Big Sea or Small Pond: Why Choose a Small University Over a Big One?

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It's time to choose a university. Should you go big or small? Here's a story from a student who's done both.

I started Falmouth University later in my life than the average student. The reason for my late start was mostly preparation, some health difficulties, but most of all it was fear leftover from my last university experience.

When I graduated high school in 2012 I was due to start university at the local campus of the University of Arizona, a campus of about 42,000. At the time I didn’t think much of that number but after experiencing life on a campus that size, I learned a few hard lessons.

I thought my life would be like a movie with parties, friends, acing classes, impressing my professors, maybe join a sorority. In actuality it was a lot of being lonely, stressed and sleep deprived.

To put this story to scale, Falmouth University has less than 4,000 students as of January 2012, making it about one-tenth the size of the University of Arizona.

At 18, like most people my age I thought university life would really get me in my element. I would be running my own life, which in my mind I’d already sort of been doing. Things would be easier.

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But it turns out I was mistaken: at a large university it’s impossible to just pop in and talk to someone; everything requires an email, phone call, appointment, reservation etc. It was such a chore just making an appointment to see a teacher and explain why I was missing classes and my teachers didn’t even know my name. Most professors at a university of that size don’t bother learning any student’s names because they see over 1,000 students every semester.

I thought my life would be like a movie with parties, friends, acing classes, impressing my professors, maybe join a sorority. In actuality it was a lot of being lonely, stressed and sleep deprived.

I rarely went to class and when I did I spent the entire time wishing I were back in bed. Part of this was an undiagnosed mental illness that I was very much denying, but another part of this was that I wasn’t ready to be a small fish in the big sea of my university.

I quickly learned that being at Falmouth was a lot like being a resident in a small town. There aren’t that many of us, so you immediately have a connection.

At such a big university, I couldn't help feeling like my only importance to this school was the amount of money they could get from me. I didn’t like the feeling of complete insignificance and it wasn’t until after I left that university and talked to other students that I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. So many of the people I knew at the university had felt the same way I did.

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In the end, I took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do next. (Funnily enough, other people I knew also left.) After that, I got a full time job teaching at a primary school and worked there for about two years, before moving to Falmouth to try something really different.

Upon moving here I felt those familiar feelings and fears creeping up about being insignificant, not knowing anyone, not being motivated at all. However, I quickly learned that being at Falmouth was a lot like being a resident in a small town. There aren’t that many of us so you immediately have a connection to everyone, and even if you don’t know someone, the chances of you two having someone in common is very high. 

There’s a friendly and warm environment that I, and it seems like many other students, thrive in—and having that kind of ccommunity is something that could have potentially saved me at that larger university.
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There is a certain kind of unity you get at a smaller university. Everyone tends to come together for the same things (especially if that thing is some society giving out cheese toasties for free because no matter how big or small a university is; every student will jump at the chance for free food). I worried that being at such a small university would make me feel claustrophobic or like I wouldn’t have any privacy, but that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, it was like always having potential friends around, because making friends is pretty easy here.

I enjoy my small campus and how homely it feels: there are warm meals if you need one, the library always has a cozy couch to hide in. But the class sizes are my favourite part. I’ve never had a class with more than 50 people in it (comparing this to lecture theatres with more than 200 at bigger universities). The lecturers know the students' names. Extra one-to-one time is literally scheduled into your timetable; you don't have to chase a lecturer down to ask a question. This creates a friendly and warm environment that I, and it seems like many other students, thrive in--and having that kind of community is something that could have potentially saved me at that larger university.

In reality, changing universities won’t fix all of your problems; it hasn’t fixed all of mine, though it has helped a lot. If you are ready for university physically and mentally, don’t just choose the one that all your friends are attending, or that is easy because it's close to home, or even the one your parents are most excited about. At the end of the day, you will be the one living that life, and if it doesn't suit you, you might end up leaving anyway. Instead choose the university that is best for you--big or small--and that has the kind of community that makes sense to you.


by Carly Herriges