HESSTON—Ben Hunsberger always has been curious to the point that it sometimes drove his mother up the wall when he was a youngster.
“He was never content with a blanket statement,” Janelle Bontrager said. “He was always wanting to know why.”
That innate inquisitiveness likely contributed to Hunsberger being accepted as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most difficult colleges in the nation to get accepted into. MIT accepted just 1,340 students in March out of the 33,240 who applied, a percentage of just 4%.
Hunsberger, who graduated from Hesston High School in 2020, didn’t know for several hours that he had been accepted. He was returning from a brief vacation on that fateful day and was unable to check his phone for several hours. When he finally got to where he could check his phone, he couldn’t find the applicant portal. He spent 20 minutes searching, all the while his excitement was dying down. He said it was anticlimactic when he opened a pdf, which simulated confetti dropping down his screen.
“I was shocked, but not because I didn’t think he was capable but just because statistically wise, I just did not expect it to happen,” Bontrager said.
Hunsberger applied to at least a dozen schools, including Reed College in Oregon, Carleton College in Minnesota and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He said some places stood out more than others, but he didn’t have one shining candidate.
“It’s tough, looking back,” he said. “[MIT] really would have been my number one choice.”
Hunsberger had seen the statistics for getting accepted at MIT and knew it was unlikely, especially with all the uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If you would have asked me at the time, I wasn’t really considering it as realistic possibility,” he said.
Hunsberger had a 4.0 grade-point average and a 34 on the ACT, but as he noted, “There’s enough 36s applying to fill up classes, so it was somewhat nerve-wracking when applying.”
He figured that some of the extracurricular activities he picked up during his gap year helped his chances of being accepted. Hunsberger spent a month in Heidelberg, Germany, attending a summer science school with students from around the world. He spent much of the last year working for the John Ernest Foundation, which is an international organization dedicated to building relationships through counseling and mentoring. He described the foundation as “people interested in helping others with their interests.” Two Hesston teachers, Trevor Foreman and Stuart Busenitz, and Ken Kaufman, chairman of the foundation, wrote letters of recommendation for him, and he also wrote a handful of essays.
Hunsberger said he wanted to study computer science and electrical engineering. He is particularly interested in Web 3.0, a decentralized Internet that will enable individuals to own and be compensated for the time and data. He hasn’t officially registered, but he plans to take physics, calculus, introduction to basic programming and philosophy of the arts during his first semester. He said the culture at MIT was more collaborative than one might think. The institute has long breaks between semesters, during which students are encouraged to take special classes like calligraphy or wine-tasting or to study abroad on research projects.
Hunsberger said he hoped to catch a game at Fenway Park and was excited to see the various art museums in the Boston area. He was disappointed that he was unable to see some of the sites when he visited in April due to the long lines. He said MIT encouraged sight-seeing and took incoming freshmen to places like the Freedom Trail during orientation week. He said he also couldn’t wait to try out the local cuisine, such as lobster rolls and cannoli.
Hunsberger said he didn’t know if he would get homesick being so far away from friends and family.
“It will certainly help that I went through a year of quarantine,” he said.
During the pandemic, he went to work and didn’t see many people.
Foreman said Hunsberger was like a lot of Hesston students in that he’s intelligent and works hard. He said Hunsberger’s decision to take a year off after graduating was a wise choice.
“He’s a great kid,” he said. “Great at robotics, nice, and he likes rock and roll. He’s just a smart kid that works really hard, which is a dangerous combination in a good way.”
One thing that separates Hunsberger from other students is his success in both robotics and woodworking.
“I don’t know if I’ve had that combination ever,” Foreman said. “It’s a very creative mind.”