I started the college search process during my sophomore year of high school (due to much encouragement from my guidance counselor father). So by my senior year, I had narrowed down my options to a solid top five. I had spent hours poring over college search engines that allowed me to limit my results based on certain characteristics. I knew exactly what I wanted from a school: a small, intimate community with a strong liberal arts program. I wanted to be just a few hours from home, be exposed to a lot of clubs available to join and explore, and (of course) have access to high-quality dining facilities.
Among the top five that I would eventually submit applications to, my favorite college was the College of St. Rose, a small private university in Albany, New York. St. Rose met all of my qualifications for a college: it was the perfect size (with an undergraduate student body of just under 3,000), the perfect distance from home (two hours—close enough to visit but not too often), and it had a welcoming, friendly atmosphere to match the jaw-droppingly gorgeous campus. (Also, a fun fact: Jimmy Fallon attended the College of St. Rose before his comedy career took off, and he earned his honorary degree in 2009.) Overall, it was my dream school.
At the bottom of my list was the University at Buffalo. Despite being turned off by the size of this absolutely huge school (UB’s undergraduate population alone is nearly 20,000, almost double of all my other college options combined), I kept it on my radar due to the fantastic honors program. The first time I visited, I was completely overwhelmed by the size of it; it was impossible to keep my sense of direction as my tour guide deftly led us past building after never-ending building. The campus was busy and fast and loud and felt like far more than I could ever handle. I finished the tour saying “no way” to ever willingly returning to that intimidating institution.
Today, I’m midway through my third year at UB, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision.
I had kept UB in mind for financial reasons (despite my unfortunate first impression) and returned for another visit during my senior year. On this second trip, I felt the exact opposite of what I felt the first time: I fell head-over-heels in love with Buffalo. Whether it was the tour guide or the weather or the extra year of experience I had under my belt, or even merely my state of mind, I knew this was the place I wanted to spend the next four years of my life.
The biggest lesson I learned from my college search was that what I expected I would want and what actually made me happy could be two entirely separate things. I thought I’d be happiest at a small school like the College of St. Rose, but it turns out that I’m so in love with UB that I couldn’t imagine experiencing college any other way. There was a huge difference between my expectations and my reality, and I’m so grateful for that.
Obviously, there are make-or-break aspects that have to be given priority when choosing a college. I know that I wouldn’t have been happy at a school on the other side of the country because I’d prefer to stay a little closer to home. But is it a big deal whether the school has every single quality I desire? It turns out that it didn’t. Most of my preferences and “college search engine settings” were more flexible than I realized, because what really mattered to me was the atmosphere of the school, and ultimately, what I would make of it.
However, I truly believe I would have been happy at any college, because the entirety of the college experience is what you make of it. I think it’s more about the mindset of the student going into college than the nitty-gritty specifics of the school itself. When I first started my college search, I applied to four tiny schools and only one big one, because I thought I’d be happiest in a smaller college community. So when I came to UB, I simply built that close-knit community for myself by getting involved in groups and programs that would connect me to other people who shared my interests.
Instead of letting myself be intimidated by the size of UB, I made the choice to make the most of it. As a freshman, I spent hours exploring and adventuring around the sides of campus I wasn’t yet familiar with. I’ve grown to appreciate the diversity of my classmates, who come from all corners of the globe. I don’t let myself be overwhelmed by the new faces of strangers I see every day, because I know that we still feel like a community, especially during big events like football games and snowstorms. I am learning to take advantage of the vast list of opportunities made available to me by a big college, whether it be clubs to join, majors to choose from, or career opportunities to pursue.
I found my dream college, and I’m so happy I didn’t go there. Not because I’m particularly happy to not be at the College of St. Rose—it is an amazing school—but because I am so glad that I ended up here at the University at Buffalo. It wasn’t what I expected, but UB has been so good to me that if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing.