- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

Tommy Esson visited Virginia Tech last summer with his father, and on a return visit wanted to show his mom around the university where he planned to spend the next four years.

Instead, family members found themselves locked down with a group of students and employees on the Blacksburg, Va., campus during the April 16 shootings in which a gunman killed 32 persons and wounded 25 before killing himself.

Even as the extent of the massacre became apparent to those watching television during the lockdown in a McComas Hall exercise room, several students reassured the Essons and encouraged their son to enroll this fall.

“They were very supportive of me and were very intent on making sure I understood that ‘It’s not like this,’ and anybody who saw me was telling me it shouldn’t detract from my view of campus,” Mr. Esson said.

His mother, Bev Esson, said the support cemented their decision.

“That is where we really became part of the family,” she said. “We were not on the outside looking in, and this is a family we wanted to be part of.”

Mr. Esson, 18, a high school senior from Wells, Maine, and other prospective Virginia Tech freshmen say the April 16 shootings haven’t discouraged them from enrolling there. Many of them say the way the university community banded together after the tragedy reinforced their desire to enroll.

“I do feel in a way that my interest in the college has gone up, if anything, because of what I’ve seen on campus before, during and after the shootings,” Mr. Esson said. “The amount of camaraderie and the amount of pride that all the Hokies hold is just unbelievable.”

The day after the shootings, the Essons stopped by the College of Natural Resources, which Mr. Esson had planned to visit the previous day. They checked in with a staff member and told her that their son was still enrolling in the fall.

“She came out from around the desk and hugged me” and, gave the family a full tour of the building, Mr. Esson said.

In a suburb of Richmond last week, school counselors and Virginia Tech alumni held a forum for seniors who were offered spots in the university’s fall freshman class. About 300 Henrico County students have been accepted to Virginia Tech, school officials there said.

“We didn’t assure safety at Virginia Tech or anyplace else,” said Regina B. Brown, who oversees Henrico’s school counselors. “That just wasn’t part of the equation because you just can’t do that.”

However, she said, students knew “that it was not a Virginia Tech thing, this was a person with a mental illness.”

Virginia Tech offered admission to 12,848 applicants, who must decide by tomorrow whether to enroll, school spokesman Larry Hincker said. As of last week, five had specifically declined because of the shootings, he said.

Norrine Bailey Spencer, Virginia Tech’s associate provost and undergraduate admissions director, declined to compare the number of $400 deposits received so far for the incoming freshman class — expected to be about 5,000 students — to the number received the same time last year. The university likely won’t release final figures until about two weeks after the May 1 deadline, Mrs. Spencer said.

“People don’t have to tell us they’re not coming,” Mrs. Spencer said. With the exception of the five, school officials don’t know whether the shootings is the reason students have chosen not to come.

“They don’t tell us,” Mrs. Spencer said.

What has been unusual, she said, is that the admissions office has received many written comments with students’ responses.

“People are saying, ‘I won’t be coming but this isn’t because of what happened,’ or other people write ‘Virginia Tech is my first choice but this reinforces my decision.’ There’s a lot of kindness and gentleness,” Mrs. Spencer said. One man even made a point to hand-deliver a deposit check the day after the slayings.

In Fairfax County — home of one of the country’s largest school districts and where five of the slain students and gunman Seung-hui Cho attended school — counselors said prospective Virginia Tech freshmen gathered after the slayings to discuss their plans.

“Some of their concerns include ‘Are the upperclassmen going to treat us as outsiders?’ ” said Jennifer Ferrara, a counselor at Annandale High School, where victim Mary Read graduated last year. More than 100 of this year’s Annandale seniors have been accepted to Virginia Tech.

“Another response was: ‘It was unfortunate that this happened, but Virginia Tech will be one of the safest schools,’ ” Mrs. Ferrara said.

The effect on recruiting beyond next fall’s freshmen is less certain, said Mary Lee Hoganson, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“The rallying of alumni has been extraordinary,” she said. “But other parents might be saying ‘Stay closer to home,’ thinking, misguidedly, that they can control the situation.”

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