Super-seniors in the post-pandemic world of arts education

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Photo courtesy of Will Howitt '23 | Super seniors Gabe Walsh-Shore '23, Will Howitt '23 and Nikki Gardener '22 (right/left) speak on their experience studying at Muhlenberg for longer than four years.

Ever since the COVID-19 quarantine, Muhlenberg has seen a noticeable uptick in graduating seniors staying one or even two semesters past their intended graduation date. Many of these cases were students who desired experiential learning over video-conferencing. They are colloquially known as ‘super-seniors,’ though most of them will complete their Muhlenberg education in eight semesters. Some students, though, are staying for a ninth semester. The ways in which the influx of online learning as a primary source of collegiate lessons caused concern amongst student artists has been truly profound. 

Will Howitt ‘23, a music, theatre and dance triple major, who is planning to stay an additional two semesters longer than the rest of his initial graduating class, explained that his mindset has become much more introspective toward how he plans to apply his training post-graduation.

“I have some really great mentors here and my friends make it feel like home.”

-Molly McCarthy ’22

“I value my family, friendships and pursuits outside of my field, and the emphasis I’ve put in those aspects of my life has in turn enriched my experience and career view,” says Howitt. “We are not only what we learn, but how we are affected by it and how we affect others. The ostensible logic and facts of academia are helpful in the vacuum of college, but emotions and randomness rule the real world. It’s important to be prepared for those realities, learn to make the best of them, and find what makes you truly happy.”

“I’ve pretty much gone through my entire theatre major, and now I can use all of that knowledge and apply it to all of the projects I’m working on right now, ” says Gabe Walsh-Shore ‘23. “I have a more holistic view of the entire curriculum, and it’s been a huge success to be able to see everything in perspective.”

Without a doubt, the super-seniors who remain at Muhlenberg are faced with numerous challenges, including a constant feeling of isolation, as the collaborators and friends with whom they shared their craft since freshman year have graduated.

Walsh-Shore explains, “It’s difficult because you built all of those relationships with your class, and now that they are gone, you have to make new connections, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s much more difficult to build up new rapport at this stage in the game.”

Another major challenge across the board has been coming to terms with the unknowns of post-graduation life, which are now ever-present in the minds of these fifth-year students.

“Being flexible is a must, and no matter how many books you read there are some things that can only be learned once you’re thrown into the deep end,” explains Howitt. “Trying to control every aspect of your life not only won’t work, but it’ll also drive you up a wall. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking that I’ll learn nearly everything I need to know in school, when it’s really just one piece of a much larger puzzle. However, I’m grateful to be realizing this bit by bit right now while I still have so many wonderful resources and friends just down the block.”

In spite of the setbacks, these interviewees seemed very happy with the trajectory of their experience during the 2022-2023 school year, placing the quality of education at the forefront of their minds.

“My motivation to stay at Muhlenberg has always been the people,” says Molly McCarthy ‘22. “I have some really great mentors here and my friends make it feel like home. I’ve thought about transferring but it always seemed easier to create the opportunities I am missing rather than just leave the school and start everything over again. And at this point I really just want to get my degree so I can start figuring out what I really want to do with my life.”

“One of my friends looks at Muhlenberg as an oven,” explains Nikki Gardner ‘23. “You just keep cooking with knowledge, and the great thing is: it’s impossible to get overcooked.”

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