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Bethel High's Newest Grads Prepare To Spread Out Across United States

Bethel students (left to right) McKenna Leaden, Sara Rockmacher, Kevin Sholtes and Maura Leaden show some of the "must-have" items they will bring from home when they head to distant colleges. Photo Credit: Tom Renner
Recent Bethel High School graduates (left to right) McKenna Leaden, Sara Rockmacher, Kevin Sholtes and Maura Leaden will wave goodbye to their small town soon to attend colleges in Arizona, Florida and Ohio. Photo Credit: Tom Renner
Kevin Sholtes, center, with Master Sergeant Joseph Meehan, left, and Lieutenant Commander Mark Dwinells, holds up a scholarship check. Sholtes will join the Navy ROTC program at Ohio State. Photo Credit: Flickr/Bethel Public Schools

BETHEL, Conn. -- The road less traveled for a handful of recent graduates from Bethel High School extends all across the country.

Unlike most of their classmates who have elected to stay within driving distance to attend colleges in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, a select few will be headed to Florida, Arizona and other points in between.

“Bethel becomes a safety place,’’ said Sara Rockmacher, who will study musical theatre at Arizona State University. “Sometimes it’s hard for kids to branch out and stretch their horizons. They don’t have the aspiration to explore.”

Bethel’s road warrior students elected for distant campuses for several reasons. Locale, scholarships, academic programs and campus appeal all played a part in their decision-making process.

“Ohio State had a Navy ROTC program and it’s one of the best in the country,’’ said Kevin Sholtes, who was one of seven students from the school’s highly decorated Junior ROTC program to receive a full or partial scholarship. “I also considered Maryland, but I felt at home at Ohio State. It seemed like the best fit for me.”

McKenna and Maura Leaden, both of whom were among the Top 10 in the school’s graduating class, chose Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. The young women considered schools in Rhode Island and some other states in the South that were more weather-friendly.

“Rollins is a small school, which we wanted, and it has a tight-knit community and the campus is beautiful,’’ Maura said. “It has been ranked one of the best colleges in the South by U.S. News & World Report.”

“It’s close to where we vacation so I knew we would be comfortable,’’ McKenna added about the school, which is a 15-minute drive from Orlando. “I loved the buildings and how welcoming it was. And it’s right near a downtown area with a lot of nice shops and restaurants.”

Their classmates seemed surprised, for the most part, that they would choose colleges far from home. “Nobody knows Rollins up here,’’ McKenna said. “A lot of our friends knew we were thinking about it, but they didn’t know what to say. People who I didn’t know very well were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re crazy.’’’

Making the decision to attend college far from home requires courage and commitment on behalf of students, and their families. But it also might be the easiest part of the process.

Travel logistics are setting in. Time with friends is running short. There is college shopping and packing, trying to determine what stays in Bethel and what doesn’t. “I’ve started packing, and I have a lot less space in my suitcase than I thought,’’ Sara said. “I don’t know where I’m going to put it all.”

After a senior year filled with celebrations, spending time with friends they have known their whole lives and reaching the high school finish line, reality is setting in. The only lives they have ever known are going to be altered dramatically.

“The size of the student body alone at Ohio State is bigger than Bethel,’’ Sholtes said. “That’s going to be a big change for me. A lot of the kids are from Ohio, so I’ll have to get used to that Midwestern culture. I’m studying engineering, so it’s a challenging major. I’m a little concerned about the workload while I’m there, but I’m excited.”

“It’s reaching that point where it’s hitting me,’’ Sara said. “I had this big countdown with my college roommate. 100 days, 50 days. Now it’s in the last two weeks and I’m going to be moving clear across the country. It feels kind of nostalgic and bittersweet.”

Staying connected with family and friends is much easier for students these days. A generation ago, the parents of today’s college freshmen did not have Facebook, Skype, texting, Twitter or any other social media applications to stay in touch. But even with social media connections, the students realize there is no safety net that stretches up to 3,000 miles to their new far-away homes.

“Once we get there and get adjusted, I think we’ll be fine,’’ Maura said. “My mom has already booked some flights to come down to see us. We’ll use Facetime and we’ll be in touch with our parents. It would have made the decision even harder if we didn’t have that.”

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