Going to College in the Middle of Nowhere

Going to College in the Middle of Nowhere

Growing up, the city has always been my playground. I find comfort in the bright lights and the bustling streets, I enjoy the accessibility and convenience of commuting that was made possible by an extensive network of public transportation and I love having plenty of options for an impromptu late-night activity.  Despite having mentally prepared myself for an education in the cornfields, it still came as a huge cultural shock when I first arrived in Grinnell College. One could explore the downtown within an hour, and the streets were completely dark when night falls. As a self-proclaimed coffee addict, the absence of a commercial Starbucks joint was indicative of how detached Grinnell was from a city. With 5 weeks till the end of my freshmen year, I am proud that I’ve made the decision to get out of my comfort zone and would actually say that the cornfields have indeed become my new playground.

Studying in a college that is located in a rural area has its pros and cons. At one end of the spectrum, this experience can be viewed as socially stifling but on the flip-side, the lack of conventional social outlets would imperatively force a student to actively seek new activities and friends, which can be socially stimulating. Before you write off a college that is situated in the middle of nowhere or think you have what it takes to survive in isolation, here’s what you need to know.

The Good

The campus, not the downtown is where the people are at. When the upperclassmen affectionately call the college a “bubble”, they are not kidding. Every building (besides the administrative building) is multi-purposeful. During the day, the science building is the hub for experiments, lectures and meetings. During the night, it becomes an arena for a weekly ‘zombie-vs-humans’ nerf game  and the classrooms can double up as an intimate movie theatre for two (or more). In addition, the lack of social outlets for students in the downtown area means that students are always coming up with fun and novel ways of spicing up their social life. During the weekends, students are presented with a wide variety of options to choose from. Besides the college staple of drinking and dance parties in the dorms, there are open mic for the bathroom singers, underground concerts for the rave-goers, boardgames night for those who want a quiet evening and even barbecue study breaks for the stressed and/or the hungry. With so many things to do on campus, it is no wonder that students rarely leave campus (for good reasons).

Small talks are at least 15 minutes long, and that is the beauty of it. Another perk of studying in a rural campus is the familiarity and comfort of meeting the same faces at different locations at different times on the same day. Small talks usually last more than 2 sentences, and getting a cup of coffee during breaks may potentially cause you to be late for the appointment as you end up conversing with a fellow student. The rural setting encourages people to be friendly and be open to one another. It is not surprising that a smile from a complete stranger could wind up into a conversation that marks the start of a new friendship! Social interactions are a lot more meaningful, and friendships not acquaintanceships are forged. Not only do you get to meet people from different socio-cultural backgrounds but actually learn and be inspired by them. After all, isn’t this the essence of a truly defining college experience?

Mother Nature is therapeutic. When you are surrounded by cornfields/forests, going for a run, a hike, or a canoeing trip in the nearby lake is a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the campus. As a city kid whose world is filled with towering skyscrapers and concrete pavements, I am constantly charmed and in awe of the lush greenery and beauty of the natural environment. If you’re having a bad day or feeling overwhelmed by the workload, dabbling and discovering the natural world is a great study break. For the Art or English majors who are experiencing a mental roadblock, getting in touch with nature could help with your next inspiration. Plus, there are so many things to do when you are out in the open – throw a frisbee with friends, organize a picnic lunch, roll on the grass and who knows, you may have an unexpected guest, in the form of a squirrel or a deer to keep you company.

No distractions. College is difficult and learning can be extremely rigorous. Add varsity or intramural trainings into your tight schedule and you find yourself pressed for more time. Studying in a rural college allows you to channel all your energy, time and efforts into things that matter the most. You will not be distracted by the weekend sale held in the mall (because 1. you’re too lazy to make an hour drive into the city and 2. you won’t know about it) and you won’t waste your time idling on the streets of a barren downtown. Whatever you want to do can be found on campus, and you will not lose sight of your priorities. Essentially, it means becoming the best student you can be, the best athlete you can be, and probably the best partier you can be.

The Bad

Sometimes, living in a rural environment can take its toll on you. Give it a semester or two, maybe even earlier, but you will soon find out the hard truth. The social opportunities available, while aplenty, run along the same theme and probably on repeat. Sure, a dance party can have a different theme every week, but it will always be another Saturday night dance party. Study breaks become a monthly affair held on the first week of the month, open mics are held weekly on Thursday night, and the list goes on. Essentially, activities become routine, and that may not be the worst thing, but every once in a while, you will find yourself hoping to get into the city to do something different and something novel, which brings me to the next point.

Getting to the city may be a lot harder than you think. The nearest city is probably an hour away, and when you have 48hours to spare during the weekends, spending 2 hours on the road may not seem like a big deal. Think again. A trip to the city requires more planning than you think, especially when public transportation is pretty non-existential in a rural community. Renting a car, planning a trip and coordinating schedules can be a hassle. Most of the time, you just give up planning, stay on campus and fervently pray that something exciting and unexpected will happen so that you can talk about it during the lunch the morning after.

The tricky issue: Money. There is always a misconception that studying in a rural college is a cost saving venture. While you are likely to spend most of your time on campus, and most monetary transactions in college are made in dining dollars (covered in the tuition fees), you may wound up spending more than you hope to. Walmart is a 15minutes away walk from campus, and the city is an hour’s drive away, so most students end up shopping online. From the basic necessities like food and shower amenities to clothes and party outfits, students end up buying anything and everything at the tips of the fingers. And in this buying frenzy, students often forget that  online retailers charge an exorbitant shipping fee. Of course, there are students who actually lead a frugal lifestyle and resist their impulses, so whether one ends up saving or spending more than expected is dependent not on the location of the college but the student’s buying habits. 

Re-evaluate your priorities when narrowing down your college list. When listing your criteria for the best-fit school, look at each college holistically. From my vantage point, the location of the school should not be a deal-breaker because there are so much more than just location that defines an institution. Academics, learning environment, student-faculty ratio, student culture are some of the factors that I feel should be emphasized more so than location. The best way to evaluate the location of the college is to look at how the institution is able to integrate itself into the community, and more importantly how you can utilize the campus and community resources during your undergraduate years. If you enjoy the fast paced adrenaline and excitement that comes with a bustling city, or enjoy the rustic charm of a laid-back community, then you got your work cut out for you. If you like to immerse yourself in the best of both worlds, try looking at institutions that have an established presence in a college town.