I went to an obscure school in Appalachia. I was self-conscious about that at first because the media says you’re nothing if you didn’t go to NYU. But since I moved to New York I realized a lot of people in small towns are more interesting. Another plus to having gone to school in a small town: I developed more empathy than most people surrounded by hipsters on the take.
If you go to a school like mine, here’s some things you might relate to:
1. Your Teachers Care About You
Your professors get to live in a cozy town with a low cost of living. They hang out with the other professors and they have plenty of free time. All this freedom is likely to result in a relaxed, empathetic human being. They teach all their classes themselves, classes of 20 students tops.
A lot of my teachers worked as journalists, psychologists, and lawyers before they climbed the ivory tower. They have equal knowledge about people and ideas: a rare and wonderful trait. You’ll make friends with your professors and they’ll keep in touch long after you graduate.
I lived with the same girl for years until her boyfriend made her drop out. My professors asked me where she was and if I was okay.
2. There Aren’t As Many Classes to Choose From
So you can kiss your dream of majoring in 15th century haiku goodbye.
However, when your teachers aren’t pushing drunk freshmen through English 101 they get to teach things they like. We had Science Fiction and Philosophy, Human Sexual Behavior, and Hamlet. If there’s a cool class everyone takes it, meaning you have people with different beliefs in the same room. If you take Marxist theory at 95% of private schools then you already know what they think.
Also, people say colleges are too politically correct. At less prestigious institutions this is less of a problem.
3. The Dining Hall Sucks
But you can get super creative. Peas and beets in half-overcooked, half-undercooked pasta? Yes please. You never knew you liked Parmesan cheese that much. You’ll be most desperate during finals week, when they pull out everything they forgot to serve during the semester.
Sometimes the multicultural society will organize a dinner. You’ll get all excited when they do a Chinese New Year dance in front of the soda machine. Unfortunately, the food won’t be better than usual. You’ll put pepper in it. Maybe vinegar or mustard. You’ll compare the effects. You’ll develop a style, and that’s great.
4. It’s A Small World
After four years a lot of your classmates will know nothing except Antoine’s sexual orientation and how to use a 14 by 20 inch tray as a sled. You’re better than that. You can demonstrate your worldliness by leaving campus. But it’s better if you cultivate a reputation that makes you the most interesting person on it.
If you want to know what fame feels like, have sex with lots of people. Or sell drugs. Have sex with a wide variety of people and make sure everyone knows it. Sell drugs that your competitors can’t find because you go back to the city on weekends. By doing these things you will know everyone. You’ll be secretly admired and openly feared. Enjoy your notoriety, because once you graduate it won’t matter to anyone but you.
5. There Are Plenty of Characters Around
You know that guy, aged 27-32, who seems to be everywhere? Talk to him. These guys have unique perspectives. They have unusual jobs like hot dog vendor or eBay videogame salesman. And they’re usually on the extreme end of the political scale. They’ll tell you how to mine bitcoins or explain how Walmart and other corporations will have warring serfdoms in a hundred years. They can be pretty cool guys but in my experience are ultimately depressing because they can’t seem to stay up in life for more than six months at a time. (Disclaimer: I dated one.)
Other personalities include the guy who owns the coffee shop, the dance teacher, the three immigrants in town (at least one of them owns a surprisingly good restaurant), both the most and least talented people who share their work at poetry readings, and any far-right wingers who teach at your school.
6. College Towns Are Nice
Most college towns have good parks and a thriving small business community. The more respectable businesses are owned by the same three scions in your town. The people outside that establishment own at least one coffee shop, a thrift store, and that bar that keeps getting shut down because they couldn’t pay rent or the cops decided enough was enough. Beware the crackdown. You’ll be underage drinking for years in this bar and when you come back to visit at age 26 they’ll make you pull out your card.
The townies are some of the best conversationalists you will ever meet in your life. More ambitious students than yourself look down on them, but that’s just because they’d rather wear Dockers and sit in traffic than smoke weed, read Allan Ginsberg, and work in a diner called Ernie’s for the rest of their lives.
7. You Have As Much Fun As You Would At a Big School, If Not More
At the kind of parties I went to guys were playing guitar, you passed the joint and checked out the fire outside for a while then you went in and sat on the couch. I’d fall asleep, wake up, and hear someone talking about the best story an old hiker told him on the Appalachian Trail.
We had Greek life, but I knew nothing about it. If I had it to do over again I would have rushed. It could have given me structure and people to contact in every city I moved to for the rest of my life.
But I made most of my friends in the dorms. My best memories are riding in the back of my friend’s car listening to Lady Gaga on the way to IHOP at 2 AM. Impromptu road trips to walk around DC all night. You learned everyone’s joys, hopes, and fears just by seeing their habits every day. It’s new and shocking because you might not recognize patterns in people yet. I sure didn’t.
Everyone you meet is in the same place now. This is really the only time in your life that you’ll be in such an egalitarian atmosphere. Long after you graduate you’ll remember how good it felt when everybody saw people as people, not as people stratified by money or connections. A small public college might be the best place to see how people are really more similar than different.