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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

Go West, Young Man by Chris Peterson SM '13

my mountain travels with yale and brown

Immediately after the new site went live I left for group travel with Brown and Yale through the mountain states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. When we return from such travels, we have to write up a report for Stu & crew; I figured I’d blog mine!

Wednesday, July 13:

Arrived in Billings, Montana at 12:30 PM MST, on the same flight as Bowen Posner of Yale. Bowen is an earnest, funny fellow who went to Penn, taught at a high school in NJ for five years, went to HGSE and now is an Assistant Director at Yale. We were both starving, so we looked at BurgerMap. Alas, nothing in the Billings area. Thankfully, Matt came to the rescue with some well-regarded Yelp listings, and we went to the Burger Dive, which had really quite incredible gourmet hamburgers.

But I digress (maybe – in order to digress, don’t you have to be on topic in the first place?)

Our trip coincided with two events: daily afternoon hailstorms (which we were warned about, as we were liable for any damage they did to our rental car) and the Big Sky State Games, the high school olympics of Montana. After we met up with Rob Williamson of Brown – an alum, and, like Bowen, incredibly earnest and kind, and who took almost all of the (good) photos in this blog entry – we drove to Skyview High School in Billings, where we had a meeting scheduled in the auditorium.

We were a bit worried that the games/storms would detract from the attendance. We needn’t have been so concerned. Instead, we had around 50 folks from all across the state of Montana in attendance. And I do mean “all across”: one father and daughter had driven 8 hours from Whitefish to come see our talk! We were somewhat appalled that someone had taken so much time to come and listen to our terrible jokes, but they assured us that hey, it’s Montana – you have to drive a long way to get to anything.

This was the first time that I and Bowen had done this particular “group travel” (meaning the Brown, Yale, and MIT collective), so we all worked out a script beforehand. The order would go something like this:

  • Rob introduces the three of us, and talks about why we’re here
  • Bowen talks about the competitive, contextual admissions process
  • I talk about financial aid and affordability
  • I talk about MIT
  • Bowen talks about Yale
  • Rob talks about Brown

This all took about an hour. Then, we would, depending on the size of the crowd, either split off into corners of the room, or answer questions all together for another 30-45 minutes.

That night, we stayed in our hotel back in Billings. We were lucky to have booked our rooms so far in advance. Between Caylee Anthony and the debt ceiling you may have missed the news that there was a big oil spill in southern Montana, and all of the hotels in the area were brimming with oilmen and their response teams.

Thursday, July 14

On Thursday we all met in the lobby around 9 AM. They were charging for the continental breakfast so I had a healthy, balanced breakfast of a hot dog with jalapenos and a chocolate donut at the local gas station. Then, we began our four hour drive south to Casper, Wyoming.


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On our way we drove through Crow Agency, Montana, the headquarters of the Crow Nation. This part of the country is the historic homeland of the Crow Nation, and is 95% Native American to this day. It is also home to the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument.

Appropriately awed, we continued onwards. The terrain of Wyoming varies greatly with the geography – as you can see from the map above, the western part is dominated by the Rockies, while the eastern part through which we drove are mostly dirt and scrub, with oil derricks everywhere. Wyoming not only has the lowest population (and, other than Alaska, the lowest density) of any state: it is also 50% owned by the government through various parks, military bases, and land deals.

We stopped in Casper, Wyoming, the second largest city (pop 55k) in the state and located near its geographic center, to give a session in Kelly Walsh High School.

About 18 people showed up for this session – which, while small, was still twice what had registered! And to put that number in some perspective, remember that Wyoming has a population density of 5.47 people per square mile. So let’s see how many folks turned out relative to the population density.

Wyoming: 18 people / 5.47 ppsm == 3.29 square miles of people.

So had our session been in, say, Massachusetts –

Massachusetts: 810 ppsm * 3.29 smop == 2,665 people!!


New Jersey: 1,185 ppsm * 3.29 smop == 3,898 people!!

That’s insane! I hereby propose a new metric in admissions recruitment: the Wyoming Coefficient, which is a measure of “how much people really want to drive a really long way through completely desolate surroundings in order to hear about hacks.” WELL DONE, WYOMING.

After the session we went to Sanford’s Grub and Pub. I can’t even begin to describe it so I will let the pictures of the exterior, interior, and menu speak for themselves:

Friday, July 15

On Friday we got back in the car and began our four hour drive to Denver, Colorado.


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We stopped over for lunch in Cheyenne (again, at Sanford’s – much to Bowen and Rob’s chagrin and my everlasting delight and gastrointestinal distress). People in Cheyenne love boots.



They really love boots.

Thusly educated, we got back in our (now creaking) car and continued south to Denver. My buddy Ben – whom I’ve blogged about before – lives there now with his girlfriend Jess, aka the official Zombie Reporter At Large for Examiner. Jess had to go to watch the new Harry Potter movie for work (yes, you read that sentence right), but the rest of us went out and got dinner in the city before retiring to our rooms.

Saturday, July 16th

We woke up. It was hot. Very hot. And we had just found out that East High School, where we were scheduled to give our session, had problems with their auditorium. So we were going to be in the gym. With no air conditioning. And about 600 people.

