Can students get lost at big schools like UGA? Yes, but they will find their way.

Many high school seniors considering colleges are intimidated by a large campus. In this essay, a recent University of Georgia graduate says there are challenges to sprawling schools -- days when you eat alone or don't run into anyone you know on campus --but they are many benefits, too.

AJC intern Martha Michael recently graduated from UGA with a degree in journalism, and minors in political science and Spanish. A Valdosta resident, she interned with the AJC local news and features teams this summer. In September, she is going to Spain for 10 months to teach English. (And UGA prepared her to move across the ocean to a new country, she says.)

This is an excellent piece I would recommend sharing with high school students and guidance counselors.

By Martha Michael

“Why did you choose a big school?”

My first response to that question is: I didn’t choose the big school, the big school chose me.

Attending the University of Georgia was the result of a perfect storm of factors. It was the only school I applied to in-state, which meant as a qualifier for the Zell Miller Scholarship my entire tuition would be covered. That meant my other scholarships would be enough to pay for the rest of my education. Athens was a solid four hours away from home, and UGA allows freshmen to bring cars to campus, so I wasn’t stranded, but I was just far enough to resist going home every weekend, which I refused to do. My application to UGA’s Honors Program was accepted; and the majors, minors, study abroad programs and club options were endless.

When deciding where to attend college, size is an important factor to consider. There are competing studies on the effects on large class sizes on student performance, although I will say the majority of my classes at UGA were on the small side. Even in giant 300-plus person lectures, the classes will have lab or “break-out” sessions, so you get to meet with smaller groups and a teaching assistant. Small colleges aren’t guaranteed to be cheaper, either. The estimated annual cost of UGA is $26,404; Berry College is $35,176. And this College Board article reminds readers to keep in mind that their simple characterizations of large and small colleges “may not be true of all of them.”

UGA grad Martha Michael

It’s true the transition from high school to a large college can be overwhelming, but so can the transition from high school to any size college. I know of students who came from some of largest high schools in the state who felt overwhelmed by UGA. Most of those students will end up attending schools in their hometowns or smaller schools where they feel more “comfortable.”

Maybe it’s not about simply about size, but how a larger school makes you question: With so many majors and clubs and activities going on, how will I ever find my “place” on campus?

But what if college isn’t about finding a place? What if going off to college meant truly descending into the unknown? What if college is supposed to be hard, scary, at times isolating, even anxiety-inducing? What if college … was a little bit reflective of real life?

After my four years at UGA, that is why I am happy I chose a big school, in addition to all of my other perfect-storm reasons. For all the times I walked across campus all day without seeing someone I knew; all the times I had to solve problems without knowing who to ask; all the times I had to ask for directions; all the times I had to eat alone -- those were a few of the times I felt a big school prepared me for real life.

Whether your high school was 200 or 2,000 students, attending a university of at least 15,000 students can itself reflect a little bit of what life is like in the real world, a lesson as valuable as any degree. Real life requires eating alone, asking strangers for help, and spending days at a time just going through the motions.

Real life also requires contact with people who aren’t just like you. To me, it’s simple. Larger colleges reflect a greater diversity of people, increasing your inherent exposure to individuals, groups, organizations and professors whose beliefs and experiences are not similar to your own. The larger the enrollment, the greater variety of people -- in the classroom, dining halls, sporting events, and all around campus --  with whom you will come in contact. How we interact with strangers and new acquaintances is a skill that translates to everything from moving to a new city, starting a new job, to dating.

I also reject the thinking that it is difficult to find a niche on a large campus or a solid group of friends. More students means more organizations and campus activities that have very specific focuses. For example, there’s not just one pre-med club, there’s 10 -- all with different focuses, and one that might really interest you. The College Board says “to succeed at a big college, it's best to go in knowing what subjects or general areas you're interested in pursuing,” which I couldn’t find further from the truth. Large colleges present numerous alternative programs of study when you discover that you want to pivot from English literature to engineering -- you simply wouldn’t be able to do that at a small college with fewer options.

I’m not anti-small schools; if anything, I hope my message here is that colleges of any size teach us lessons that go beyond academics. But as I reflect on my four years at a “big school,” I remember all of the challenges, the hardships, and all of the stress I had while questioning my “place,” my major, and all of my choices, both good and not-so-good. My big school provided me with plenty of alternatives when my “place” wasn’t what I thought it was. Most importantly, I remember this: You can always make a big place small, but you can’t make a small place big.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.