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Class of 2024 grapples with an unpredictable college start

Carleton’s Class of 2024 made their final college-choice decisions on Friday, May 1 not knowing whether their first year will be anything like they expected. Their senior years have been stripped of the rituals and freedoms that they looked forward to as a grand finale to their high school experience. They are starting their college careers in a haze of uncertainty, leaving some to reconsider whether to start at Carleton this fall at all. 

That choice is especially dire for international students like Tan Zhou ’24, who grew up in China before coming to the U.S. to spend her last year of high school in California. Even with the rest of her classes moved online, she has stayed in California, citing concerns that if she goes home, she will not be able to come back should Carleton’s campus open in the fall.

Zhou said she isn’t sure of the appeal of starting college online. “If it’s online, I will probably choose to take a gap year because I feel like the experience is different. I just want to have a normal freshman year,” she said.

The Admissions office has been relaying the college’s announcements to admitted students, but Carleton’s decisions have not been conclusive enough for students like Zhou, who are on the fence, to choose to defer enrollment. 

Senior Assistant Dean of Admissions Holly Buttrey said that as of now, the Class of 2024 is no bigger or smaller than would be expected under normal circumstances. She noted that she does not expect an especially high number of admitted students to defer, because for high school seniors whose lives have been disrupted so much already, “making a decision—saying, ‘I am committed to this school’—has to feel kind of nice when you have so few firm decisions that you can make.”

For Zhou and her classmates, the question remains as to how to use a gap year if very few places are hiring and travel is heavily restricted. Chris O’Mara ’24 said that while there has been considerable buzz among his fellow seniors over whether to delay their first year of college, he plans to attend classes regardless of whether they are online or in person. 

“If Carleton is online in the fall it would be because the pandemic is bad enough that a lot of other things that I would want to do with a gap year would not really be available to me,” O’Mara said. His current thinking is that online school, as much of a compromised experience as that would be, is better than doing nothing. 

O’Mara added that he feels less ready to make the transition to college than before the coronavirus pandemic upended his plans. With high school rites of passage like prom and graduation cancelled, he said he feels like he is missing the closure that comes with finishing high school as he had always envisioned it. Despite his classmates’ and school’s best efforts to organize online meetups, there are some things that are unique to this time of life that he just won’t get back.   

“Before, I was excited to have this capstone on my high school experience and then move forward and meet new people. But now I’m less excited. Not that I think it’s going to be actually worse, but I’m more nostalgic and longing to have high school back rather than move onto college,” O’Mara said. Given the choice, he would rather spend more time with friends from his Washington, D.C. high school than move on to a new life chapter so suddenly. 

“Yeah, it’s a disaster,” Zhou said of the abrupt end to her senior year and the complications it added to her first year in the United States. She said she has been trying to keep up with some of her hobbies online, like tutoring kids and web design, but it’s not exactly what she had in mind when she signed up for a year abroad. 

Both O’Mara and Zhou expressed that all they really wanted was a “normal college experience.” If that means taking a year off before starting at Carleton, taking their first term online, or coming to a campus with strict social distancing requirements, it seems to them that “normal” isn’t really on the table. 

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