“The natural process for creating diamonds,” says Mark Kantrowitz, Director of the Research Science Institute, “starts with high quality raw materials, and applies pressure and heat.” In just the same way, he says, the intensity of the RSI program and the gathering together of so many excellent students is transformative for the participants, “turning them into diamonds.” Students deserve “to be pushed to the limits of their abilities, and then a little bit further,” he says, noting that the intensity is built into the program, but also comes from the students.
When young scholars who have always been the smartest kid in their class, or school, or even state meet their intellectual peers for the first time, the experience “generates a kind of synergy that spurs them to grow above and beyond what they would have done otherwise.” Excellence creates more excellence.
The RSI selection process is more rigorous than any college or university, Kantrowitz says, accepting less than 3% of applicants. The program considers indicators of academic and research excellence, “but also the student’s potential as a future scientist and leader. These students are our future scientists, faculty, business leaders, inventors and innovators. Helping them excel helps us all.”
Kantrowitz is an alumnus of the very first RSI program in 1984, and so speaks with knowledge and confidence about the importance of the networking that happens among peers in different fields. “People form lifetime friendships at RSI,” he says. Maite Ballestero, Executive Vice President of Programs at the Center for Excellence in Education, adds that participating in RSI provides “an instant community that is there for the rest of your life.” “It can be very lonely to be the smartest person at your school, in your state, in the room,” she says. A typical response when a student encounters equally smart people for the first time is, “Wow! I can be friends with those people.”
Some of the networking grows organically out of this shared experience. “RSI students work hard, but they also play hard, too,” and out of the play lasting friendships are formed. RSI has the notorious reputation that the students don’t sleep. “It’s not really for academics. They stay up all night chatting or playing games. They’ve been starved for someone who is just like them, and they want to take advantage of every minute.” When the students are applying to colleges, these friendships lead them to support one another rather than seeing themselves as in competition. And Ballestero jokes about being accused of having a “eugenics program”: more than one marriage has come out of RSI friendships, and a second generation is beginning to participate in the program.
Much of the networking is also quite deliberate. RSI alums form a tight-knit community, available to each other in time of need, even if they have never met before. Ballestero notes that nearly everyone on the RSI staff, with very few exceptions, is an RSI alum who understands the ethos of the program and how to reach out to other alums.
The program supports its graduates throughout their academic careers, “connecting students with internship and career opportunities, organizing networking events, hosting career webinars, and introducing alumni to company leaders and alumni professionals in their field of study.” Wherever students decide to go to college, there is a built-in community of several other students or alums waiting to help incorporate them into the new community. Perhaps most important, after nearly forty years of the program, graduates are now leaders in many fields, running their own companies or labs and open to helping their younger colleagues.
What happens when excellence meets excellence? More and even greater excellence. The RSI program is an ideal place, Kantrowitz says, “if you’re the kind of person who wants to change the world.”
It is also a model and encouragement for other kinds of programs to put excellent students together in their own unique formats—and watch the transformations begin.