A week before the school year officially ends here at Virginia Tech, hundreds of students and their parents packed milk crates full of dorm paraphernalia into family wagons for an early exit from this grieving campus.
After the worst shooting massacre in US history took place on campus two weeks ago many people are asking: How many students will return when school begins again in the fall?
At the homes of prospective and current students it's a question that promises to spark heated discussions this spring and summer on topics ranging from campus safety to young people's expectations of the "college experience."
Their decisions will be a testament to how quickly Virginia Tech is able to reestablish its vibrancy. The outpouring of global support may bolster the orange-and-maroon army of students, some experts say.
"What will be going through the minds of students and families who think about Virginia Tech in terms of transfers and enrollment will be a conscious decision about, 'Do I want to be part of all that?' " says Don Munce, director of the National Research Center for College and University Admissions in Lee's Summit, Mo. "Families will be coming down on both sides."
As of last week, only five students cited the shootings as the reason for declining acceptance to the school. But experts say that although May 1 is the deadline to enroll for the 2007-08 academic year, the final admission tallies won't be known until later this summer. Virginia Tech sent out 12,858 acceptance letters this year, anticipating a freshman class of 5,000.
Parents will have significant say in their child's decision and sometimes their concerns differ from their children's. Safety issues top the list among parents with children who will soon head off to college for the first time, while parents who have children currently in college cite financial pressures as their main concern, according to a 2006 study by College Parents of America in Alexandria, Va..
"There will be caution from parents, and more parents will be accompanying their kids on campus visits," says Jim Boyle, president of College Parents of America. "But I've also heard a lot of parents speculate that Virginia Tech is probably going to be the safest college campus in America next year."
The school has urged students to come together to cope with their shared grief through a convocation, a picnic, and e-mails encouraging to students to stay.
But students are expressing second thoughts about staying after the shootings perpetrated by a fellow student. Cho Seung-hui, a 23-year-old English major from South Korea, killed 33 people, including himself.
"In some respects, college students do live in an idealized environment, but they inevitably go through a transition – whether it's a difficult situation or something off the scale [like the Virginia Tech shootings] – when they realize that the ideal is a warped personal perception," says Matthew Woessner, a sociologist at Penn State University in State College, Pa. "It's often a shocking moment."
Some students, however, have decided to stay in spite of the initial shock. Jeff Leininger, who lives in the West Ambler Johnston dorm where two students were killed, says his first reaction was to flee campus, and never come back. But he has since changed his mind about leaving for good, though he is opting to take his current grade and leave early this semester. "As weird as this year has been, I'm ultimately going to come back," he says.
Other students cite the shared experience of dealing with the tragedy as a major reason for deciding to stay. An Lee had been planning to transfer to another college next year, because she disliked the school's fraternity-dominated social culture. But now she can't imagine being anywhere else. "You go through something like this together, and it would be weird to start over somewhere else," says Ms. Lee. "Here you can just sit and talk forever with people affected by the whole thing, which helps a lot."
Transfer and enrollment decisions may be influenced by how close students were to West Ambler Johnston and Norris Hall on the morning of the rampage, some say.
"A lot of students, especially those close to the tragedy, may find it too painful to return to the scene of the crime and pass that building every day," says Mr. Woessner. "But for many others, there is a strange sense of camaraderie ... that's not available to the average student."
Other schools that have been affected by tragedy near their campuses, such as New York University and Columbia University after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, after a controversial off-campus shooting there, saw their enrollments increase partly as a result of solidarity.
Virginia Tech may experience something similar, some experts say. "It's entirely possible that Virginia Tech will be basically lifted up by the support of not only their region, but really the whole country," says Mr. Munce.