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.
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.
FAR-FLUNG, AND FAR-FETCHED
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.”
EAST OF EDEN
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.”