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New faces on campus

MIT’s newest students include a classical ballerina, a junior Olympic archer, and a battalion commander.
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John Peurifoy
John Peurifoy
Photo: Dominick Reuter
Alaisha Alexander
Alaisha Alexander
Photo: Dominick Reuter
Jin Kim
Jin Kim
Photo: Dominick Reuter
Amelia Bryan
Amelia Bryan
Photo: Dominick Reuter
Monica Valcourt
Monica Valcourt
Photo: Dominick Reuter

Every member of MIT’s incoming freshman class has at least one thing in common: They all survived the stressful, competitive, and often soul-searching process of applying to college.

While most of his new classmates were toiling over essays and prepping for interviews, John Peurifoy was making a business of getting into college. Peurifoy, who is among 1,447 students admitted to MIT’s Class of 2018, says that for many high school seniors, the most dreaded element of applying to college is the college essay, with topics that can range from the generic to the quirky.

“One question I’ve seen is, ‘What’s your favorite dinosaur?’ … and I’m sure if you said T. Rex, they can nail your personality,” Peurifoy says. “But at the end of the day, you don’t know what the heck to do with that.”

Last year, to help students through this often-befuddling process, Peurifoy and a few friends created Essace — a startup that employs college students to mentor high school seniors during the application process. If a student is applying to MIT, for example, she would be matched with an MIT freshman who can offer an Institute-specific perspective on essays, interviews, and life on campus.

“It’s an idea of fit,” Peurifoy says. “If you apply to, say, Georgia Tech, there’s a part of the application that asks for a letter to your future roommate. That is a different experience versus a school like MIT that has a portion of the application that says, ‘Hey, did you make anything cool? Talk to us about that.’ It’s important for a student to understand the personality of the school.”

For those high school seniors who will be tackling MIT applications in the near future, this year’s crop of incoming freshmen is a diverse pool of potential mentors.

Peurifoy is among 18,356 students who applied for admission to the Class of 2018. Of those, the Institute admitted 1,447 — an acceptance rate of 7.9 percent. Of those accepted, 1,043 have enrolled, for a yield of 72 percent. The Class of 2018 is 52 percent male, 48 percent female, and ethnically diverse: 11 percent identify (in part or entirely) as black or African-American, 30 percent as Asian-American, 14 percent as Hispanic or Latino, and 50 percent as white or Caucasian. Nine percent are citizens of foreign countries.

First-year students hail from most U.S. states and 53 nations; the freshman with the longest journey traveled from Sydney, Australia. The majority of the 797 high schools represented by the incoming students are public, with 14 percent private and 7 percent religious; 1 percent of the class was home-schooled.

For Peurifoy, who grew up in Springfield, Mo., finally setting foot on campus as an MIT freshman was “an emotional thing.” He recalls that he was often bored in high school, until he stumbled upon 6.002x (Circuits and Electronics) — the first online course offered by MITx. Since then, Peurifoy has taken multiple courses through edX, from quantum computing to public speaking.

“MIT is my dream playground,” says Peurifoy, who credits his parents and grandfather with supporting him in his studies. “It’s really cool being able to come here to a place that you’ve always thought about, you’ve always imagined, you’ve always dreamed, and live it.”

As for what he may study, Peurifoy is contemplating math, physics, mechanical engineering, or electrical engineering — subjects he learned about through go-kart racing. He first picked up the hobby by watching races with his father, a former stock car driver; Peurifoy sold candy bars in middle school to raise money for his own go-kart. Building and racing go-karts was an exhilarating experience, he says — but crashing them was the real lesson.

“I had to buy every part I broke, so I didn’t want to break that many,” Peurifoy says. “Go-kart racing has been great from a mechanical experience. It forced me to realize the world doesn’t work the way it does on paper, and if you’re not willing to literally get grease on your hands and build something, nothing’s going to come of it.”

Exploring new dimensions

For Alaisha Alexander, “Grease” — the musical — was an unexpected introduction to engineering. Since middle school, the Miami native has participated in community theater as both a stagehand and cast member. It wasn’t until her senior year, when she started spending more time at the theater, when she really began to learn the ropes — literally.  

“I would help with lights, and mess around with sound, circuit boards, and how to build sets and take them down,” Alexander says. “I found you have to be very cognizant of nature to create anything.”

