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A shadow over college selection

Thousands of students have less than a week left to say yes or no to offers of acceptance from Virginia Tech, a crucial life decision made all the more serious and complicated in the aftermath of a shooting rampage that left 33 people dead, including the gunman.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

With his acceptance letter to the prestigious Virginia Tech engineering program tucked in a brown accordion desk file at his Silver Spring home, Tim Roe felt knocked askew last week as he watched television reports on the unfolding horror at the scenic campus he had visited the day before.

"Virginia Tech seemed like such a safe and friendly place," he said.

His mother, Dianne Piche, said the family was shaken "to have been this close to the massacre."

Yet, like thousands of students in the Washington area, Tim Roe has less than a week left to say yes or no to Tech's offer, a crucial life decision made all the more serious and complicated in the aftermath of a shooting rampage that left 33 people dead, including the gunman.

Some, like Roe, said they have not quite made up their minds. A very few have told Virginia Tech that the shootings were too much. University spokesman Larry Hincker said Monday that Tech has received five letters that cite the April 16 shootings in declining the offer. Interviews with prospective Tech students and families indicate that some worry about the school's reputation and whether they will feel comfortable there.

But others are sending deposits to Blacksburg with pride, saying their desire to attend the heartsick university was strengthened by the outpouring of campus spirit. "The aftereffects just reinforced my love for the school," said Sarah Joseph, a senior at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County.

Crunch time
April is vital for well-regarded universities, like Virginia Tech, that face intense competition for top students. It's also crunch time for students who get acceptance letters around April 1 and must reply by May 1. For prospective Virginia Tech students, the window of opportunity to visit the campus and weigh options was disrupted by the massacre. The university said 12,848 students received acceptance letters this year for a projected freshman class of 5,000.

The effect on students in the Washington area has been particularly powerful because the university is so large and so popular in Northern Virginia. Students from within the state pay just a third of the out-of-state tuition for a school with a rising national reputation.

Roe, a senior at Springbrook High School in Montgomery County, took time off from studies and lacrosse practice to visit Virginia Tech the weekend before the shootings. He attended special programs for admitted students who are trying to decide. He said he thought the University of San Diego was still his first choice. But he said that in Blacksburg, "I learned a lot about the engineering program and the school itself. It didn't hurt that the food was good, too."

In many homes, the parents, not the students, worried most about what the killings would do to the warm and cozy campus in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Juan Ariel Cuadrado, an Army officer who lives in Lorton, said he and his wife discussed the possibility of retracting his son's acceptance of Virginia Tech's offer, which they had already sent. They were willing to forfeit the deposit if their son, a senior at Hayfield, changed his mind.

"We simply started the dialogue, discussed the pros and cons and his personal feelings," Cuadrado said.

Extra concern for Korean American student
The aftermath of the shootings caused particular concern for the Korean American family of Daniel Kim, a senior at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County who has plans to go to medical school. He had committed to Virginia Tech in December through an early decision program.

"The fact that the shooter was a Korean American worried my parents," Kim said. "I heard stories about how Korean Americans were discriminated against and attacked after the VT shooting."

Justin Hickey, 19, a star wrestler about to graduate from Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge, has several college options lined up. Until recently, he said, Virginia Tech was at the top of his list. "Before, he was talking about how much he really wanted to go," his mother, Connie Peebles, said late last week. "Now, he doesn't know."

Hickey said he worried that Tech might carry a stigma. "There are other schools," Hickey said.

But Catherine Colliatie was one of many students already admitted who found their commitment fortified after the massacre. "It never crossed my mind to say that I would not go," said the senior at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda.

On the day last week she talked with a reporter about her decision, Colliatie wore a maroon Virginia Tech T-shirt and an orange ribbon in her hair. Last fall, she decided to go to Tech, which recruited her as a lacrosse player. Since the massacre, she has exchanged e-mails with the Tech women's lacrosse coach confirming her desire to join the team.

'Now I REALLY know I want to come'
Norrine Bailey Spencer, Virginia Tech's associate provost and director of undergraduate admissions, said as of Monday that her office has received about the same number of $400 deposits as it had by this date last year, although she declined to give specific figures.

Spencer said the admissions office has received unusual written comments with deposits of acceptance and with postcards turning down offers. One student who declined admission wrote: "I want you to know I decided two weeks ago, and I am so pleased at the way you are responding to what happened." A student who sent a deposit wrote: "I thought I wanted to come to Virginia Tech, but now I REALLY know I want to come to Virginia Tech."

Piche, executive director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, said the trauma at Virginia Tech does not appear to have affected Tim Roe's decision. He said he is still leaning toward San Diego because of "climate, campus location and three separate scholarships." Before sending in his deposit, he said, he will have one more conversation with his parents.

Cuadrado said his son is still determined to go to Tech. "We support his decision," he said.

Daniel Kim has told his parents that it was the shooter's mental state, not his ethnicity, that was important and that he will be going to Blacksburg with no fear.

"I believe that the students, faculty members and families of Virginia Tech will heal and create a beautiful bond that will inspire the whole nation and the world," Kim said. "It is an honor to be a Hokie."

Staff writers Michael Alison Chandler and Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.