Among the factors Chris McGeorge was mentally weighing while mulling his decision on where to attend college this fall was the weather. That was one of the reasons the freshman from Petosky, Mich., eventually opted for Tulane University in New Orleans instead of his second choice, Lawrence University.

“I was kind of tired of winter. I had had 18 of them and wanted to get away from the Midwest,” said McGeorge. “Plus the whole culture of New Orleans intrigued me.”

When Mother Nature unleashed the devastating fury of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, it turned out the weather wound up making McGeorge’s decision for him, rather than the other way around. His plans to escape winter were temporarily put on hold and the hurricane sent him scurrying for safety the very day he arrived at Tulane.

Instead of pursuing an English major at Tulane this fall, McGeorge will join a near-record 433 new students who are scheduled to arrive Wednesday (9/14) on the Lawrence campus. First-year students will move into the residence halls that day and begin six days of orientation activities in anticipation of the college’s 156th academic year. The first day of classes is set for Wednesday, Sept. 21.

Wednesday will be the second freshman “move-in” day in less than three weeks for McGeorge, who arrived at Tulane just as Katrina began zeroing in on the Gulf Coast. Shortly after getting to his room, he listened to Tulane President Scott Cowen deliver an evacuation speech instead of his normal new student welcome address.

“I hadn’t even unpacked my stuff at that point,” said McGeorge, who mere hours after arriving on campus found himself on a bus making a 200-mile trip to Jackson State University in Miss. “We were told to just take enough things with us for a few days because we’d be coming back. My things are all still in boxes sitting in my room at Tulane.

“I’m really excited about actually completing an orientation program this time,” McGeorge added.

After two days of camping out with more than 400 of his new classmates on the floor of a Jackson State gymnasium — most of which was spent largely in the dark since the power had gone out in town — McGeorge found himself on another charter bus the evening of Aug. 30, this time headed to Georgia Tech University in Atlanta. A seven hour bus ride got him to the Georgia Tech student union at 4:30 a.m., but by mid-morning, he was on a plane flying home to Michigan.

Once back home in Petosky, McGeorge reconsidered his options.

“Lawrence was one of the first places I called to see if they would accommodate me,” said McGeorge, who also checked out Boston University, where he was told they had classroom space for him but he’d have to find housing in Boston on his own. “Lawrence was a little closer to home. I had been there for a campus visit and was really impressed with the faculty there. They have some amazing programs, so it was really my first choice at that point.”

Although already teetering on an all-time enrollment record, Lawrence officials took into account McGeorge’s unusual circumstances and were able to squeeze him in. An accomplished chef who spent the summer making fancy pastries at a gourmet restaurant, McGeorge said he used his culinary skills to “bribe” the admissions office by offering to live with a faculty member and do all the cooking if space was an issue.

“I was so grateful Lawrence was able to make room for me on such short notice,” said McGeorge. “They were so accommodating and I’m just so grateful. I’m glad I was able to get out of town safely, but I wonder now how long it will take for New Orleans to be the city I remember.”

“We’re doing our best to treat these displaced students like Chris with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said Ken Anselment, director of admissions, noting the college has received a handful of inquiries from students affected by the hurricane. “In spite of being very full, we’re trying to be as accommodating as possible to their needs.”

In a year in which Lawrence received a record number of first-year applications (2,068), McGeorge may be the last admitted member of what is the largest class of new students in more than 30 years. This year’s total of 433 new students — 404 freshmen and 29 transfer students — nearly matches 1973’s all-time mark of 451 when 423 freshmen and 28 transfer students matriculated.

“This year’s large class of incoming students has enabled Lawrence to reach its expanded enrollment goal of 1,400 students a few years ahead of schedule,” said Anselment. “That will have some implications for next year. It will necessitate enrolling a smaller class of new students in order to keep the university at that total enrollment number. That may prove particularly challenging considering the increases in application activity we have seen over the past few years.”

The number of new students is up, but not at the expense of the class’s traditionally strong academic profile. Nearly a quarter, 24%, of the class ranked in the top five percent of their high school graduating class. Twenty one of the incoming freshmen were class valedictorians and 37 of them received National Merit recognition. As a group, this year’s incoming freshmen achieved an average ACT score of 28.

“This year’s class is collectively one of the highest achieving group of students Lawrence has seen in quite a while,” Anselment said. “Both our average ACT and SAT scores are up, which, interestingly, is a nice way to cap things off in our last year of requiring standardized tests for admission and scholarships.”

Lawrence officials announced in February the college would no longer require standardized test scores for admission consideration, relying instead on its time-tested standard of “multiple intelligences” when reviewing a student’s application for admission.

The class of new students is almost as geographically diverse as it is academically talented. Thirty-four states and 14 countries, among them China, Ghana and Tanzania, are represented in the class. The 404 freshmen hail from 309 different high schools, with the distinction of supplying the most members of the incoming class, 9, going to Appleton’s very own North High School.

While McGeorge may have taken the most circuitous route to get to Lawrence, students will literally arrive Wednesday from far and (very) near. At nearly 9,100 miles from home, Alavi Karim and Imtiaz Karim, both from Dhaka, Bangledesh, will travel the farthest, while James Duncan-Welke will enjoy the shortest “journey.” He lives right across the street from the Lawrence campus.

Ninety-three percent of the first-year students were awarded need-based or merit-based financial assistance, with aid awards averaging $22,600.

“Although we will need to be more selective in admission, we are one of a declining number of colleges that still admits students without regard to their financial circumstances and then meets their full institutional financial need,” said Steve Syverson, dean of admissions and financial aid. “We remain committed to making a Lawrence education affordable to the best and the brightest students, regardless of their family’s income.”