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James F. Cox was a 35-year-old successful businessman with a thirst for knowledge and a fear that he couldn't compete academically when he entered MIT in 1991.
Christopher L. Douglas was a 15-year-old mathematics prodigy who wrote poetry and music, took photographs and loved to figure skate when he was a freshman in 1995.
Both found a home in the Experimental Study Group (ESG).
Mr. Cox, who graduated in 1995 and is pursuing an MBA at Auburn University, and Mr. Douglas, who graduates in June and will attend Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, have fond recollections of the program that provided a comfort zone as they adjusted to the MIT way of life.
Mr. Cox's introduction to ESG was vivid. "I remember sitting on a sofa between two guys," said Mr. Cox, an Internet entrepreneur who lives in New Orleans. "The one on the left was 16 years old and working on his master's. The one on my right was a very strange, shoeless person who wrote incredible mathematical software day and night. We were all watching 'Wheel of Fortune.' The strangest things bring the strangest people together."
Mr. Douglas's first impression of ESG was equally vivid, yet definitive.
"I came to the open house during Rush," he recalled. "A bit lost, I wandered into the large seminar room where I saw Lee Perlman, later to become my dear friend, teacher and colleague, and Alex Schmidt discussing the relationship between Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy. I stood there watching them and knew immediately that I'd found my home at MIT."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 27, 1999.