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Thomas Jefferson High School grads find familiar faces at University

For many first-year students, the first few weeks of school are filled with the anticipation of getting settled into college life and nervousness about finding the right classes. For most new students, their greatest fear is not knowing anyone and living a lonesome existence.

Those first-year students who arrive from Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va., however, find comfort in numbers -- huge numbers.

With over 100 students in each entering University class, TJ consistently sends more students to the University than any other high school.

This year, 290 out of 400 TJ seniors applied to the University, and 70 percent were accepted. Of the 202 students admitted, 101 chose to attend.

"There are varied opinions in the guidance department about how many of our students go to U.Va. each year," TJ Guidance Counselor Steve Peck said. "There is one camp that says it's understandable how many students matriculate, given the quality and price of U.Va. Finances are a very real issue and that can definitely make the decision for students."

Peck went on to explain, however, that some counselors felt that not enough kids were risk takers. Aside from the students who attend the University, about 100 other TJ graduates went to in-state schools. Some counselors said they thought students might be making the quick and easy choice.

For some Jefferson students the thought of so many familiar faces is comforting, but for others, it can be a strike against the University.

"It can be frustrating sometimes to keep seeing people you know," said Natalie Shonka, first-year College student and TJ graduate. "It's really easy to get stuck in the Jefferson rut, just because you have such a huge network and most first years don't."

This network can be extremely helpful to other students. "I thought it would be weird since all the TJs know each other and there are so many of them, but it's actually really helpful," said Matt Segall, first-year College student and Baltimore native.

In addition to the student body, officials from the University's Office of Admissions also have considered the issue of TJ students clustering together.

"When we first began to see the large number of applicants from Jefferson, we were a little worried," Dean of Admission John A. Blackburn said. "We were concerned that it wouldn't feel like a real college experience for those students and that they would eliminate others."

Blackburn, however, said that TJ graduates do well in all fields -- not just the sciences -- once they enroll. Despite their great numbers, he said they contribute positively to the University community.

"But Jefferson students have always spread out across the campus and we've observed them in all schools and activities, not just engineering or science," he added. "And since they contribute to U.Va.'s high caliber [atmosphere] like all students, we've never been hesitant about accepting them just because there are so many."

And due to the large number of TJ graduates, many first-year students from other high schools often assume that the graduates primarily will associate with one another and not make any effort to meet students from other schools.

"I think other first years assume Jefferson kids hang out together more than they actually do," said Nick Johnson, TJ graduate and first-year College student. "Part of being friends with people is simple proximity, especially at such a big school. And unless you're rooming with a high school friend or something, it's an effort to see people" from high school.

This becomes more of a reality to TJ graduates as the years go by.

"The whole Jefferson issue just fades as you get older," said Rachna Bhide, third-year College student and 1997 Thomas Jefferson graduate. "At first, it seemed really overbearing that a hundred other kids know you and kept track of what you're doing."

But Bhide explained that high school now has no relevance since her friends are based on her interests.

As first-year students continue to compete in the fierce game of Find-Your-Niche, it can seem unfair when some players know more people on the team. But some TJ graduates said this familiarity sometimes breeds contempt, which can be as hard to overcome as first-year loneliness.

"I think we are regarded skeptically more because of our sheer number than because we came from a Science and Tech school," first-year College student Kit Gramlich said. "But sometimes, it can be hard overcoming both of these stigmas which are attached to being a 'TJ."