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MIT staff blogger Ben Jones

50 Reflections by Ben Jones

Hello old friends. The blogs are turning ten years old today, and Petey asked me to write something to kick off the big anniversary celebration. The invitation is a complete honor. It’s great to be back in my old virtual stomping grounds; I’ve missed you a lot. I like what you’ve done with the place.

Ten years… wow. I was 30 years old when we launched the blogs, and I just turned 40. It’s hard to believe an entire decade has passed.

This narrative isn’t likely to be particularly linear. But you guys probably don’t care. (Thanks.)

Inspired by my own 50 Things, I offer you 50 Reflections. Here goes…

  1. The years I spent at MIT were among the best — and, at the same time, the hardest — years of my life. I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. MIT alums often describe their experience the same way.
  2. Even in the most difficult moments, I don’t recall ever once saying “IHTFP.” But then again, I never had to take 8.02.
  3. Everyone who works at MIT is expected to innovate, to push boundaries, to improve the world. There isn’t a day that goes by in which I am not grateful for the privilege of having been a part of that culture at a critical moment in my career. It taught me so much about the world and about what I wanted to contribute to it.
  4. Much of the time I am convinced that you don’t find MIT; rather, MIT finds you. This may not be obvious now, but it will be someday.
  5. 50 Things supposedly still gets the most traffic of any entry ever written on the MIT blogs. While I am really, really flattered, the entry I wish everyone would read is More Than A Job.
  6. I have a list of all the applicants whose stories really changed my life. Every so often I google them to see what they’re up to. I have yet to be disappointed.
  7. Some of them didn’t get admitted to MIT.
  8. Students entering college this fall would have been just eight years old, give or take, when we started the admissions blogs. Yes, this makes me feel a bit old.
  9. Social media as we know it today didn’t exist when we launched our great experiment of promoting unfiltered/uncensored narratives and connecting prospective and current students directly. Facebook was only a few months old and restricted to a handful of colleges, which ruled out pretty much all of our prospective students. Twitter was still a couple of years away, as was Tumblr. The lack of third-party resources, in large part, enabled the blogs to become the epicenter of the online community we hoped to build around MIT Admissions. It would be more difficult (maybe even impossible) to pull off such a centralized effort today.
  10. When I first saw the job posting, I checked out the MIT Admissions web site; at the time, it was basically a couple of text-only pages and not very inspiring. I remember thinking: in 2004, the greatest technology school in the world can’t find any students who can build a decent web page? (Answer, once I had the opportunity to ask: we’re putting a rover on Mars / trying to cure cancer / creating the renewable energy systems of the future / etc. — you seriously want us to waste time with html?)
  11. Matt McGann was my partner in crime throughout the genesis and early evolution of the blogs program. MIT was the first, so this was all new territory with no road map to follow. I’ll be forever grateful for Matt’s willingness to be a sounding board and copilot in those years.
  12. Matt and I also used to present our successes and failures to hundreds of colleagues at national conferences. I like to think we played at least some part in the fact that today almost every institution of higher education showcases unfiltered primary source content as part of its recruitment strategy. In other words, I think MIT can take much of the credit for the shift we’ve seen on the national higher ed recruitment landscape in the last decade, away from engineered messaging and towards transparency and authenticity.
  13. Speaking of Matt, I first met him at my job interview. He had long hair and was wearing shorts and flip-flops; I thought he was a student. The super classy individual you now know as Matt McGann — the one who gives Donald Sadoway a run for his money in terms of pure awesomeness — began emerging when he started dating Tina (also an MIT alum), who is now his wife. Correlation ≠ causation, of course, but everyone I know still gives Tina the credit. ;-)
  14. The original blogs were inspired in part by the experience of Amrys Williams, MIT alum and fellow admissions officer who was an avid blogger outside of work. She wrote about her world in general, which included the occasional entry on her job. She noticed a fair amount of traffic (and even an occasional comment from the particularly brave individual) coming from prospective students who were hoping to mine her MIT-related entries for insider info on the admissions process and stories of “the real MIT.” Which made us all think, “hmmmmmm.”
  15. Amrys also introduced me to Movable Type, which (after a brief stint with the now-defunct portal) was the first publishing platform we used for the blogs. In the beginning, each blogger had his or her own install of MT, i.e. all the blogs were separate. There was no easy way to navigate between them or to cross-pollinate content.
