Prospective students listen to Hokie Ambassador Allyson Scruggs, left, in front of Burruss Hall as the group visits during Virginia Tech Hokie Focus one day prior to the five year anniversary of the shootings.
BLACKSBURG, Va. (USA TODAY) - The shadows are lifting from Virginia Tech five years after the deadliest mass school shooting in U.S. history.
As the school commemorates the anniversary today with a candlelight vigil and memorial service for the 32 victims of shooter Seung Hui Cho, classes will go on and the community will come together for a picnic. As admissions applications pour in, few students say Virginia Tech's history as the site of tragedy had any influence on their college choice.
"I don't hear concern at all," says education consultant Shirley Bloomquist of Great Falls, Va., who advises dozens of college-bound students each year.
Applications for undergraduate admissions for fall 2012 freshman will exceed 20,000 this year. Last year, 20,828 students applied for a spot in the freshman class, topping for the fourth year in a row the 19,427 who applied in 2007.
In the aftermath of the shooting in 2007, grief and recrimination washed over the campus. Candles, flowers, notes and stuffed animals crowded the Drillfield. Parents of injured and slain students filed lawsuits alleging that the school failed in its duty to protect students. State commissions and the federal Education Department found the university's initial response flawed.
The incident prompted schools nationwide to install state-of-the-art notification systems that would broadcast warnings to cellphones, electronic bulletin boards, e-mail accounts and social media. Virginia Tech, especially, began responding to any campus threat - the most recent a shooting of a campus policeman Dec. 8 - with a barrage of information shared instantly with students and staff.
Some colleges are considering expanding their security measures to include criminal background checks of incoming freshmen, but that sense of urgency and attentiveness to security may relax over time, says David Sawyer, president of Safer Places Inc., a background screening and security consulting business in Middleborough, Mass.
"Over time, memories do fade," Sawyer says. "Security can be a pain in the neck. People are willing to put up with the downside of additional security measures when tragedies are fresh in their mind."
While the new security may be the most visible legacy of the shootings, students and faculty also say the incident bound the campus and community in solidarity.
High school students who visit the 30,000-student campus on their college search say they "feel a strong sense of community," Bloomquist says. "That can sometimes be the positive outcome of a tragedy."
Kira Lasinski, 17, of Whitehouse, N.J., toured Virginia Tech on Sunday and said she hadn't thought much about the shooting.
"I heard about it, I knew it happened, but I feel safe when I am on the campus," she says.
"As a parent, there really isn't any fear," says her mother, Kim Lasinski, 49. "It can happen anywhere."
Current students say the shooting comes up more in conversation with people outside the university.
"When I say I go to Virginia Tech, people say, 'Oh, the place where the shooting happened? Oh, were you there?' " says junior Casey Bolin, 21, of Stafford, Va. "It's a little bit of a bummer that people associate your school with a terrible event like that, rather than with everything good that's come out of here."
"I came the day after the one-year anniversary for my visit," says senior Stephanie Simms, 22, of Henry, Va. "I saw the impact on the community, the state of Virginia and the whole country. It really exemplified the words 'Hokie Nation.' I wanted that community feel."
In the immediate aftermath, people on the campus and in the community turned to one another for support and made a commitment to service projects in memory of the victims, Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski says. "Families and students and faculty have risen to the challenge of turning to others to help the healing," he says.
Even as those students who created the projects have graduated and left the campus, new students have expanded the projects, says Owczarski.
"The Day of Remembrance will always be a part of Virginia Tech," he says. "What it looks like may change over time."
College campuses are transient places where nearly a quarter of the population turns over every year. All of the students injured in the April 16, 2007, incident have graduated, and all, except those pursuing graduate studies, have moved on. Few students now at the school were present on the day of the shootings.
"The attitude has changed a little bit," says senior Allyson Scruggs, 21, of Bluefield, Va. "The students who were here when it happened, of course they were heartbroken. And new students ... They weren't here, so it is a distant thing they may not really know about it. "
"Nothing changes as quickly as a school," says Rob Franek of Princeton Review, which surveys college students.
Franek says he hasn't heard much mention of the shootings lately.
"From the student perspective, I believe it has faded over time," he says. Instead, the students point out Virginia Tech's strong academic program and mention the great cafeteria food.
Still, the shootings left an indelible mark. "Thirty-two people died that day," Scruggs says. "Anytime we are having a bad day, we like to look at the memorial and live for those 32."
"In the sense of what will they be remembered for historically, some elements of that shooting will haunt their reputation forever," says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Sierra Madre, Calif.
"The Virginia Tech shooting case became the bellwether case for colleges and universities all over the country," he says. "As a result of the way they responded, both for better and for worse, it influenced how other organizations prepare."
Donna Leinwand Leger and Natalie DiBlasio, USA TODAY