Last year, Alexander was appointed stage manager for the theater’s production of “Grease,” a musical with one integral prop — a car dubbed “Greased Lightning.” The theater’s stage was too small to accommodate an actual car, so Alexander and her crew built one out of wood. On opening night, minutes before the start of the play, Alexander realized the car was still too big. She quickly sawed off a portion, drilled the back-end to the front, and during intermission, rigged a rope-and-pulley system to drag the car across the stage.

“Even though I hated that car so much, I actually really enjoyed myself,” Alexander recalls. “That’s when I realized I really love engineering.”

At MIT, Alexander hopes to study mechanical engineering, as well as mathematics — a subject that was, in some respects, a hard-won opportunity for her.

“My [local] school was considered an urban school. … AP classes were difficult to get, and you had to fight for them,” Alexander says.

Instead, she chose to attend Young Women’s Preparatory Academy, an all-girls’ school that offered considerably more AP courses. Alexander credits a math teacher there with sparking her interest in math.

“My teacher would come in and say, ‘OK, pop quiz, ladies,’ and write this complicated stuff on the board and say, ‘I had a dream last night and this is what I saw. I want you to solve it,’” Alexander recalls.

Although she could never come up with the solution, Alexander started to enjoy the process of breaking down the problems.

“The mechanics of mathematics is absolutely gorgeous,” Alexander says. “In math, you can break things down into one dimension or push them out into dimensions we can never understand. Math is a language that is not only universal, but absolutely applicable to anything and everything you can find in the world.”

Alexander says math has even helped her to relate to others, in the sense that she has gone out of her way to find a common denominator among new acquaintances — something she looks forward to doing at MIT.

“Coming here and talking with people, everyone has had the experience of not quite fitting in,” Alexander says. “This is a place where you can just do what you do, and have fun doing it. There are no cliques to fit into.”

One arrow at a time

Jin Kim can certainly relate to the feeling of being slightly different. Kim, who hails from Brea, Calif., was always a sporty kid, and planned on joining the basketball or tennis team once he reached high school. But his plans derailed when he strained his back in a friendly match with his tennis coach during the summer before his freshman year. The injury made sitting painful, and Kim found that the only thing that eased the pain was a small green cushion.

“The first day of high school, I carried that cushion around because the chairs were too hard,” Jin remembers. “Every day I would go home and just lie down on my bed and do homework. Freshman year was kind of dark.”

One day, he and his mother came across a magazine ad for archery lessons — by the head coach of the Olympic archery team. Although it wasn’t as active a sport as basketball or tennis, Kim decided to “give archery a shot.”

After his first lesson, Kim felt physically strong. But mentally, he was drained.

“I really felt, even at that beginning stage, that it was a battle against myself,” Kim says. “In basketball, when you’re shooting, others can block you. But in archery, there’s no one to blame but yourself.”

As he perfected his physical form, Kim found that what really improved his shots was a steady and calm focus. His performance eventually earned him a spot on the 2014 USA Archery Team, as well as the USA Junior Archery Dream Team, consisting of the nation’s top 24 archers ages 12 to 18. As part of this team, Kim traveled to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., where, among other lessons, he learned “mental management” — essentially, the ability to shut out all other stimuli, and only visualize shooting an arrow.

“Just close our eyes, take deep breaths, and pretend we’re at the archery range, shooting,” Kim says. “I even tried it on a roller coaster, but it didn’t work so well.”

The mental skill did pay off this past summer, when Kim traveled to his native South Korea to represent the U.S. in an international archery competition, set in Seoul’s Olympic Park. It was an intimidating venue, featuring a large stage, crowds of onlookers, and a widescreen television broadcasting close-ups of each competitor.

“When I picked up my bow, I could hear the announcer, and I could see my face on the screen, and I could hear everyone clapping,” Kim recalls. “But after that first arrow, I settled in, and it really came down to me and the target.”

In addition to providing a much-needed outlet for Kim, archery may have given him a calling. During an earlier competition, he noticed an archer shooting despite a significant disadvantage: The man had no arms.

“He was using a mouthpiece between his teeth that he hooked to the bow between his legs, and he pulled his legs back to shoot,” Kim recalls. “Just by using a medical tool, he can enjoy the sport like I do, and he shoots better than I do! That was a great experience for me.”

That encounter inspired Kim to pursue biomedical engineering at MIT.

“I’m going to take it one class at a time, just like shooting arrows,” Kim says. “One class isn’t more important than another, just as the first arrow is just as important as the last.”

Taking center stage

While Kim competed in South Korea, Amelia Bryan performed on an altogether different international stage, in Glasgow, Scotland.

