With decision day on horizon, high school seniors try to get a sense of Midd, remotely

By SOPHIA MCDERMOTT-HUGHES

BENJY RENTON
The college did not host Preview Days this year; instead, it held a series of webinars and connected admitted students with current undergraduates.

A global pandemic is not an ideal time to make major life decisions. Yet graduating high school seniors across the country are deciding where they will spend the next four years of their lives.

Middlebury’s Preview Days, originally scheduled for April 18–20, were canceled along with all other on-campus spring programming, and campus is closed to all tours. As a result, many seniors are now unable to visit the schools where they were admitted. For the 70% of prospective Middlebury students who have not visited campus, these factors compound the difficulty of an already-fraught decision.

“The tours that I did go on gave me a really important sense for the energy of the campus that you’re not able to get over a Zoom call,” said Carly Cairns ’24 from Phoenix, Ariz. “That was definitely difficult [not to have that] and not being able to see the location. Because Middlebury is in the middle of nowhere, it’s a leap of faith that I’ll like it.”

“I personally feel that any aspect of a school cannot be fully expressed online, even with detailed descriptions and virtual tours,” wrote Scout Santos, from Seattle, Washington, in an email to The Campus. “In particular, the ‘vibe’ of the student and local community is something you can only get a true sense of by visiting the college in-person.”

The admissions office has ramped up its virtual programming, coming face-to-face with the challenge of marketing the college to prospective students who are restricted to the confines of their homes. In addition to connecting current undergraduates with prospective students, the admissions office senior fellows’ been hosting frequent Zoom information sessions. Several high school seniors considering Middlebury said they have attended every session.

However, for some, even the increased online presence and outreach is not enough.

BENJY RENTON
Prospective students tour the campus during Preview Days in April 2019.

Charisma Hasan, an admitted student from Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, is the child of South Asian immigrant parents who “have a strong prestige mentality” and want her to attend a larger, more well-known university. Hasan was planning on visiting Middlebury and using the occasion to convince her parents of the value of a liberal arts education. She says she’s tried everything to sway them, from attending the online webinars to arranging virtual meetings with professors. A week before the deadline to commit, Hasan was resigned to having to enroll elsewhere and losing the opportunity to study at her dream school.

“I definitely think if I got to visit the campuses [it would be different],” she said. “Personal connections drive many decisions in people’s lives. I know that I would be strongly swayed by them, and I think it would be able to sway my parents too if they got to talk to more professors in person and meet the people who I would be interacting with.”

With unemployment rising rapidly over the last month, many families find themselves in dramatically different situations than when they applied for financial aid several months ago. Seniors are having to sit down with their parents and have difficult conversations about money and the affordability of Middlebury, whose full tuition, room and board costs $71,830.

Margaux Eller is an admitted student from Seneca Falls, N.Y. Her father, an architect, still has intermittent work as some of his job sites remain open and the firm he works for received a small business loan. However, her mother is a wine salesperson whose main commissions come from restaurants. Middlebury is the top choice for both her and her twin brother. But with a now uncertain family income, Eller worries that it is now outside of their price range.

COURTESY OF MARGAUX ELLER
Margaux Eller, an admitted student, committed to the Class of 2024 on April 29.

The family of Nikash Harapanahalli ’24, from Dallas, Texas, has also lost half their income for the foreseeable future. His mother worked as a dentist, but the office had to close due to a shortage of supplies and extra difficulties surrounding social distancing orders. She is now facing unemployment for the coming months.

Harapanahalli decided to commit to Middlebury despite the cost, but with no end to the current financial difficulties in sight, he worries that his family will be unable to afford his education. He petitioned Middlebury for more financial aid but was rejected.

Harapanahalli has since begun to investigate private loan companies and work study programs to try and offset the costs.

“I had to choose between making a financially sound decision or a decision that makes me happy,” he said. “I ended up choosing the latter.”

The worries of precarious financial situations are only compounded by the logistical uncertainties of the coming academic year. There is still no official word from the college about the status of the fall semester, whether students can return to campus or will continue their education remotely.

Several seniors said that they would defer their admission if classes continue online in September, either by a semester or by a whole year. For international students, the dangers of travel in the midst of a global pandemic and the uncertainties of when travel restrictions will lift make a gap semester particularly attractive, according to Hanwen Zhang ‘24 from Shanghai, China.

Others remain committed to enrolling in the fall no matter what.

“I’m lucky to still be here, be safe, be healthy, and if that means going to college online, so be it,” said Harapanahalli.

All of the high school seniors who spoke to The Campus cited the uncertainty as a factor compounding the difficulties and stresses of this major life decision.

“It’s horrible. It’s soul wracking, nerve racking. I hate it,” said Harapanahalli. “This whole process over the past month has been the hardest in my life. It was really hard to make such a big financial commitment, such a big emotional commitment [in the midst of this uncertainty]. It’s still weighing hard on my parents.”

Life isn’t over. This isn’t the end of the world. There are still amazing things to look forward to that are still going to happen at some point once things start to become safer.”

For others, their impending enrollment offers a welcome sense of hope and something to look forward to in the midst of the current crisis. Eller has taken a lot of comfort from attending the webinars and learning about Middlebury’s various programs and offerings.

“Showing that things will go on despite what everyone’s going through right now is definitely very hopeful,” she said. “Life isn’t over. This isn’t the end of the world. There are still amazing things to look forward to that are still going to happen at some point once things start to become safer.”