Students gather Friday on the Bates College football field in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Bates College is welcoming an incoming class of 556 students. That’s about 10% larger than expected and its second biggest ever.

The students run the gamut from the co-owner of a Maine lobster boat, to a nomadic sheep, and goat herder from Mongolia, the college noted. The class also includes a parkour enthusiast, an Irish bagpiper, a professional table tennis player and a blacksmith.

From across the globe, the new students, all vaccinated, began pouring into town this week as the college prepares for classes to get underway Wednesday in what officials hope will be a return to near-normal campus life for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

College President Clayton Spencer said their arrival marked “one of the most exciting days of the year” as she watched parents dropping off first-year students who mostly appeared eager to embrace the new opportunities ahead.

They’ll be tested for the coronavirus and required to wear masks inside most buildings, at least temporarily, but classes will be in-person again, with sports and the dining hall back as well.

For the Class of 2025, which has already experienced a year and a half of pandemic life, Bates’ few restrictions are unlikely to feel especially limiting. But the pandemic’s existence remains all-too-real.

Spencer told the incoming students the pandemic “illustrates just how potent and essential the liberal arts are. Because of the nature of this experience, you have the opportunity to approach your college experience more consciously and intentionally than a typical first year.”

Why the new class turned out to be so big remains uncertain.

Bates aims to have about 500 students in each class — giving it an overall enrollment of about 2,000 — but it’s never simple to guess how many of the young people it admits will wind up on campus.

Leigh Weisenburger, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission of financial aid, said the “larger than anticipated” class is part of a national trend seen by many top-tier liberal arts colleges this year.

“We’re still trying to understand” why so many more students opted to come than usual, she said.

The only class with more students came to Lewiston in 2001. That year, Bates had 583 first-year students at a time when the school sought to bring in about 450 annually.

For its admissions process this year, “we did everything that we would have normally” in spite of the obvious issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, Weisenburger said.

But one key measure of which students are most likely to accept the college’s admission offer was missing this time around, she added: which students had actually come to Bates to have a look around, a sign of genuine interest.

Thanks to the pandemic, she said, those visits were off the table so they couldn’t be factored in.

Reading applications, Bates’ admission staff was struck by how big an impact COVID-19 had.

That “everything just stopped” for a few months in the spring of 2020 proved “a great equalizer,” as rich and poor all had to hit the brakes and deal with a drastic change.

“You really felt this slowing down of life,” she said, as students were forced to recognize that they couldn’t do everything – and didn’t need to.

The disease caused many of them, Weisenburger said, to scale back on their screen time and “walk or read or sit and be” instead of constantly scurrying to beef up their resume.

Admissions staff, including 13 people who weeded through applications directly, also had no chance to get out and visit with interested students, as they often do. Instead, Weisenburger said, her office had about four months to create a beefed-up online presence that would otherwise have rolled out over years.

But it worked, she said.

This year, Bates had 7,319 applicants and admitted 17% of them. It knew that many of its chosen students would also gain admission elsewhere and that most would likely wind up at a different school.

Two years, for example, Bates was happy when 24% of its admitted students ultimately opted for four years in Lewiston.

This year, the college’s yield rate shot up to 44%, a whopping increase that made for an extraordinarily large class.

It is also, Weisenburger said, a fantastic one.

“We are beyond fortunate,” she said, that Bates is able to attract such a diverse, talented and academically curious group of students.

A bit more than half the incoming class are women, 27% are “students of color” from the U.S., 11% are international students and 12% are the first in their family to go to college, Bates said.

New England provides 35% of the students, but Weisenburger said that because the region’s population is shrinking compared to other areas, Bates is trying to expand its reach. It does well on the East and West coasts, but the Midwest provides only 7% of its students and the Southeast just 4%.

Weisenburger said Bates never forgets its Maine roots, which stretch back to its formation as the Maine State Seminary in 1855.

“We care deeply about our backyard and our home state,” she said, and always keep an eye on talented Pine Tree State students, including those from Lewiston and Auburn.

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