  16. The first bloggers were students Mitra, Bryan, and Sam, along with employees me, Matt, and financial aid director Daniel Barkowitz. Links to the blogs were buried in the bottom corner of the static admissions site, well below the scroll, but in almost no time they were commanding most of the traffic — another thing that made us think, “hmmmmmm.”
  17. Over the years I’ve been given a lot of credit for my work on pioneering admissions blogs and the move to prioritizing student-centered primary source content. I’m flattered but, to be clear, the best thing I ever did at MIT was to simply listen to what you (the prospective students) were telling us about what you wanted/needed and to convince my bosses that we should build an entirely new admissions site that reflected those things. They gave me the green light, and the rest is history. It didn’t take a genius.
  18. It’s worth noting, however, that at the time, MIT might have been the only institution in the country willing to take on this level of (perceived) risk.
  19. As we all know, it paid off:
  20. Yes, I know that graph is manipulative because the Y-axis starts at 10K and not 0. Remember, I’m paid to engineer messaging, not robots.
  21. I built the original site in early 2005 using html tables and virtually no css. Despite the old-school nature of the code, that version worked pretty well for many years. The office brought everything into modern times sometime after I left.
  22. After importing and compiling all of the individual MT installs into the new backend, I realized that the thousands of entries would now need to be retagged with the universal categories we had established. I hired Mollie to tackle this project. She sat on my couch for the entire summer, reading every entry and tagging accordingly. I’m convinced that her experience in the lab gave her the stamina necessary to complete so many hours of boring grunt work.
  23. Speaking of that couch, it had students sitting on it around the clock, doing homework, sleeping, whatever. Most were bloggers, but not all. I loved being able to look up from my desk and get student opinions on whatever I happened to be working on. The big reason our communications were so successful was that everything we released was student-approved.
  24. Oh, and unless you are Mollie, College Confidential will take years off your life, it really will.
  25. CPW is the greatest moment in the annual cycle. I never slept more than 4 hours a night during CPW. The energy of the admitted students is totally infectious.
  26. The CPW cannon hack was more incredible in person than you can imagine. Ditto for the fire truck on the dome.
  27. When working the CPW registration desk, I used to prank Mikey Yang constantly. He always worked the phones. So I’d call him from an outside line (I’d be sitting only a few feet away) and pretend to be an irate parent. Me: “MY DAUGHTER HAS BEEN WAITING AT LOGAN FOR 40 MINUTES AND NO ONE HAS GREETED HER! SHE’S FROM A SMALL TOWN IN THE MIDWEST WITH 400 PEOPLE AND HAS NEVER BEEN ON AN AIRPLANE. SHE’S ALL ALONE AND TERRIFIED AND CRYING AND…” Mikey: “Sir, sir, I am so sorry. We will get someone over there right away. Which terminal is she…” Me: “DON’T TRY TO PACIFY ME, SON. WHAT IS YOUR NAME? WITH WHOM AM I SPEAKING?” Mikey: “My name is Mike Yang, sir. I just…” Me: “WELL LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING, MIKE YANG. DO YOU HAVE ANY KIDS? DO YOU??? DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO SEND YOUR FIRST-BORN OFF TO A LARGE CITY 1500 MILES AWAY? TO PUT HER SAFETY IN THE HANDS OF TOTAL STRANGERS? STRANGERS LIKE YOU?” (By now everyone else at check-in would be dying of laughter and Mikey would look over at us and realize what was happening.) The beauty of this was that I could do it over and over again, because even though he always thought it was me, he couldn’t risk being wrong. Epic.
  28. I attended many lectures during my four years at MIT. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Eric Lander’s overview of the human genome project. That part where he casually draws a parallel between debugging elite code and curing cancer at the DNA level… yeah. Mind. Blown. (Of course, I could have totally misunderstood what he was saying. But still.)
  29. If you read only one entry from the post-Ben era, let it be this one by Lydia. This is everything the blogs were designed to do.
  30. Over the course of my four years at MIT I had several offers to, um, join a tour of certain lesser-known parts of the campus. For whatever reason, I never accepted. This is perhaps my single biggest MIT-related regret.
  31. My first name is Edward (Ben is from my middle name). When I moved into 3-107 with Edmund Jones, MIT Admissions’ Administrative Officer, we had the door repainted to say E.Jones2. Half of MIT thought this was really cool. The other half complained that it should have been 2(E.Jones), so we had to invent a story about being superheroes whose powers grew exponentially when we were together.
  32. If called upon to do an MIT info session today, I could totally rock it. That’s because we didn’t memorize a script; we internalized a culture. I would no doubt have forgotten a script after all this time.
