SUPERSENIORS AND OTHER ‘UNCONVENTIONAL’ STUDENTS Most Whitman students graduate eight semesters after they first start, but 20 percent of students don’t fit this traditional structure of study.
Stats obscure complex realities of graduation by Hannah Bartman Staff Reporter
T ILLUSTRATION BY MEASE
Super seniors appreciate prolonged time for study by Serena Runyan Staff Reporter
fter an enriching high school experience studying abroad in Latin America, current fifth-year Oliver Wood knew he wanted to take a semester off before beginning his time at college. Little did he then know that this would take him down the path to becoming a “super senior.” It’s common to find students on campus who have found themselves in similar situations, and this causes them to extend their time at college and acquire a status commonly referred to as “super senior.” For Wood, this sojourn meant first spending a semester in Patagonia. “I was living in a tent on what was to be the future Patagonia National Park,” he said. Upon starting at Whitman, Wood was hoping to be a Latin American studies major, but the college was dropping the major at the time he came. So he switched to philosophy before deciding to take a semester off and reevaluate his options. Wood was encouraged to do so by what he saw around campus in the people who had already taken time off. “They seemed like they were very focused at school, and also good at being able to set that aside,” he said. Congruent with his uncertainty in college, some of Wood’s friends were moving to a ski town in eastern Idaho, and he decided in the spring of his junior year to join them in a semester of skiing and leading bicycle training trips in California. This pause in his college career led Wood to mull over his options, and when he returned to Whitman in the fall, he had settled on an environmental humanities major and “jumped right into those classes.” Of course, many different situations lead students into taking more than four years to complete their college career. More often than not, students’ reasons are far more complex than a lack of organization or completion of classes. Marisa Poorboy, a fellow fifth-year and economics major, transferred schools twice before deciding to take a semester off and finally to attend Whit-
man as a Jan-start. She’s recently changed her major and is now in her last semester finishing fine arts credits and enjoying her remaining time on campus. Alumna Sarah Wolf ‘11 explained in an email that she took a semester off for health reasons, and had to stay for another one due to an error by the school in scheduling. But it worked out well. “Since it was a scheduling issue on their part, I didn’t have to pay tuition that last semester,” she said. Even so, the term “super senior” can come with some undue connotations. “When the label ‘super senior’ gets tossed around, it makes me feel like I’m being marked as someone who is lazy or unsuccessful, or just downright bad at planning. But that’s not how I feel,” said fifthyear Katie Hardy in an email. Wood knew he’d need to stay another year at Whitman to finish. But his fifth year began with a welcomed break from the normal college routine, with the college’s Semester in the West program. As he put it, the program “really added some variety to my two-year chunk at Whitman.” The group of students was a strong mix of people from all years and academic backgrounds. Multiple super seniors found themselves on the program and the varied group was a great way to meet others in the same position. This program outside of the straight lines of a college track provided an equalizing force for many students of different positions in the school. Now, Wood lives in a house with mostly other participants of the program, including fellow super senior Hardy. Hardy transferred to Whitman after two years at another college. She could have graduated on a normal track, but instead, postponed her graduation date in order to also participate in the Semester in the West program. She is certainly happy with her decision. “I have no regrets, and feel absolutely grateful for the chance to experience so many different learning environments,” she said. Extending time at college entails not only a nontraditional academic plan, but an unconventional social path as well. Of course, the personal and social experiences of different su-
per seniors vary. For some, like Wolf, there is social continuity through their fifth year. “I had lots of friends in the 2012 class and a few of my friends from my original class were also super seniors, so my super senior year was actually quite super.” Poorboy echoed Wolf when she said that her housemates and strong friendships have made the extra time here worth it. “It feels normal to be here ... Sometimes I feel kind of old, but other than that it feels like being a regular senior.” But not everyone experienced such a smooth transition— in his five years, Wood has had to go through some shifts socially due to his unconventional path. “Last year I had to jump into cross country and try to rebuild a community because most people graduate and move on in four years here. So it’s kind of a revolving door and you get to meet a lot of different people.” Although Wood has had to make some adjustments, he carries a positive outlook on the school’s organic group of people. “I feel like every semester is kind of different,” he said. “There’s new energy in the school with Jan-starts or incoming freshmen, which is really cool.” Overall, these four super seniors were largely happy with their decision to take time off and stay later at Whitman. Wolf now finds herself in Thailand, and says very good things about her extra time here. True to Wood’s observations about those who take time off, Poorboy said in an email that her extra stay here seems to have made her better stabilized and ready for the future. “I’m glad that I stayed in college for another year because I feel much more mature and prepared for the next chapter in my life,” she said. Hardy echoed this sense of preparation when she explained in her email the chance extra time has given her to work. “I’m enjoying that this spring is functioning both as a process of culmination for my college education (writing my senior papers) and also a chance to reorient myself towards a working world,” she said. Wood came to the same conclusion after his own time off.