Thankfully, like an EMT or professional athlete, our instincts took over. We blew in to Home Depot and bought a few Gatorade coolers, ice, and some box fans. With the help of the World’s Greatest Janitor (TM), Lafayette Rocket, we got them all set up with tables before any of the guests even arrived.

As I said, there were about 600 people in attendence in Denver, by far the biggest crowd we spoke to on this trip (though by far the lowest Wyoming coefficient, but c’est la vie). It was a lot of fun. The dynamics of presenting to a huge crowd are quite different than a small one. You get laughs easier, and they are more contagious. Afterwards we broke up onto the bleachers and answer questions for close to 90 minutes, before finally bidding farewell to Denver and Lafayette to continue our way south.

Our next presentation was Sunday in Albuquerque, but we had decided ahead of time to break up the drive by staying overight in Taos, NM. With that in mind, we had a choice: drive straight south on I-25 (which had been our caretaker thus far) or go a bit out of the way to take I-285 through the Rockies.

We chose the latter. And we chose wisely.


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The first half of this drive was the most beautiful place I have ever been. Specifically, the drive through the Front Range and into the South Park Basin – yes, that South Park – was absolutely incredible. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:


The latter half was through the San Luis Valley, aka The Mysterious Valley. I will say only that it is the single creepiest place I have ever been, and I will say no more.

Finally, we got to Taos around 12:30 AM, and, after some obligatory late night Wendy’s (EAT GREAT EVEN LATE) we crashed hard.

Sunday, July 17

On the morning of the 17th we awoke and began our drive to Albuquerque.


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This part of New Mexico is characterized by rocky hills and gaping gorges – especially the Rio Grande Gorge, whose eponymous Bridge we unfortunately passed over in the night – that eventually diminish into vast scrub plains of sand, bushes, and distant mountains.

Our session in Albuquerque was at Albuquerque High School. We had about 150 folks there. By this time Bowen, Rob and I had really hit our groove, and we seamlessly segued between segments and jokes. I was pretty sad, actually, when it ended, because I’d had so much fun traveling with these guys through all of these distant, different parts of the country.

But my trip was not quite done. After dropping Bowen and Rob off at the hotel, I drove another 70 miles south to Socorro, New Mexico:


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to visit the Summer Science Program, or SSP. SSP is a program for kids who love celestial mechanics and the science of the stars. They were super nerdy and super awesome. I ate dinner with them, saw their grounds, gave another two hour info session + Q&A, and then drove back to Albuquerque under the southwest desert stars.

The End

The next day – Monday, July 18th – I flew back to Boston. Along with my buddies from Brown and Yale I had travelled 1,150 miles, from a state bordering Canada to a state bordering Mexico, like so:


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It was an incredible tour of some places I’d never been, had always wanted to go, and may never return to again. And I feel insanely grateful to have had this experience.

But back to Wyoming for a second.

After we all finished talking about our colleges, one woman raised her hand and said, “My question is – why are you all here? I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. Thank you for coming to Wyoming. No one comes to Wyoming. So why are you?”

It was pretty painful and poignant to hear her ask this. I’ve spent my entire life in New England. No one on certain parts of either coast ever wonders why a consortium of sexy colleges comes to visit them. We expect it.

But I’ll tell you what I told her:

We visit places like Wyoming – places off the well-trod path of recruitment travel – not because Stu really wants to send me on a paid vacation, or because we’re recruiting to reject.

We visit places like Wyoming because we’re trying to provide access to students who might not otherwise have it.

Let me tell you a story:

One of the bloggers – I won’t identify them, but they can come forward in the comments if they so choose – is from a relatively rural area. And this blogger liked art. And wasn’t planning on going to college. Until one day, this blogger picked up an issue of Popular Mechanics, and said “hey, wait – I love to make things, but I could be an engineer.”

So this blogger Googled “what is a good engineering school”, and MIT was the first school that popped up. And they’d never heard of it. But this blogger saw that MIT was visiting near their hometown on one of these travel visits, and went, and listened to the presentation, and loved it. So they applied to MIT, and they got in, and they still love it, and contribute just an incredible amount to campus. I cannot imagine MIT, as an institution, without this particular student, and yet they would have never even heard of MIT had it not been for a serendipitous search and a travel visit.

This is a true story. And it is a story I told on the road when folks asked – as they did at every one of our meetings – why we were traveling to the mountain midwest. Because we want to make MIT seem real to folks who aren’t as lucky as I am to live a bus or bike ride away from campus. Because we want to help folks understand that they too can aspire, apply, and attend a place like MIT.

Thanks to everyone who came to meet us on our travels. I truly enjoyed the opportunity to talk with every one of you.

Also, the hamburgers.

2 responses to “Go West, Young Man”

  1. Alix McCabe says:

    Hello Mr. Chris Peterson! I’m a prospective MIT applicant who went to an MIT information session last week, and who you recalled as being a “nerd camp graduate.” I would really love to contact you via email. That being said, what is your email address? Glad you had such a nice trip!

  2. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:

    hi alix! that was indeed me. my email is:

    chris [dot] peterson [at] mit [dot] edu