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With one semester of college, thousands of miles of travel and a world of new experiences behind them, three members of the Juneau-Douglas High School class of 2001 who returned to town for the holidays spoke to current students last week.
Emily Cotter is studying broadcast journalism at Emerson College in Boston, Kendra Barnes is a political science major at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, and Erica Simpson is studying business and economics at St. Mary's College of California, near San Francisco.
Each year, according to past surveys of alumni, about 40 percent of JDHS graduates move on to four-year colleges. For those not attending the University of Alaska Southeast, finding the right fit can be a challenge.
Cotter, Barnes and Simpson each followed a different path to select a college. Cotter learned about Emerson over the Internet.
"I was looking for something where I could have a specialized major as an undergrad," she said. That, and the desire to be on the East Coast, made Emerson her choice.
Barnes chose Agnes Scott after being invited to spend a weekend there; Simpson visited St. Mary's on a West Coast college road trip with her father. Both said the atmosphere and course offerings fit what they were looking for.
Of the three, Simpson's choice most closely follows the "traditional" path for JDHS graduates who attend college.
According to Juneau School District data charting the colleges where JDHS students send their SAT scores, West Coast schools are consistently atop the rankings. Oregon and Washington schools lead the way in popularity, with Oregon State University at the top the past two years.
JDHS guidance counselor Frank Coenraad and Barb Conant, head of the JDHS Career Center, said schools in those two states seem to bring together traits a lot of Juneau students look for.
"They're big-time schools, but have the small-town college feel," Coenraad said.
"I think (JDHS graduates) like the fact that it is similar to Juneau, but nicer weather," Conant said.
The proximity of the various schools to each other allowing for contact between friends at different colleges - also may be a reason for their popularity, Conant said.
While they may not be at colleges that draw a lot of JDHS graduates, the three returning students said being one of the few Alaskans among hundreds of students has not been a problem.
"It's not that bad," Barnes said. "They kind of classify me with the international students. It's nice to be different sometimes. It's hard to be away from your friends ... but it's a learning experience."
"It's a conversation starter," Cotter said.
They said they have found college to be challenging but said they felt they were well-prepared academically.
The returning students encouraged current high-schoolers thinking about college to cast a wide net when considering schools, since any college other than UAS will require a plane trip - with the only difference being its length.
"Challenge yourself to go out and explore places far away," Cotter said.
Wherever students end up, Conant said she appreciates how students going to college take on not only the academic challenges, but also the task of traveling and adjusting to entirely new surroundings.
"If you're going to go, you're going to go; it's an adventure," she said. "I have a lot of respect and admiration for their courage."