he generic eight-semester set-up of college is a path most commonly followed by Whitman students. However, there exists a small fraction of students whose intellectual pursuits take them more than or fewer than eight semesters. Whitman’s ability to cater to the needs of its students ensures that any track a student takes in his or her academic career is a personal decision and not due to an ineptitude of the school. Neal Christopherson from the Office of Institutional Research compiled statistics between the years of 20012007, in which 2615 students entered Whitman as first-years. Of these students, 80.8 percent graduated in four years and 6.1 percent (159 students) graduated in five years. The remaining either graduated in six years or more, had their graduation pending or were enrolled in the 3-2 program. “Saying a student graduated in ‘five years’ is a bit misleading, as there are a variety of reasons why students take more than four years to graduate, and most who do not graduate ‘on time’ do not attend Whitman full-time for more than eight semesters,” said Christopherson in his report. The reasons for graduating in more than four years did not have a common thread. Of the 188 students who took more than four years to graduate, 47 percent had graduation requirements pending or were involved in the 3-2 program. This would usually mean that the student had one requirement unfulfilled that they would fill off-campus. Then 32 percent took one semester leave from Whitman. Overall, only 0.9 percent (12 students) were fully enrolled in Whitman for more than eight semesters. On the opposite spectrum, only four percent (105 students) graduated in fewer than eight semesters. Junior Katy Witmer is a current Whitman student who plans to graduate one semester early. She entered Whitman planning to do the Colombia 3-3 law program, but has since discontinued this dream. She now wishes to graduate early in order to “take a break from the ac-
ademic sphere and try something unconventional.” Keeping her options open, Witmer is considering interning at a law firm, working in a monastery or living in Portland for a year. Even though she took the regular schedule of four classes per semester, Witmer has enough AP credits to be considered a senior. This allows her to graduate after the fall semester of 2013 as a history major. “[Graduating early] is better in one way because of financial reasons,” she said. “Also I feel like if you have an idea for what you want to do after college then it is a good option.” Having an excess of credits also allows for students to take a semester break from Whitman. This is true for gap-year first-year student Eve Penberthy, who is considering taking the spring semester of next year off. “Already this year part of me is really restless. After taking the year off last year and working with different organizations, I just kind of want to go and do that,” said Penberthy. “At the same time I absolutely love it here, which is part of the reason why I don’t know if I’ll end up taking a semester off. I might just want to take advantage of the time I have here.” With her semester off Penberthy considers traveling, perhaps to Tanzania, or working somewhere in the United States. The isolation of the Walla Walla community is a staple of Whitman College, which is why students who have done a fair amount of traveling, like Penberthy, find it difficult to stay on campus for long. Penberthy also shares the feeling of Witmer that taking a semester off from Whitman is tempting because it would save money. Ultimately, having the freedom to explore in a realistic setting outside of the Whitman bubble is an enticing option. Whitman’s supportive and flexible academic set-up allows for Whitman students to branch out from the conventional eightsemester track and explore their options outside of Walla Walla. The varied reasons for either taking more or fewer than the eight semesters expresses the individuality of students at Whitman and the freedom they have to express that individuality.
Feature Facts by Adam Brayton Feature Editor
Whitman’s graduation rate far exceeds its fellow Colleges that Change Lives members in the Pacific Northwest, Willamette University and University of Puget Sound. Within 150% of the expected graduation rate for individual programs, Willamette graduates 77% of students and Puget Sound graduates 73% of students, while Whitman leads by graduating 86% of students. SOURCE: COLLEGE NAVIGATOR
Between 1972 and 1992, students accumulated a similar number of credits over the course of eight semesters, though the 1992 group earned 9.7 fewer credits per year—attributable to the rising cost of higher education. SOURCE: NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
“It’s hard to imagine you’re going to come back and be here two more years,” he said. But lack of engagement in school wasn’t a problem when he came back. In fact, it was a relief. “It’s actually been the most
refreshing,” he said. “As far as school goes, I’ve become a lot more academically driven after taking a semester off. The enthusiasm you have for school after being brain dead for nine months is really rejuvenating.”