Kathleen Allden Hits the Ground Running at MIT

By Al Daniel

For all of her athletic achievements, Kathleen Allden is not known to wield a softball or baseball bat. But when she started swinging at STEM, her intended long-term field, the Montessori Community School provided a metaphorical donut-shaped weight for her to hone her prowess and poise.

“I had always really loved math,” she said, “and was pretty confident in my abilities in it because at MCS I had always been encouraged to pursue it.”

Fast-forward five years, with an especially notable immersion into computer science in between, and she is a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which like STEM itself rarely requires any introduction beyond its acronym.

Late in her decade on Pope Road (2004 to 2014), Allden started aspiring to attend either MIT, the United States Naval Academy, or one of a few Ivy League institutions. When her options took shape, Navy was a decisive runner-up, but no one could match MIT’s academic offerings. Not in a way that would quench her appetite for the subjects she has relished since MCS.

The latest U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Ranking ties MIT with Columbia and Yale for third among national universities. Only Princeton and Harvard place higher. If the magazine had a separate category for polytechnic schools, MIT would sit solo at the summit.

“There is literally no better place — in my and most people’s opinion — in the world to study math and computer science,” Allden said.

Few schools are harder to get into as well. Per the freshest U.S. News data, MIT is one of nine major American universities accepting seven percent or fewer of its hopefuls. In the graduating class of 2023, Allden was among 1,410 successful applicants out of 21,312, meaning only 6.6 percent prevailed.

From her firsthand, involved view, Allden attests that MIT is “where literally everyone wants to change the world.” No later than when she was in Upper Elementary, she got a jumpstart on that mindset through the MCS yearbook. When asked how she hoped to change the world, a then-10-year-old Allden replied, “By discovering something new in physics.”

Inquisitive inclinations are a must in that area, let alone any endeavor for a globally influential breakthrough. When Allden was in Don Henchel’s Lower Elementary classroom, in particular, accommodations for that kind of keenness never wore thin.

“Don’s ‘question chair’ sticks out in my mind,” she said. “It was, according to my parents, created in response to my incessant stream of questions, but I think it was there before me.

“To me, the chair represents the respect Don had for our curiosity. No question was too big or too small. If I had one hundred questions that day, he was there to answer them.”

When a given day’s Q-and-A clock ran out, another varied and copious supply of enriching engagements awaited. Allden pursued chess, jazz, and soccer as her MCS-sanctioned activities while dabbling in ballet, piano, and lacrosse elsewhere. But she found her definitive pastime at the Triangle Champions track club.

“At MCS, I had the freedom to try everything before eventually finding running,” she said.

Allden credits her Triangle Champions coach for cementing her commitment to her faith as well as her passion for the sport. It is worth noting, though, that her father, Andrew, is a distance coaching veteran of three-plus decades while her mother, Tara, has run the Boston Marathon and other prestigious races.

Her father’s own high-end involvement effectively ended her Mustang days prematurely. When she otherwise would have been an eighth-year student in the Adolescent Community, Allden moved to Columbia, South Carolina, as Andrew accepted an assistant cross-country/track coaching job at the University of South Carolina. This meant moving back to the family’s original home state, albeit to a decidedly unfamiliar community for Kathleen.

The change of scenery did, however, illuminate the impact of MCS. “When I transferred into public school, I found that I did indeed stand out among my peers in math and science,” Allden said.

At Dreher High School in Columbia, Allden often built on her takeaways from the MCS science lab.

“I remember when we made flutes out of PVC pipe when we were learning about waves and sound,” she said. “I used some of the examples I learned about waves from that unit in my junior-year physics class. I also learned how to write a lab report in a way that was still applicable in high school. Michele (Widd) instilled in me the importance of seeing the science concepts in action.”

Allden’s own actions yielded results that were more readily visible. In academics, she attained Dreher’s Morehead Scholarship, Columbia University Book Award, and Park Scholarship. She was one of the school’s seven National Merit finalists last year, and contributed to a successful mathlete team.

She established similar standards in track and field, which even granted her a chance to publicize her roots. When she was featured in a student-athlete profile before her first South Carolina state final, her background as a Montessori student was listed as an “interesting fact.”

Allden started garnering All-State accolades in cross country and track as a freshman. As a senior, she nabbed a cross-country regional MVP prize while leading her team to first place, and was one of three finalists for the school’s female athlete of the year.

And now, along with her competitive academic transcript, she is carrying her ornate track record in track and field over to MIT. Her first indoor meet with the Engineers is at Boston University on December 7. But following her mother’s torrid tracks to the mid-April Marathon, which coincides with the track team’s outdoor season, is in question for now.

Admittedly, Allden is also not engaging in any mental, metaphorical dashes around her Cambridge campus. Among others we’ll-sees is her selection of a major, which is down to two tempting finalists.

Course 18C emphasizes the vital relationship between mathematics and computer science. The program’s webpage notes that proficiency in “algebra, analysis, combinatorics, logic and/or probability theory” project to grow in importance as part of solving problems that may arise in computers.

Course 6-14 incorporates many of the same elements and merges them with economics. That perspective would especially benefit Allden if she follows one potential path to finance.

But first she wants to savor the school and neighboring city’s offerings, including her sorority, a local church, and finance and computer science clubs. Despite her polar penchant for STEM and dearth of enthusiasm for humanities courses, she lives by a quote from the late poet Mary Oliver, whose influences included celebrated Cambridge writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“I got here,” Allden said. “I want to do the best that I can to take advantage of this amazing opportunity and learn as much as possible with my four years here.”