Exploring Your College City

Contributing Editor, Carnegie Communications

The first time I stepped foot onto the University of Rhode Island’s campus, it was love at first site (pun intended). Beautiful terrain, historical buildings, and a campus that spanned over 1,245 acres drew me in quickly. The last thing I was thinking about was the proximity to food, activities, and social events.

Often times, students can fall in love with a campus nearly instantly—but this doesn’t always leave room to explore the more practical side of things. From the nearest grocery store to nightlife to transportation, there’s plenty to learn about your potential new home before making a decision.

Social scene

A college town’s social scene is almost as important as the college itself. After all, when you’re not studying you’re bound to spend time exploring your surroundings. It’s the backdrop for days and nights out with friends, classmates, and visiting family members.

“I think students often romanticize college, and this makes things tricky [when] adjusting to a new setting,” says Christopher Anderson, a university professor and founder of Eastern Point Lit House and Press. “For example, it may sound romantic to attend a tiny college in the woods somewhere, but then you realize how limited your options are for entertainment, social interaction, internship opportunities, etc. The same goes for a large college in an urban setting. It’s too easy to go unnoticed and even easier to be distracted from your studies. It’s difficult, but students really need to be pragmatic about what they’re getting themselves into.”

When scouring the local restaurants, clubs, and various nightlife opportunities, consider writing down a list of everything you currently enjoy in your hometown, along with future goals—career and personal—and then see if they line up with what your potential new town has to offer. For instance, if you plan to study journalism, but you also have a passion for community service and a love of Thai food, you’ll want to also check out local newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses; volunteer opportunities; and, of course, the proximity of an awesome Thai place.

If you’re unable to determine all these things on your own, a good way to ensure honest answers is by asking current university students.

“I would suggest [potential students] talk to several students and a few faculty members to try to find out what college life is like at a particular college,” Anderson says. “Ask basic questions like, what happens when classes aren’t in session? And don’t just take the word of the work-study student being paid to show you around campus. They’re paid to make sure everything seems nifty. Find the rough edges and decide if you can live with them.”

But make sure you do the (literal) legwork too; do your own research. Set aside a few hours the same day of your campus tour to explore the city. Check out all it has to offer, and consider scanning local newspapers/websites to find out how frequently the town holds events and sites like Yelp to see how nearby restaurants, clubs, music venues, etc. stack up.

“Most students overlook the social aspects,” says Tawan Perry, a college coach and the author of College Sense: What College and High School Advisors Don’t Tell You About College. “I think a lot of students may not even consider the possibility that just maybe when they graduate from college they may settle down in the same city as their college.”


Transportation will vary greatly depending on where the college is located (i.e., city vs. country). When attending URI I lived off campus and had a car, so I assumed I was all set. Since I didn’t invest in a meal plan (which often costs more when you live off campus), I relied on the grocery store. But I soon realized the nearest one was 30 minutes away—and a pricey store at that! Although I eventually decided that the pros of living off campus outweighed the cons, you can never do enough research when it comes to your education and expenses.

That being said, be sure to check your college’s car policy. Some campuses won’t allow freshmen to have a car on campus. If they do, you’ll still want to consider the costs associated with owning a car. With the rising price of gas, insurance, and unexpected maintenance, it can get expensive.

If you’re thinking of attending college in an urban setting, consider costs of public transportation. Although many cities offer monthly transit passes, even a few casual rides per week can add up quickly, so you’ll want to make sure you have the funds to support that. Short on cash? Don’t fret! Many colleges offer weekly or monthly group trips to various malls, theme parks, and nearby cities free of charge.

Volunteer and employment opportunities

Once you’ve gotten a feel for the social scene and campus life, it’s time to think about your future. You know what that means—experiential opportunities like volunteering, internships, cooperative education, part-time work, and more! The last thing you want to do is fly through your first few years, only to find out later that internship opportunities in your area are limited, particularly for your field.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that the college has partnerships with local businesses,” says Perry. “In a perfect world, it would be great if all local businesses gave college students an opportunity to intern or a guaranteed job after graduation but, alas, it doesn’t work that way.”

Because so much after graduation is uncertain, “it is important that [students] pick a city that can help them start their career or at least provide them with gainful employment until a better opportunity comes along,” Perry suggests. That’s why it’s important to hit the pavement and get a good sense of the area and what it has to offer. Speak to college advisors, local businesses, and recent graduates to get a feel for the opportunities available, particularly those relevant to your career interests if you’ve narrowed that down already. If you haven’t made a major decision yet, look for places that have ample and varied opportunities. Remember that each city or town, even those close together, will vary greatly, so it’s important to research each individual area.

And if you think that after your four years, you’ll be moving on, you might want to think again. “Sometimes students get comfortable and don’t leave,” Perry says. “A perfect example of [this] is Raleigh, North Carolina. We have many students stay in the area after graduation and in some instances they end up starting their career and/or finding their significant other here.”

If you’re looking for a little guidance, plenty of websites offer employment statistics for various areas of the country and/or by career field. For example, according to Forbes and Rent.com, you may have better luck finding a job in, say, Boston (unemployment rate: 5.9%) or Houston (unemployment rate: 6%).

“What kind of job will the city produce once [students] graduate?” asks Perry. “Should they stay local?” Remember these things as you do your research.

Take it from the experts

In addition to concerns like internship opportunities and fun nightlife, Perry says students often overlook other aspects of college life such as health and wellness (particularly if they have a special diet), community and religious associations, and the overall economy. Keep these things on your radar too! The experts also recommend keeping a few other incidentals in mind, like travel costs to and from your hometown, climate in the summer and winter, and overall community.

Perry suggests students ask themselves plenty of questions along the way: “What is there to do for young professionals? Is there a strong [fill in the blank] community? This is important because all of us want to belong to something beyond just the school once we graduate.”

“I think it’s very useful to have access to internship opportunities and cultural experiences,” says Anderson. “I’ve taught at both rural and more urban colleges, and it seems that the access to jobs and culture really help develop the student as they move through their college careers.”
Remember, your time at college will not only propel you toward the career you wish to pursue, but it will also help define the person you hope to become. Armed with this advice—and a solid amount of ambition—there’s no college town you won’t be able to make feel like home.

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