  33. The story of William Barton Rogers and the ideals on which he founded MIT still inspires me.
  34. I still meet students who tell me they can’t apply to MIT (or to Oberlin, where I now work) because they’re certain they can’t afford it. Given how much effort these places put into broadcasting their financial aid policies, this boggles my mind. Spread the word: if you get in, MIT will make the money part work for you. Period.
  35. Stu Schmill is one of the most awesome human beings on the planet. His unwavering kindness, ethics, and care for every individual he encounters in the admissions process are an inspiration. He embodies MIT. Working for him was one of the great honors of my life.
  36. Stu is also a rockstar at karaoke. I have videos.
  37. Bryan Nance taught me to see the world through a careful and nuanced understanding of context and the impact of privilege. These lessons completely changed my life, and far beyond the world of admissions. You will not meet a more dedicated or selfless person, nor one who has had as much of an impact on admissions-related social justice in this country.
  38. The first time Kirk Kolenbrander ever called me, he left a voicemail that said “I want to talk with you about the blogs. Please return my call at your earliest opportunity.” It sounded urgent. I pulled up the site immediately to see what may have prompted the call. There, at the top, was a photo of a chocolate penis courtesy of, I think, Mitra. (The entry was on a recent event for sexual health awareness or some such, and the chocolate was the icebreaker.) YUP, THIS IS WHERE I GET FIRED, I thought. Pretty sure I was shaking when I called Kirk back. Turns out he was just calling to let me know that President Hockfield was a big fan of the blogs and wanted to take the student bloggers out to lunch. (Recalling this memory still makes my heart race.)
  39. If you know what you are doing, you can almost always get Kim Hunter to cry on cue with stories of great beauty, sadness, joy, whatever. Nance and I used to take bets. Kim also gives the best hugs. (Sometimes the hug makes her cry though.)
  40. To all the folks working behind the scenes, past and present: Joanne, Mari, Kirsten, Edmund, Marilyn, Gisel, Ellen, Alyssa, Vicki, Rick, Elizabeth, Jon, Meredith, Sofia, Diane, Sue, Karen, and the many others I’ve undoubtedly forgotten to mention who rarely receive any public recognition but without whom everything would fall apart: thank you. I will be indebted to you forever, in so many ways big and small.
  41. There are several annual admissions conferences, but the one that almost everyone attends is called NACAC. The educational sessions are great, but the best part is the informal bonding with the only other people in the country who truly understand how hard the job is. We would talk as much about our kids who didn’t get in as we would about those who did.
  42. One year at NACAC, to settle a score (the details of which escape me), Nance stole a bunch of Edmund’s business cards and enthusiastically distributed them at the vendor fair. I think Edmund is probably still getting calls.
  43. On October 2, 2009, the blogs were featured on the front page of the New York Times — above the fold, no less. (Here is the online version.) I was so proud. We spent many years getting to that place. It meant a lot to be recognized on such a prominent national stage.
  44. It’s been six years since I left MIT, and people still email me regularly to ask what the secret is to getting in. My answer hasn’t changed: THERE IS NO SECRET/FORMULA/WHATEVER. OMG, PLEASE STOP INSISTING THAT THERE IS.
  45. That said, I suppose it’s possible that everyone who gets into MIT has figured out time travel, which they employ in various ways to ultimately guarantee admission. How would I know?
  46. Actually Stu and Matt and all the other alums in the office would know, so scratch that hypothesis.
  47. The lessons I learned at MIT are reflected in my work every single day. Embrace risk, learn from your inevitable failures along the way, never be satisfied. Oh, and simply changing the world isn’t enough; you must be deliberate in seeking to change it in positive ways. Remember: WWWBRD?
  48. Marilee Jones, the Dean who hired me, taught me almost everything I know about being an effective boss and managing a team: have a vision, hire great people, inspire them, give them ownership, and then get out of their way. The most important part of your job is to remove the roadblocks and red tape that might slow them down, and to have their back if anything goes wrong.
  49. I dedicate this list to Lorelle Espinosa, who saw something in me that I wasn’t yet ready to see, and in doing so inadvertently launched this crazy and awesome adventure.
  50. And finally, some parting words: every application was a chapter in the best story I have ever read. If you want to remain hopeful about the future of the world and be appropriately optimistic on a daily basis, become an admissions officer.

Here’s to the next ten years, friends. Be well. And a huge thanks to everyone who has so carefully nurtured our little experiment — especially Petey. My baby could not be in better hands. To bloggers past, present, and future, you’re all stars. <3