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Ryan Johnson, Published September 10 2013

Local members of Mensa value wide-ranging conversations

FARGO – Even when geniuses gather they can’t resist the latest Kardashian gossip.

But for local members of the North Dakota chapter of Mensa, belonging to an exclusive group that’s only open to those who score in the top 2 percent of approved intelligence tests also comes with the chance for deep, meaningful conversation that can move beyond celebrity rumors.

Sharon Swan said the easiest way to understand Mensa is to break down the word into its Latin translation – mensa means “table,” while mens means “mind” and mensis “month.”

“It’s a meeting of the minds once a month around a table,” she said.

Erin Koffler, the group’s southeast area coordinator and editor of the local newsletter, said being in Mensa is “really about the conversation” that covers wide-ranging topics.

“You have a very eclectic group, and everybody has lots of different interests,” she said. “One of the things that’s sort of a hallmark of a Mensa conversation is it veers all over the place, and it’s really interesting to keep up with that.”

To join, members must take the official Mensa test or a number of approved intelligence tests.

Members gather frequently, whether it’s the local group meeting up at a member’s house for drinks and board games or visiting a restaurant for a good meal and friendly conversation.

Koffler, a member for about 20 years, said they’ve visited the zoo in Wahpeton, toured art museums and booked the planetarium for group events.

They also attend national gatherings once a year, getting the chance to participate in seminars with topics like the social implications of the emotional attachments humans can easily make to non-living objects like teddy bears and game pieces.

The group gives back through the Mensa Foundation, which awards scholarships and provides materials for parents of gifted children to ensure they reach their full potential.

The North Dakota chapter now has 84 members, including an 8-year-old girl in the Dickinson area, while the Minnesota group has more than 1,000. More than 50,000 Americans are in Mensa, an international group in more than 100 countries.

Still, Koffler said Mensa remains largely misunderstood or unknown in the broader public, taking on the status of a secret society even though it’s more of a social club.

“It’s not really secret, but if you think about the American culture, it’s not always cool to be smart,” she said.

Finding like minds

Koffler said some members don’t want the public to know they’re in Mensa because of the stereotypes they face when others know they have a high IQ.

Whitney Coler said she took the admission test earlier this summer “completely on a whim.” A friend who works at the Holiday Inn told her the local Mensa group was having a gathering at the hotel, and she decided to see what it was like.

When she got her results in the mail a few weeks later, she paid her annual dues and joined as soon as possible.

“I thought it would be great to meet other really intelligent people – until they spelled my name wrong on my membership card,” she said, laughing.

But Coler said there are perks to being in Mensa.

“Society has a negative view of people that are intelligent, and sometimes there’s this perception that you have to talk about superficial things or lessen your mind in order to be more fun or edgier,” she said. “That’s not what I want, so it was really fun to go and talk about random scientific theories and a million different things.”

Swan joined about five years ago, and said she appreciates being around people that won’t label her as a nerd or “shut her down” if she brings up news of the latest meteor shower or scientific research.

“If there are six people at the table, five of them have heard about it and four of them know more than you do,” she said. “It’s just so much fun.”

Popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” has helped make it more socially acceptable to be a smart, self-labeled nerd, Swan said. Still, things aren’t easy for a smart woman, she said. While women make up a significant part of the Mensa membership, males still outrank females 2-to-1, she said.

Swan, a certified public accountant who now serves as the local Mensa chapter’s treasurer, said she has since gained a “big extended family” where all are welcome for fun, friendship and good conversation.

Coler, an analytical chemist, admitted that getting the acceptance letter was an ego boost. But she said she’s not in Mensa to brag about it.

“It’s just fun to get together and hang out and meet new people,” she said.

Swan said the group has attracted members from all walks of life – including a retired UPS driver – and said a high IQ doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all doctors and scientists.

Swan said some studies have found that the most lied about thing on job applications was being a Mensa member.

But she said non-members might want to think again – many people in Mensa don’t advertise their membership and actually have said they see it as a hurdle to overcome during job interviews.

“That can be the biggest drawback because your boss doesn’t want to know that you’re smarter,” she said. “He or she is going to assume you want their job, which is not necessarily the case.”


The North Dakota chapter now has 84 members, including an 8-year-old girl in the Dickinson area, while the Minnesota group has more than 1,000. More than 50,000 Americans are in Mensa, an international group in more than 100 countries.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587