of the physics core (courses), but the math core was killing me," Nordblom said. "I got my first grade lower than a B in a calculus course. It was very unpleasant."

Meanwhile, Nordblom taught himself LISP, the most widely used artificial intelligence programming language, and had gotten a succession of jobs doing applications programming for professors in the Computer Science Department and at the Medical School.

Then, he got a job at the SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center, where he helped to develop an expert system that did molecular genetics experiments.

"We made that system 100 times faster," Nordblom said. "I was having so much fun programming and doing real research -- and making a lot of money -- that school was getting in the way."

Nordblom originally planned to stop out only a couple of years, but then the travel bug bit him. Hopping into the 1967 Dodge van that served as his off-campus apartment in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he headed east, taking jobs just long enough to earn money for food and gas.

When he finally got to Philadelphia, he sold the van and all his belongings, bought a backpack and hitchhiked back to the West Coast with $5 in his pocket.

On subsequent trips, Nordblom managed to hit all 50 states. One of his stops was Boston, where he landed a year-long job at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. He spent another year at home in the desert, getting reacquainted with his family and helping build a house for his sister.

"That's where I learned to sew," he said proudly. "I made a complete set of hitchhiking clothes, down to the sleeping bag and backpack."

It was the Marine Corps that finally put some stability into Nordblom's life.

"I still had not paid off my student loans and I hadn't held a job for more than a year," he said. "I wanted to do something different."

Nordblom's computer skills were quite useful to the Marines, and he quickly was promoted to the rank of sergeant and battalion training non-commissioned officer.

"I was put to work teaching young Marines how to do their laundry, balance a checkbook and pay their bills," he said. "I helped a lot of young men who had never been away from home learn some of the basic competencies of life."

Nordblom served three years in North Carolina and a year in Japan and Korea. When he finally returned to Stanford in 1989, he had four years' worth of savings in the bank and some hefty veteran's benefits.

Coming back to Stanford turned out to be a good move. On his first day back he met staffer Jennifer Padilla, who would become his fiancee, at the University's Rental Housing Office. He also discovered a new major that hadn't existed at Stanford his first time around.

"Symbolic Systems is very nearly the thing I wanted to do so many years ago," he says of the major, which addresses the relationship between humans, computers and languages. "Things have changed so much in the field, it's wonderful."

Nordblom will be taking the Graduate Record Examination next year and hopes to enter graduate school the following fall. Eventually, he would like to become a professor and teach young people, just as he did in the Marine Corps. He also may write a book about his hitchhiking experiences.

In the meantime, Nordblom will be sewing his bride's gown for their wedding in July 1992.



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