This past summer, Bryan, a classically trained ballerina, qualified to compete in the Genée International Ballet Competition: one of the oldest and most prestigious competitions of its kind, and known as the “friendly competition,” since dancers compete not against each other, but against a standard.

“That really creates a very supportive, family environment,” Bryan says. “After [the movie] ‘Black Swan’ came out, people thought of ballet as cutthroat … and it is very easy to understand how it can get competitive. But in general, ballet companies can be very close-knit.”

For a time, Bryan entertained the prospect of joining a professional company. She first took up dance, at age 3, as a way to correct her pigeon-toed feet. She eventually moved from tap-dancing to ballet, and ultimately to a style called the Royal Academy of Dance, which she describes as “the most unaffected and classical of ballet training,” embodying popular works such as “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “The Nutcracker.”

As a member of a pre-professional company, Bryan has danced in the shoes of many classic characters, from the fairy godmother in “Cinderella” to the title role in “The Snow Queen.”

“I really like performing, because it’s a way of getting out of yourself,” Bryan says. “There’s this crazy mash-up of emotions, and I really try to commit to the character that I’m playing.”

This proved a bit difficult this past winter, as her company’s first performance of “The Nutcracker” coincided with MIT’s date for early-action decisions. 

“I was thinking, ‘If I don’t get it, I somehow have to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy tonight’ — which is this really happy, welcoming, nurturing role,” Bryan recalls. “And if I do get in, then I can’t be insanely spastic and excited all day. I still have to dance this fairly grounded role.”

Bryan received good news, and danced well. At MIT, she hopes to pursue biomedical engineering, along with studies in global health, although she is open to other possibilities — an attitude she adopted early on in her education. Bryan was home-schooled by her mother, a former NASA employee who helped, among other things, to redesign the agency’s crew escapes and to train astronauts after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.

“What was wonderful about my mom was that every year, she’d sit my brother and me down and say, ‘What do you want to learn?’” Bryan says. “There were obviously things we had to learn, but we still got to be masters of our own education, even at a very young age. And I think it has been really helpful to me to have this idea of, if I really want to learn something, what’s stopping me?”

Rising in the ranks

While Bryan’s academic education took place around the family’s kitchen table, Monica Valcourt, of McLean, Va., spent most of her formative years away from home.

Valcourt is one of six siblings, all of whom attended boarding schools. In eighth grade, Valcourt chose to attend a local military academy — a decision that tested her mettle from day one.

“You had to wake up super early, and you had to do a sport, so I joined Raiders, which is kind of like Boy Scouts on steroids,” Valcourt says. “There were obstacle courses, hand-to-hand combat, lots of camping, knot-tying, making rope bridges and crossing them, and learning first aid. And a lot of the times, I was the only girl in the group.”

Valcourt initially felt intimidated, and looked to others to take charge. But a trek through the mountains on a wintry morning changed her outlook. During a routine Raiders excursion, Valcourt and 11 other cadets camped overnight in the snow, using tarps and rope as a makeshift shelter. At sunrise, as the company made its way down the mountain, the commanding officer — a former drill sergeant — twisted his ankle.

“There were these really big guys, seniors, and I looked at them immediately, assuming they would take charge when he rolled his ankle, and they looked at me and said, ‘Alright, you’re the best at map-reading, take us down,’” Valcourt remembers. “And I realized, ‘Hey, I’m competent, I can do this.’ That was an eye-opening thing.”

She says she experienced a similar epiphany in her decision to apply to MIT. As a sophomore, Valcourt took an MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) course in introductory psychology, a subject that wasn’t offered at her school. She recalls reading the textbooks, watching the videos, and doing the homework — efforts that ultimately earned her an A in the course.

“I thought MIT was this strange, scary place, and I’d never be able to go to classes and know what was going on,” Valcourt says. “But seeing [a class] broken down and seeing how well the professors talked to the students, and that he wasn’t this completely foreboding figure — I thought, ‘Wow, I could actually do this.’”

The experience prompted Valcourt to take other classes through MIT OCW, including computer programming — a subject she hopes to major in at MIT.

Living on a civilian campus will be a bit of an adjustment for Valcourt, who eventually earned the title of battalion commander — the highest-ranking cadet at her academy.

“I had a staff that had to salute me every day and call me ‘Colonel Valcourt,’” she says. “So it’s kind of strange coming here and everyone calls me Monica. I like it — it’s cool to be one of the kids."

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