The term “super seniors” has become increasingly synonymous with the small group of students at NYU Shanghai from the classes of 2022 and 2023. The label, however, is not unique to NYU Shanghai, as it often refers to college students in the U.S. who extend their studies past the traditional four years of an undergraduate degree.

Defining super seniors proves difficult when there are various ways to categorize the students who choose to extend their degree progress. According to David Pe, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students for NYU Shanghai, students who departed from the traditional four-year track before the pandemic generally took time off for medical leave, internships, or studying in preparation for graduate school. The pandemic, Dean Pe said, “threw a lot of the timing off for a lot of people, especially during the first two years of Covid. A lot of students had to take a semester or two off.” In thinking about the number of super seniors on campus, Dean Pe said, “We’re still playing catch up, so it’s actually a bit hard, in terms of having a concrete number, because it depends on how you might want to categorize different students.”

A mini survey conducted with 11 current students from the class of 2022 and 2023 indicates two themes in how they define “super seniors.” The consensus is that “super seniors” are students who take more than 8 semesters to graduate, and those who graduate in a different year than the one they matriculated with.

There is an emphasis from the respondents that the term “super seniors” relates more to students who extended their studies as a result of  Covid-19’s impact. Among the respondents, 72.7% were extending their studies from taking a leave of absence due to the pandemic. 

Impact of Pandemic on Extended Studies

Rosalie Grubb (originally Spring ‘23) from North Carolina, USA, is now graduating in Spring ‘24. At the start of her sophomore year, she took a leave of absence to take on a job due to China’s visa and travel restrictions. Rosalie returned to China the following semester, where she experienced two quarantines and the Shanghai lockdown. Her time in lockdown affected her academic performance in unexpected ways. “I had to withdraw from two classes that told me that I was going to fail, even though I had an A in both them, but I was going to fail because of participation reasons,” she said. “During lockdown, I didn’t show up to a few of the classes because I was either going to get Covid tested or I was severely depressed and they [her professors] didn’t care about that.” Rosalie’s withdrawal from the classes caused her to need to extend her studies into an extra year rather than the one semester she intended.

Hugo Wang (originally Spring ‘23) from Taiyuan, China planned to graduate in Fall ‘23. His main reason for taking a leave of absence was due to the pandemic as he did not want his college education to continuously take place in a virtual format. More importantly, “I really needed some time to reflect on what I really want, beyond college,” he said, “Jumping between semesters and doing internships during breaks [winter and summer], you never actually have a complete chunk of time to reflect and think about if this journey is correct for you – if this is what you want.”

Bisera Alchevska (originally Spring ‘22) from Skopje, Macedonia, is graduating in Spring ‘24. During the pandemic, she took a year-long break from school. The extension of leave, from graduating in Spring ‘23 to Spring ‘24, was for academic reasons, specifically her computer science senior capstone. “My capstone is only available in this semester. So, I had to wait an extra year,” she said.

Alexandra Kogler (originally Spring ‘23) from California, USA, is now graduating in Summer ‘25. She took one semester off in the fall of her sophomore year due to the pandemic. She returned to Shanghai for her sophomore spring and junior fall semesters and took a year off as a part of academic suspension. In Spring ‘23, she returned to Shanghai to continue her studies.

Connotations of Being a Super Senior

While 81.8% of respondents indicated they called themselves “super seniors,” those who didn’t adopt the moniker had two reasons for doing so. The first was because the term “super senior” was “embarrassing and represents failure.” Though Rosalie, Hugo, Bisera, and Alexandra all call themselves “super seniors,” they also contend that super seniors are not viewed favorably by the NYU Shanghai community.

“To be honest, super seniors definitely have a negative connotation,” Alexandra said. “People don’t necessarily want to label something [the situation] like, I flunked out of college classes, or I dropped a bunch of my classes. It doesn’t have to be [your fault], but something went wrong.” She indicated that issues with academic performance were not reflective of all super seniors, but regardless of the reasons behind extending one’s studies, the term is associated with failure. This is a sentiment that Hugo echoes. Before becoming a “super senior,” he never thought the term would be controversial. Now, in his interactions with underclassmen, he feels a shift in how the term affects the way they perceive him. When he introduces himself as a super senior, “people assume that I’m either dumb or there’s something wrong with me,” he said. “They always ask, how are you doing academically?” In reflection, Hugo said, “Suddenly, they [underclassmen] feel like, there’s something wrong with my personal life, not because I want to take a break.”

While some may view perceived notions of “super seniors” as a personal issue, and one not worthy of being addressed, the connotation of being a super senior goes beyond the negativity that Alexandra and Hugo address. Bisera believes that “the perception of super seniors is almost shameful.” On campus, she recently had a small disagreement with another student. “I got hit with, ‘You didn’t even graduate in time. You don’t even have a diploma.’ So imagine if people can use that to your face, what are they saying among themselves? It’s not like we [super seniors] want to be in this situation.”

Redefining “Super Senior”

The second reason why some respondents don’t call themselves “super seniors” is because they view their year-long leave of absence as movement into the next graduating class, not as an extension of their senior status. For students (not ‘22 or ‘23) who take time off for internships, graduate school preparation, or military service, there is a sense of control tied to their decision-making.

As these students return, they matriculate into the next graduating class and know that they are staying with a fixed group until graduation; this allows them to navigate friendships and social dynamics more easily than the students whose leave of absence was influenced by the pandemic. As a result, they identify more with their new class placement rather than with the “super senior” label. At the same time, the one-year leave of absence for some ‘22 and ‘23 students places them in a different social dynamic than those who had multiple disruptions in their studies.

Members from the class of ‘22 and ‘23 want to shift the narrative of “super seniors” away from one of failure. As more ‘22 and ‘23 students use the term “super senior” to identify themselves, the perspective of who super seniors are can change.

“I feel this [super senior] is being normalized,” Hugo said, “As long as we [the super seniors] are more vocal, others are going to gradually accept the fact it’s just normal to take more than four years of college, and that there’s nothing wrong with us.”

Bisera added that “with a lot of us being older, there’s the notion that you’re left behind or stuck. Here at NYU Shanghai, it’s very highlighted.”

“But comparing it to other places in the world, just thinking about back home [Macedonia], a lot of the students in universities are older. And that’s okay.”

Part 2 – “The Ghosts and Zombies of NYU Shanghai: Super Seniors’ Experiences with Changing Friendships and Campus Culture”