Everyone is naive when they come to college—that’s just a fact of life. College seems in some ways like an extension of your primary and secondary education, but this is an illusion, and one that proves more disastrous the longer it persists.
College is much more loosely structured than high school, even in the places where it attempts to be more cut-and-dry; and yet the expectations in college are so much higher than they were in high school for everything from punctuality to punctuation. You have more room to fail, but more pressure to succeed.
Small Town to College Campus
This conundrum can be exacerbated by your background. For example, if you came from a small-town high school like I did, one where competition was never cutthroat unless it was basketball season, coming to a school like Cornell and meeting people who took seven APs their freshman year of high school can be befuddling.
My school, for that matter, only offered six AP classes total. While some of my peers at Cornell had dozens of AP courses to choose from. Anyone at my school who wanted to get into a good college knew exactly what they had to do: take one or two APs junior year and the rest of the six senior year, and fill the extra space in their schedule with extracurriculars or even electives.
This isn’t to say I wasn’t prepared when I got to Cornell. My English and band teachers, in particular, imparted a number of great life lessons, along with the scheduled curriculum during my time in high school.
They were also responsible for some of the music choices that got me through my hardest study sessions (Chorale and Shaker Dance by Zdechlik from my band teacher and the Grateful Dead from my English teacher).
I can’t help but think that I wouldn’t have made these valuable connections if I’d gone to a larger school.
But I can’t knock larger schools all that much, or at all. Classmates at college tell me stories of French Club trips to Paris, project teams they led in high school that actually made a difference or volunteering opportunities that dwarfed my hours at our local volunteer-run movie theater.
Looking around my college campus, I see a lot of signs now that I was too naive to see as a freshman. No one wears Canada Goose in my hometown; if someone did, they’d probably be ostracized immediately. If academia is an insular culture, small town culture can be just as much so.
That was one thing you could count on, honestly. In my town, as I’m sure everyone from a small town can attest, everyone really does know your business. I tried to keep my college applications as private as possible, but my track coach wanted to know where I was applying, and of course his wife had to tell her friends, who were the mothers of people I knew at school…
My roommate, on the other hand, went to a moderately-sized high school (I think I’ve heard her call it “small” on a couple of occasions but it’s multiple times larger than mine), and she was able to keep her application details more or less a secret from others.
However, if larger schools bring privacy, they also bring anonymity, and the struggle to be recognized for your achievements among a slew of equally qualified applicants who, among other qualities, share a zip code with you.
I wasn’t raised with this sense of competition, at least not from the outside. No one from my high school applied to an Ivy League school except for me (that I know of). Only a handful ventured out of the state for their degrees.
This had as much to do with their being socialized to aim for in-state schools as it had to do with socioeconomic mobility. Like I said, I come from a small town. In rural Michigan. And like most people who attend my school, I can’t pay for it.
That was a common story in my town as well. A lot of people I know went to community college for two years before transferring to a four-year institution. The community college was only a ten-minute drive from my house; I’d taken field trips there. There wasn’t really a sense of mobility anywhere.
And that’s partly what I mean by small town culture being insular. I remember feeling guilty about even applying to Cornell, like I was somehow rebelling against the laws of nature. People would congratulate me and I’d sense a bitterness in their tone.
Once, an authority figure—I can’t remember if it was just a teacher or if it was actually my guidance counselor—tried to underhandedly talk me out of applying to Cornell, and I was reminded of when I first moved to that town in my freshman year.
I signed up for geometry, and the principal met with me because he was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I explained that I’d taken the prerequisites at my old school, so it wouldn’t make sense for me to take them again. I also, while trying not to sound arrogant, assured him of my confidence in my math skills.
He didn’t seem to hear any of this information, especially the part about already having completed the prerequisites for geometry. He just kept saying, “Well, some people have trouble with geometry.”
I remember wondering how I could argue that he shouldn’t just be assuming that I was “some people” and should be giving me a chance to show my worth. And four years later, when I walked into that exact same office and the principal informed me that I was the valedictorian, I realized that the drive to compete needs to come from within, not from without.
I know that elsewhere in the country there were people who took Calc I their sophomore year, while I was taking Algebra II and wouldn’t take Calc for another two years. I know that elsewhere, the title of valedictorian was much more hard-fought.
But realizing that college is much more competitive than a small-town high school isn’t the end of the comparison.
I may have been a little underprepared for the dynamics of college and the backgrounds of the people I’d meet there, but what I was well-prepared for was finding within myself the drive to succeed.
When you come from a small town, the lives of your college peers may seem bizarre. You may feel like you’re looked down on for not somehow finding opportunities for yourself that simply didn’t exist in your environment.
But if you came from a small town and ended up at a great university, I don’t think there is anyone who could say you didn’t deserve everything you’ve gotten, or that you aren’t likely destined for amazing things.
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