Buffalo News Article

Members find Mensa socially stimulating

Buffalo News
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
By Paula Voell, News Staff Reporter

In August, Pauline Soeffing of Williamsville sat at a library table in Snyder with a No. 2 pencil clutched in her hand. She was taking a test to qualify for Mensa International, an organization reserved for the top 2 percent intellectually.

"I've always had it in the back of my mind, wondering if I could pass it," said Soeffing, a financial planner. "After hitting 50, I decided I'd try the things I've always wanted to do."

Soeffing found the test challenging - some say it reminds them of the SAT - with its math, reasoning, pattern detection, logic challenges. "But I'm very analytical and those skills were tested more than anything else," she said.

Not long after her test was scored at national headquarters in Arlington, Texas, she was invited to become a Mensan. "You don't pass or fail," she said. "You are invited to join, or not." She paid her $52 fee and was in.

In doing so, she joined 243 Western New York members, 50,000 in the United States (including Geena Davis and Jody Foster) and 100,000 worldwide, adding to the slight increase in numbers that the group is seeing.

"We seem to be getting younger members than previously, and it's good that young people want to join anything because that wasn't true for a while," said Dave Swanka, who was elected in June as regional director for the six surrounding states.

Started in Great Britain in 1946, Mensa's name comes from the Latin and means table, signifying a round-table society, where race, color, creed, national origin, age, politics, educational or social background are irrelevant.

It's all about how smart you are. As a rule of thumb, Swanka said, members' IQs are at least in the low 130s.

But what's the point of brilliance banding together?

According to the constitution, it's meant to foster intelligence, encourage research and to provide a stimulating intellectual environment.

Mostly, though, it's social.

"The first event I went to was the movie "Little Miss Sunshine,' " said Soeffing. And that wasn't unusual - Mensans get together for board games, antique shopping, dinner, videos, even bowling at Airport Lanes.

Why not do such things with a friend?

"What I kind of like is that it's a set date, at a set time," said Soeffing.

For Jaclyn and Dave McKewan, Mensa meant marriage. They joined, individually, a few years ago and were married in July. "I figured I'd meet people, but I didn't expect that," said Jaclyn, a librarian at D'Youville College.

Still, when the McKewans are asked how they met, often they'll say it was through mutual friends, said Jaclyn. "I don't usually mention Mensa because it either feels like I'm bragging or I'm a nerd."

No stereotyping

Swanka contends that members can't be stereotyped: "Some are bookworms, nerds, but some are outstanding athletes, dynamic personalities, the class president."

Mensa, however, perpetuates the perception with this T shirt: "Not just a geek, but a certified, card-carrying Mensa geek."

Mensans are interested in lots of things, said Swanka, who is president of the Western New York Rose Society.

When Swanka was a roofing contractor, he was often asked why he was pounding nails. "People misguidedly think of intelligence and success going together," said Swanka, "but they don't. It's a standalone attribute, like having a nice personality or being quick-witted."

There's something more about Mensans: they like spirited discussions.

"If you are with Mensans, everybody has an opinion and if you voice yours, you will be challenged by somebody, for some reason, at some level," said Don Sementilli, local Mensa secretary. "Whether you are right or wrong you'll find someone who's going to disagree. In other groups, people might just nod and agree."

The organization's watchword is: "Mensa has no opinion, but its members do."


Test recently given

Testing is offered a few times a year, with the next test scheduled for sometime before Thanksgiving. If you are feeling bright and want to give it a shot, you can register by calling Swanka at 833-5549 . There is a fee.

One portion of the test is the Wunderlich, a 12-minute, 50-question test designed to test logic and deductive reasoning. It's often used by employers, most notably the NFL.

Predicting who will do well is impossible, Swanka has learned, but, generally, 60 percent of those who take the test pass. "At one time," he said, "we had a run of three or four test sessions where nobody passed, but we got back on track.

"Some people you'd swear would get in, don't," Swanka said, "We tested a very nice lady, fluent in several languages, with several advanced degrees. I thought she was a shoe-in."

Swanka reiterates that the group isn't elite. "Going by the statistics, in the U.S. there are six million people who'd qualify, so that's far from being elitist," he said. "We open our doors to anyone who qualifies."