Great Plains produce few Elis

After arriving at Yale from his hometown of Grand Island, Neb., Benjamin Robbins ’12 could find few reminders of home. But that changed when Robbins visited a friend’s dorm room, which she had decorated with magazine cutouts of John Deere tractors.

“Wow, we’re going to be friends,” Robbins recalls thinking at the time.

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In the agricultural plains states, Robbins explained, families can be characterized by their allegiance to one of two major tractor companies, like athletic rivalries. While his family supports Case IH tractors over John Deeres, he said he was willing to put aside the small rift and make peace: The comfort of knowing that he and his friend shared a similar rural background was enough.

Students from the northernmost great plains states — including Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, and North and South Dakota — represent one of the smallest populations of undergraduates on campus: In the past four years, each of these states has never seen more than three matriculants to Yale per class, sometimes registering one or no matriculants.

But a half-dozen Yale students from these “lonely states” said they have managed to avoid being lonely at Yale. All the students interviewed said that despite living in an environment in which attending college on the East Coast is uncommon, they were driven to leave their home states for an intensive college experience they believed they could only get at a school like Yale.

But while the students interviewed said coming to Yale has broadened their horizons and exposed them to new ideas and diverse classmates, they have gained a greater appreciation for the open air and small-town closeness they left behind.


For students from the Plains states, the decision to apply to Yale was one that set them apart from most of their classmates, representing a break from the local tendency not to leave their home states for college.

“Yale is not considered as prestigious in Wyoming as it is on the on East Coast,” explained Brett Smith ’12, who has lived in Cheyenne, Wyo., for the past seven years. “In Wyoming, he said, the most common attitude is, as he put it, “You find a college. You get a degree. You start working.”

But Luke Hawbaker ’13, who hails from Omaha, Neb., said he wanted to attend the best school possible, and Yale was his pick. While he said college counselors gave him help when needed, he did much of his own outside research about applying to college, with guidance from his mother.

Hawbaker said he did not perceive “a special we-need-someone-from-Nebraska push” from Yale.

Although Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said a student’s geographic residence carries little weight in the admissions process, according to Yale’s most recent data from the common data set, state residency is considered in the admissions process.

“All things being equal, we like to see different parts of the country well represented in the undergraduate classes,” Brenzel said in an e-mail. “But particular state of origin ranks near the bottom of factors related to diversity.”

While Yale occasionally sends representatives to these states, Yale’s outreach to schools in the Plains states primarily includes contact via the Internet, viewbook mailings, letters and guidebooks, Brenzel said, noting that in its outreach Yale does not particularly “emphasize or fail to emphasize” the Plains states..

Still, Robbins said students in his hometown mainly looked locally when applying to college.

“For me to think about going to Yale was completely out of left field,” he said. “I never would have told myself that. We’re not raised to tell ourselves, ‘You can go to Yale.’ ”


Despite heading more than 1,000 miles to live in a different environment, these students said they were nonetheless able to assimilate into Yale’s student body.

The students said their only surprise was the number of times they heard comments such as “Oh, I’ve never met anyone from there” or were faced with questions such as: Do you ride horses to school? Do you have electricity? Do you know how to farm?

“It’s kind of funny hearing that 50 times from all different people,” Megan Altizer ’12, who is from Williston, N.D., said. “But I think it’s nice to have a difference and to be able to appreciate what other people had growing up in large cities, or maybe growing up outside of the U.S., contrasted with my upbringing.”

Indeed, students from these “lonely states” said they find themselves swept into the curious Yale culture, occasionally having to put up with their peers prodding to discover more about their mysterious pasts. At Yale, they fight the stereotypes of being from underrepresented states, they said, citing the common beliefs that middle America is composed of close-minded, ignorant people, while they also face a potential frustration of returning to a community that does not entirely understand who they are.

On the flip side, while finding a place at Yale was easy for Hawbaker, he said he sometimes feels stigmatized by people from his home state because he attends Yale. Among other people in his town, he said he is often associated with the stereotypes of Yale, given its liberal bent and perceived elitist atmosphere. Hawbaker added that many at home often change opinions of him upon hearing he attends Yale, becoming wary that he thinks he is better then they are.

Robbins agreed that at times he is seen differently by people from his home state simply for having left for college. He said he hesitates to wear Yale clothing at home, instead opting for Saybrook College gear, and that he routinely has to explain what it means to major in sociology, which he said is not a common term at home — it’s almost like “switching into a different dialect,” he said.

“Yale is just another planet that I’m on somewhere,” Robbins said. “It’s not particularly important where. It’s not the fact that it’s specifically Yale that matters. It’s just that its there. It’s out east.”


Still, the students interviewed said their decision to come to Yale has given them a better appreciation from their home states.

As Robbins may not have known how deeply entrenched his affinity for tractors was, he nonetheless recalled that on his return home to Nebraska for Thanksgiving break during his freshman year, he was reminded of the 180 degrees of sky he had previously taken for granted.

“I hadn’t seen that much sky since [after] I got to Yale,” Robbins said. “We just stretch out for miles in every direction [in Nebraska]. There’s nothing stopping you!”

Philip Michael ’10 of Cheyenne said he has developed an increased affinity for his Wyoming heritage during his time at Yale, especially because of the amount of time he could spend in the Wyoming outdoors. At Yale, where he said he is surrounded by many people who have never even heard of an antelope, much less seen one, Michael can no longer spend hours skiing or hunting deer; instead, he obliges his love for the outdoors with occasional getaways to East Rock. While Michael said he thinks the Wyoming wilderness is much more exciting than the Connecticut woodlands — his wildlife stories from home include an encounter with a grizzly bear during a fishing trip on Yellowstone River — Michael said he is glad to be surrounded by Yale’s gothic architecture and students with a wide range of interests and activities.

