Class of 2008 boasts geographical diversity

Friday, December 15, 2006

Saul Rivard ’08 came to Brown for the same reasons as most of his classmates: the open curriculum, the urban campus environment and the prestige of an Ivy League school. But few of his classmates have been asked if they rode a horse to school back home, or what province of Canada the state of Montana is in.

“I’ve gotten that a few times,” said the Livingstone, Mont., native, apparently amused at some students’ unfamiliarity with his home state. But this lack of knowledge is common at a university few Montana natives attend.

Rivard is a member of the Class of 2008, which is the first class in years to have all 50 states and Washington, D.C., represented in its ranks. “It’s a fun thing to talk about,” said Director of Admission Michael Goldberger, noting that traditionally underrepresented states such as North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Nevada all have students in the current first-year class.

“You never quite know what the issues will be that are going to be significant in the next four years. You want to make sure people are going to hear a variety of reactions,” said Goldberger, who emphasized that geographic diversity is important to the University. It is the admission office’s policy that, “all other things being equal,” students from underrepresented areas may receive a slight boost in the admissions process.

But while she is proud of the accomplishment, Associate Director of Admission Andrea van Niekerk made it clear that aiming to have all 50 states in a class represents only the “simplistic extreme” of geographic diversity.

“It’s kind of random” when students from all 50 states actually matriculate, she said, but the goal of having students from many different regions and backgrounds is a constant.

But due to the very low volume of applications from certain states, mostly in the Great Plains, the strength of the applicant pool can vary greatly from year to year. Two years ago, 11 students applied from North Dakota and none were accepted; this past year, eight applied and one was accepted. In comparison, this last year saw 2,149 students apply from California, with 335 accepted.

Van Niekerk pointed to several reasons for this low number of applications: the smaller populations of states like North and South Dakota and Wyoming, the high cost of attending and traveling to and from a private college on the East Coast, a lack of familiarity with Brown in distant states and incentives from local schools to keep talent at home. For example, the Western Undergraduate Exchange program allows students from the West to attend many western schools at reduced tuition.

“We do try to get more people to apply” from underrepresented states, Goldberger said, but “limited budgets and limited time” mean that the focus of recruitment trips is often on richer pools of applicants in cities or larger states. There are four different admissions officers who recruit in California each year, while states such as Idaho and Alaska only receive visits every two or three years.

This places much of the onus of finding out about Brown on the prospective applicants in underrepresented states. Some students are encouraged to apply by their college counselors, as was Adam Mazer ’08, whose Birmingham, Ala., school routinely sends students to Brown and had three students accepted to the Class of 2008.

Another student, Georgia Rodgers ’08 of Bethel, Alaska, has family ties to Brown – her great-uncle was a chemistry professor here, and her uncle was a student. She passed up a tuition waiver at the University of Alaska to attend Brown, even though it means paying her own way. She sees her home state’s small population and public schools that are oriented toward vocational training as reasons for the dearth of applications from Alaska.

For others, the Internet, college guidebooks and cheaper travel are essential tools on the road to Brown.

Ana Gustafson ’08, a native of Fargo, N.D., said, “No one else in North Dakota has heard of Brown,” though Harvard University does recruit there heavily. She came to Brown for the Program in Liberal Medical Education after discovering it in a book on medical schools. As the sole North Dakotan in the class, “I feel like a celebrity,” she said, and she’s found other students “very accepting.”

Erin Wetherley ’08, of Boise, Idaho, almost didn’t apply to Brown after a summertime visit marked by humidity and bad tour guides. But she did, and another visit in the spring for A Day on College Hill led her to matriculate. She said that “everyone flees” Idaho for college, but that most students go to schools in the Northwest, through the Western Undergraduate Exchange program. She likes Providence, she said, but is getting tired of hearing people respond to, “I’m from Idaho” with, “No, you da ho!”

“Everyone thinks they’re so clever when they say that, but they’re not,” Wetherley said.

As for the Class of 2009, Goldberger said he has “no idea yet” about its possible regional diversity. But current plans are for hundreds of school visits and evening information sessions across the nation, including a visit to Alaska, a recruiting trip through the South this fall and a trip to Great Plains states in the spring.

Van Niekerk, who coordinates travel for the admission office, added, “It’s a huge kick going to places like that. We all always argue over who gets to go to those places, because it’s enormous fun.”

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