Transfers From Deep Springs College Face Unique Transition

To get to Deep Springs College, you take a one-way bus from Las Vegas that drops you off in the parking lot of the Cottontail Ranch, a brothel in Lida Junction, Nevada.

You ride for hours through the barren Nevada desert. When the Deep Springs van picks you up in Lida Junction, it climbs over the easternmost peaks of the Sierra Nevada, into California, and descends into the Deep Springs Valley, population 42--the students and faculty of the college, plus a few hundred head of cattle.

Deep Springs is probably the most remote college in America. The nearest town is an hour off--not that it matters, because students agree to a self-imposed "isolation policy" during the school term.

It is also one of the most innovative. In addition to a traditional academic curriculum, the 13 men in each class run the place--they make policies, hire and fire faculty and even admit their successors. They also cook, clean and tend a working farm and cattle ranch.

After two years in "the valley," most students enter elite four-year universities as juniors to get their degrees.

Harvard draws more of them than any other school. Eight former Deep Springers--more than a quarter of the student body--currently attend Harvard.

"Harvard is the biggest halfway house there is," John M. Gravois '01 says.

But it isn't always an easy transition from the high desert to the banks of the Charles.

Virtually everything is different--the climate, the city, the presence of women (Deep Springs is all-male), the huge lecture halls and anonymous Houses. At Harvard, Deep Springers say they've had to work hard to get used to the scale of life.

"It still was really lonely," says Colin M. Wambsgans '00. "It felt very isolating in a very different way from how Deep Springs felt isolating."

Cowboys and Intellects

When they arrive in the valley, most Deep Springs students can't tell alfalfa from arugula. But the learning begins immediately.

"They just stick you on a tractor and tell you, 'Don't hit anything,'" Wambsgans says.

Students tend to all aspects of the ranch--milking the cows, feeding the livestock, moving the long irrigation lines that bring water to the acres of fields. Indoors, they wash pots and pans, cook and repair automobiles.

One of the first jobs Graeme C. A. Wood '01 held was also the bloodiest of his life: butchering. Wood oversaw the slaughter of the cows and pigs used in the kitchens and made sure the meat was handled properly.

The students rotate jobs a few times a year, spending longer at skilled labor posts. A student labor commissioner delegates the most coveted spots.

During the summer, two Deep Springers work as student cowboys, caring for the herd over 80,000 acres of range land; the first man trains the second to take the senior role the following summer.

Being a cowboy is difficult but rewarding work, John C. Dewis '00 says.

"You spend from June until September in the high country with the herd," Dewis says. "Those days, it's you and one other guy up there and a string of two horses...making sure the cattle have access to water and are well fed, that they're kept out of sensitive areas. Summers on the mountain are the most rigorous and the most indulgent."

Being a cowboy in the '90s isn't like the movies. While John Wayne spent more time slinging a gun than looking after actual cows, the student cowboys must guard the herd carefully to prevent it from trampling sensitive ecosystems. They also assist in calf-birthing.

"You stick your hand up the behind and pull it along if necessary," Mihir E. Kshirsagar '00 says.

If the two cowboys don't get along, the mountain life can be completely isolating.

"There's stories about guys who went a week without speaking to each other," says Zachary R. Mider '00-'01, who is also a Crimson editor.

But the solitude can be appealing, and those who attend the college have to enjoy being on their own at times.

Because Deep Springs is the only human habitation in a valley the size of Manhattan, quiet is easy to come by. Even a quick stroll can be an antidote to the relentless lack of privacy in the dorm where students spend all their time.

"Once you started walking away from the school it was really hard to find you," Wambsgans recalls. "You see no evidence of any humans--no cars, maybe a plane overhead, just this vast expanse of desert. It's mind-boggling."

Not surprisingly, it takes a certain kind of eccentric to attend Deep Springs, graduates say.

Years later, some men are legends among the student body for their peculiarities.

Wood remembers stories about the student who ran over himself with his truck, the man who went barefoot for months at a time, the one who refused to live in the dorms and moved his sleeping bag to the dairy barn.

By their second year, the students acquire an unmistakable rugged look, Dewis says.

The first year, "you and your classmates have short cropped hair and are pale," he says. "The second-year men are men--they're big and burly and hairy."

Even at Harvard, many Deep Springs graduates still sport generous facial hair.

But the funky, outdoorsman style leads some to overlook the college's genuine academic rigor. In reality, Deep Springs is one of the toughest colleges in the country.

"It's really like being on a desert island, but it's a desert island with a library," Wood says.

The college is "a really strange hybrid of blue collar and intellectual," Gravois says.

When he arrived, Gravois says he was startled by the "shrewdness" of the other students.

"When I entered Deep Springs I was all about nature, beat poetry and rugged individualism," he says. "I was a hippie of sorts and I thought I'd find like minds at Deep Springs...but I did have my intellectual sloppiness challenged early on."

The college's acceptance rate puts even Harvard to shame. Only about seven percent of the 200 or so men who apply each year are accepted, compared to 12 percent at Harvard.

