Super seniors appreciate prolonged time for study

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After 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, Wood had had friends moving to a ski town in eastern Idaho, and 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 Whitman 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 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 fifth-year 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 super 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.

“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.”




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