My oldest niece started college this fall and besides making me feel old, it’s got me thinking about my own college experience. As she moves into her life on campus, I can’t help but wonder if I missed out by not going to a four year university and living in a dorm. Is there a specific college experience you should have? What determines if you’ve had a good experience?
A little background for you about my own college life: While I was a junior in high school, I had my heart set on a four year university in Ohio. Admittedly my boyfriend of the time also happened to live in Ohio so I won’t lie and say that never influenced me, but it was more just the reason I primarily focused on colleges in the Michigan/Ohio area. The University won me over because of it’s academic program. I was in my glory, planning my campus visits with my parents, buying a sweatshirt, and pouring over housing and meal plans as I went into my senior year.
My favorite English teacher wrote a glowing recommendation for me to the Honors College and all was looking up for me until that fateful day that the bill came in the mail. Even with my scholarships, grants, and student loans, the remaining cost left me speechless. There was absolutely no way I could afford this college, which was a problem because I was in the spring of my senior year and I had only applied to the one school. Very last minute, I applied to the local community college, got accepted, and rushed through orientation choosing whatever random general education classes that were still open and didn’t leave me with a completely awful schedule.
I will never forget the conversation I had with my English teacher when I told her what happened, and that as much as I appreciated her wonderful reference, I was starting out at community college first. She told me that there was nothing wrong with that, especially with how much I would save in financial aid, but she immediately expressed concern that I would fall into a rut and get stuck in place. I assured her that I would never and thanked her for her consideration. When I first started, I kept that promise. I worked hard and kept my focus, but somewhere after the second year, I got lost. I panicked and switched majors to one that I thought was more acceptable and that would have a better chance of landing me a job. I transferred to a university based on that degree, hated it, went back to community college, transferred to a different university and then finally dropped out. All said, I was in college for about five and a half years and only have an Associates of the Arts degree to show for it.
As badly as my experience ended, I don’t know that I would change the beginning. There were many times that I wondered what would have happened if I had gone away to college, lived on campus, and had a “traditional” college life. I honestly think they both have their merits. Finances could play a huge role in your decision, but just know that for all the money I saved starting off at community college, I quickly racked up student loans with my two stops at universities. So, I have a two year degree, I never had the campus experience, still lived at home for most of my college life. What did I gain, you might ask?
Well, as hurried and unplanned as my orientation and schedule were, something obviously worked out because my first semester of college, I walked into my Algebra class and met my future husband. Because of the extremely low cost, I didn’t take a single loan out my first two years of college. In fact, my very first loan was taken out so I could study abroad in Ireland for three weeks. It would be this trip that would net me a group of close friends that I still get together with now, eight years later.
Do I still sometimes wish I could have lived in a dorm, had a campus meal plan so I could gain the freshman 15, and jumped into any number of clubs and organizations? Absolutely. The thing is, if I really think about it, I got everything I would have wanted out of a traditional experience anyways. I ate my fair share of vending machine snacks and more Subway than I ever care to admit, I went out of my comfort zone and flew to a foreign country with complete strangers that came back my best friends. I took classes just because they sounded fun, I did a lot of walking and even tried a yoga class. I did end up living on my own eventually and it wasn’t a dorm or even an apartment, but it was that same leaving the nest feeling and let’s be honest, I had always been terrified of the roommate process anyways so living alone in my grandparent’s house was awesome.
As this year’s college freshmen get settled and start their classes, my advice is that no matter what your situation, get out and do something. If you are living on campus, join a club! Walk every inch of your campus, find the best place for junk food, meet your neighbors, and of course go to class! 🙂 If you, like me, are on a little less traditional path, then find your place. Living off campus or starting at a community college level may make it harder, but never impossible. There are still clubs, there are still plenty of opportunities to meet new people and get more out of college than just a degree.
Did you live on campus? Did you start at a community college first? I’d love to hear your experience!