Applicants must write seven lengthy essays; if they're in the top tier, they're invited for a four-day trial run.

The payoff, graduates say, is classes as challenging and passionate as the best Harvard seminars.

William W. Erickson '00-'01 describes his Deep Springs coursework as a moral duty--not the way most Harvard students would put it.

In a class of three or four, he says, if one person skips the reading, then he has failed in his responsibility to educate his colleagues. Not surprisingly, almost everyone does the work.

With only 10 classes offered each semester, there isn't much room for electives. But the upside is that students vote on what fields they'd like to study, then hire the professors themselves.

Go East, Young Man

Because Deep Springs is primarily a two-year college (a few students hang on for a third year), the majority of graduates transfer to four-year colleges as juniors.

In recent years, what Wambsgans calls "the big Deep Springs diaspora" has centered on the University of Chicago, Yale and Cornell.

But today Harvard is the hottest spot for transfers. The eight former Deep Springers in the Classes of 2000 and 2001 are the largest chunk of graduates at any college.

Wood says that while he has met plenty of new people, the existing group of Deep Springers eased his transition to Harvard this fall.

"Our major networks of friends are not Deep Springers, but we see each other pretty frequently," he says.

Everyone who went to Deep Springs remarks on the value of that network. After living with the same 25 men, working with them in the fields, arguing with them in class and on committees, Deep Springers say they know each other as well as people can, for good and ill.

"Deep Springs is less about friendships and more about...getting to know people even if they're not your friends--to live with people who you know," Kshirsagar says.

The close quarters and difficult labor build ties quickly. So does the all-male environment. Without the distractions of relationships and dating, Deep Springers turn to each other for emotional support.

"I've had female friends at Harvard say we're close to each other in a way that women are close," Gravois says.

In the culture at large, he says, men are often afraid to express affection for fear of having their masculinity questioned. But at Deep Springs, confining gender roles are less important.

"Deep Springs is remarkably good with homophobia. It's a weird guy atmosphere--it waxes macho and it waxes queeny."

"You get away from gendering there," Wambsgans adds.

The debate over coeducation is the fiercest question at Deep Springs, so contentious that the board of trustees barred public debate of the question during a recent capital campaign.

The student-maintained website includes pro and con opinions about admitting women, and most of the Deep Springers volunteer their opinions on the matter.

Dewis says coeducation would ruin some of Deep Springs' special character.

"To the extent that Deep Springs is an exception to most colleges, the more of an exception the better," he says. "It's a shame there isn't an equivalent place for women. [But] I'm more concerned with there being a diversity in the kinds of schools out there."

But Erickson says that he feels his experience "was hurt by the fact that there weren't women there."

In classes, he says, students didn't fully discuss women's issues because women weren't there.

Regardless of their stance on the matter, plunging into a coed environment at Harvard is only one of the changes that Deep Springers face when they enroll.

Some problems are common to all transfer students, like finding a place in the maze of extracurriculars. But because Deep Springs is so different from Harvard, other contrasts present themselves.

Harvard and Deep Springs are equally intense but in very different ways. Harvard classes are rigorous, but professors are distant, students from Deep Springs say.

At Harvard, "nobody cared too much about what I was writing," Kshirsagar says. "It's easy to slack off when it looks like nobody else cares."

The poor state of Harvard advising is a problem for all undergraduates, not just Deep Springers. But the contrast with Deep Springs' tiny classes--and professors who live in the next building over--can be jarring.

"It's a lot more likely that someone at Deep Springs will say, 'What's going on with you? You look fritzed out. Why don't you go take a walk?'" Wambsgans says.

And while smaller than dormitories at many colleges, Harvard's Houses are each more than 10 times larger than the Deep Springs student body.

"It feels anonymous, it feels bureaucratic," Erickson says. "It's an incredibly odd feeling to walk into a dorm with 500 people in it, to walk down a hallway and know that behind every door is a person exactly your age, there for exactly the same reasons."

Perhaps in response, many Deep Springers have elected to live off campus. Dewis and Kshirsagar live in the Dudley Co-op; Erickson and Wambsgans have off-campus apartments.

But the most notable difference between the two colleges is what graduates do with their lives. Many Deep Springs alumni shy away from earning money for its own sake--Erickson says 60 percent of graduates pursue doctoral degrees, and a large number find careers in academics.

And half of Deep Springs graduates never marry, he says.

Deep Springers say there's nothing that marks them out as relationship-shy--"most of the Deep Springers are personable guys with perfectly healthy relationships," Erickson says--except maybe a love of solitude.

It takes a particular kind of person to appreciate the "immense amount of space" in the valley, as Wambsgans puts it.

But once they arrive, nearly all of them seem hooked for life.

"It's just spectacular--you're just overwhelmed by the bigness of it," Erickson says. "I can still picture that valley in my mind, picture that skyline of mountains and know the names of all the springs flowing down in the gullies between the little hills.

"Deep Springs," he adds, "feels like home to me."