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School shootings a hot essay topic

By Dave Curtin
Denver Post Higher Education Writer

Nov. 5, 2000 - College admissions deans across the nation say the Columbine High School shootings are easily the most popular admissions essay topic among applicants in the past two years.

"I think it says that Columbine was an event which made a huge impact on these students' lives," said Chris Markle, admissions director at Susquehanna University, a private college in Selinsgrove, Pa., with 1,700 students. "It makes me wonder whether Columbine is this generation's Kent State. It's really a defining moment in their teen lives."

Before the April 1999 massacre, students tended to write about their favorite teacher, an influential relative or the winning touchdown pass they threw as turning points in their young lives. Now it's Columbine.

"It was an event that affected many students, more than we anticipated," said Sandy Gamba, acting associate admissions dean at the University of Denver.

"Students really reflected a lot on it in the essays. I think it was a reality check for a lot of students. It really grounded them to say, "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?' It was quick maturity for a lot of them."

Some students tackle the abortion issue in their college admissions essay and the Oklahoma City bombing was common in the months after that tragedy.

"But I've never seen the volume on a single subject like this in 10 years," said Markle, who estimates 240 prospective students wrote about Columbine - roughly half the number of the school's freshman class.

The Columbine tragedy had a ripple effect on the consciousness of teens across the country, Markle said. Most of Susquehanna's applicants come from the Northeastern United States.

"I have not seen any event capture the attention that this did," Markle said. "I can't say there's been an event where we even had one-half the interest that this generated."

College-bound students are writing about school safety, gun control, fear and vulnerability like never before. In doing so they directly refer to Columbine.

"These college freshmen were juniors in high school when it happened, and they were just starting to think about their futures. That was the day they realized things could go wrong in school, that maybe it wasn't a safe place," Markle said. "Before, they didn't have to think about much except getting their schoolwork done."

Texas Christian University admissions dean Ray Brown said students wrote about their lost perception of invincibility. TCU received upward of 750 essays devoted to Columbine out of 5,100 applicants.

"Columbine was represented more than any other subject," Brown said.

"I think it's a sudden dose of reality for the students," Brown said. "We've all witnessed and maybe even experienced firsthand the risky behavior kids engage in. But I think kids are starting to realize the danger that the world holds. They are coming to the conclusion that they are vulnerable creatures."

Connie Gores, vice president for enrollment at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., said she saw a Columbine trend while reading 211 essays for the school's scholarship competition.

"The essay question was: Who speaks for your generation and what are they saying? In nearly every case, students responded that no one spoke for their generation, since they each spoke for themselves," Gores said. "I think it's a reflection of our society and the isolation these young people often feel. Columbine is the manifestation of that isolation."

Randolph-Macon was one of the few schools able to provide copies of what students wrote: "There is no sense of unity, and we are divided into the infamous cliques that have only recently made the news, in connection with the massacre in Littleton, Colorado," wrote one Randolph-Macon student. "When one constantly physically and emotionally knocks down those who could be potential allies, any idea of unity is destroyed. Without unity, the voices are separated and too weak to be heard." At the University of Denver, applicants are encouraged to write freely about a moving experience in their lives.

Many wrote of the ongoing impact of Columbine.

"We found they're not just dealing with learning academic stuff in school but dealing with a lot of distractions that take away from the learning experience," said DU's Gamba. "They wrote about safety, who do you trust, and they wrote about fear."

For Gamba, the college admissions process turned deeply personal when students she was recruiting to DU died at Columbine.

"We saw students we were recruiting for DU, and the next week we're at a funeral for them, and it's heartbreaking to see these students who had so much potential," Gamba said.



Excerpts from college admissions essays submitted to Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., are typical of essays reported by admissions deans across the country. The essays were submitted 11 months ago by first-semester high school seniors, most living in the northeastern United States. Students responded to the question: Discuss some issue of personal, local or national concern and its importance to you. Some excerpts were edited for brevity.

"The schools where violence occurs do not suspect it, and many times students are injured or killed. It's happening everywhere. How are students supposed to feel safe when it could be their school next? The shooting at Columbine High School . . . made many people aware of the reality of school violence. Yet, the violence has not ceased."

"Right after the Columbine incident there was a hit list on the Internet for my high school. . . . This scared me so much that I did not want to go to school. One day there were rumors flying around school of a bombing at noon. I left school that day along with many other students. Being scared and running away is not the way to go through school."

"A possible solution to school violence would be making a mandatory class for students to discuss their views on school violence. They would share ideas on stopping school violence and preventing violence in their school."

"Last year after the dreadful Columbine shooting, ninth graders in my school did not come to school for a week because they were so petrified of being shot or attacked. Students should not have to go to school every day wondering if that day is going to be the day."

"Because of fear in the community, our school has canceled many school-related activities. Pep rallies that boost school spirit were canceled because it was an open risk for any kind of violence."

"Once in a while, an issue comes along that hits home to every person in this country. One such case was the school shootings that occurred in Colorado. The truly horrible thing is that it could happen anywhere."

"At Columbine High School shots were fired that were heard around the nation. (It) affected every parent, student and teacher. . . . This has gone down in history as the worst U.S. tragedy. The shootings alerted the nation that there are problems in our society that must be faced and rules must be changed."

"When choosing a college my main concern is the safety and security that the college can give to its students. The Columbine shooting caused everyone to be scared and nervous."

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