Three of the students said they were certain they would return to the plains states after graduation, one said he was undecided, and only two said they were opposed to moving back.

Altizer said she has increasingly valued the small-town atmosphere that characterized her youth.

“People can get stuck in the small town mentality and don’t want to change, but at the same time people know you,” Altizer said. “You have a family outside your actual family. I was definitely ready to leave, but I think being here has definitely made me more appreciative.”


  • The Count

    Now, if only we had some “great planes” landing at Tweed Airport to bring in these people.

  • Tanner

    I belvieve your proffesors call this area “Fly-bye” country. Well seems you
    might need an outreach program for these people. Perhaps a percentage of places need to be put aside. If we don’t where will the next generations of Dick Cavites come from???

  • Northern Minnesota

    Join Minnesota Club!

    We love you, tractor pulls, and the fair.

  • joey

    aeerrrrr crash go your comments..hey, maybe all the good neighbors and prospects from these states are fighting in the war ? The war on terror, the homeland security war,the war to protect our way of life.
    And the rest go west to do Porn
    (thank you very much)

  • ’12

    I can understand Yale being wary of admitting students from the Great Plains. Last time we did that we got Dick Cheney.

    More seriously, as someone from an underrepresented state in the Midwest, I have to say that a lot of these students’ comments rang true for me. Good to know that I’m not alone in sometimes feeling like a fish out of water.

  • Western MA Farmer

    I’m an International Harvester man myself. The reason that Yale doesn’t get many prairie states applicants is that with the exception of the Left Coast, Yale influence varies as the inverse of the distance from Yale squared. Get over yourselves.

  • WI Yalie

    Just saw this article on Politico! “Great Plains produce few congressmen, electoral votes”

  • Tanner

    If Joey is correct and I think he is then perhaps reinstating ROTC to the
    Yale Campus will help with this problem.
    Perhaps the Forestry School will have some students who know how to grow food for the masses instead of Food for Edge of the Woods.

  • le_aviateur

    I was once an undergrad from an underrepresented state and can fully appreciate these sentiments. While I ultimately decided to stay in Connecticut following graduation because of the proximity to New York City and the coast, I still go back home from time to time encouraging family members back there to apply to Yale. The experience I had was great and I certainly got a first rate education which has helped open doors in my career. Nice article!

  • YtFan

    It is amazing how much food is grown in these sparsely populated predominantly white states. They feed almost the whole world. All the while places like Africa and Haiti are dependent on aid and can barely feed themselves.

  • left coaster

    @YtFan: Yeah, because it’s not like the Plains states get obscene amounts of federal subsidies or anything like that.

  • east coast

    It’s not Yale’s fault that they get few Plains applicants. People from these states are complacent with where they are whereas people from the East Coast are ambitious and want to get far in life, so they think a Yale college education will help in that quest.

  • nice article

    Very interesting — thanks for writing it!

  • disbelief

    PLEASE tell me that post #12 was in jest! If not then the poster only strengthens my theory that the east coast is much more insular and provincial than the region he/she insults here. People from the Plains states are no more universally “complacent” than are easterners generally “ambitious” – just ask the cast of the “Jersey Shore” and Dick Cheney!!

  • Jordon Walker

    Ugh, the midwest sucks. Go Texas!!!

  • ot

    Why can’t these plains states seceed and form their own country ? Political dissidents like me could all move there. No ?

  • @#16

    That would actually be really REALLY amazing. It’s scary to think that dissenters of large governments have nowhere to run to now. That’s what America was for back in the days… but we all know how that turned out.

  • International Harvester Fan


  • Midwest Baby (And not proud of it)

    As a student from the midwest/great plains region that will be applying to Yale in the not-so-distant future, a few of these comments really offend me.
    People are feeding into the exact stereotype that I’m trying to break away from. I am FAR from “complacent.” And I know for a fact that I’m not the only one from around here that feels the same way. While I’m the only one that wants to go to Yale, I have friends that want to go to Duke, NYU, and Boston College. We realize that people have this idea about us being some kind of country bumpkin from Hickville, USA, But I have worked my you-know-what off for about 6 years now so that I can prove people wrong. And while the vast majority of students from around here stay within the state or the surrounding area, that can not be said about all of us. So please think before you write arrogant comments. Thank you.

    In general, I really enjoyed this article. It’s good to know that there are people at Yale that have been in the same position I am in.

  • disbelief

    You tell ’em, Midwest Baby! Regional assumptions abound in this country – so we need to keep challenging them. Yale would do well to welcome you – good luck!

  • Tanner

    To #21 If you think these offend you wait to you hear the Grad Students (who will be your teachers) speak distainly about the only teaching offers they have received are from Univ of Arkansas, Iowa, Wyoming etc.

  • MI ’13

    Haha, once you take away the unnecessary connotation, post #12 is quite good, and quite on point. Except #12 doesn’t realize that the “complacency” he speaks of is not necessarily a negative trait, but may indicate a sensibility North Easterners lack; after all, how is a Yale education necessarily superior to the best education one can get in one’s home state? Yale is superior to most schools in name only, to be completely honest, and a good student will learn as much at the University of Iowa as he would here, oftentimes at a fraction of the cost. Who exactly is the sensible character here? The NE mentality of fierce competition is wise, to be sure, but, again, only in the North East. People from other parts of the country are just a little more aware of the existence of a world outside of the prestige- and career-obsessed East Coast. I can’t wait to return to the Midwest after I finish my education; I would never be able to stand living in a place so blinded by its own ambition.