Often it’s the things that don’t turn out the way we’d planned that teach us the most about ourselves and what’s important. A more philosophical way of putting it—experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.
Patti started out at small women’s college. She made some great friends right off the bat but found the small college environment a little too small. Erin was the classic ‘so good at everything’ student. She had to make a choice and dive in so she could find out what was right for her. She ended up finding out what WASN’T right for her.
At some point during freshman year nearly every student asks the question “Is this where I belong?” Sometimes it’s because he or she is simply uncomfortable in a new environment or still sorting out what they’d like to pursue. A conversation with an advisor or just a little more time can usually solve—or at least settle down—those worries. Although these situations are not always an easy fix, switching schools, transferring to a new college when you’ve just gotten used to one, is not a decision to make lightly. We asked transfer students Erin and Patti to share their stories.
I was told college is the time to learn about yourself: who you really are, what you actually want to do, how loud you can play Journey without the RA’s hunting you down. You don’t even notice, but your actions fall into patterns that you begin to recognize, and you really get a grasp on what your strengths are.
Leaving high school, I didn’t know my strengths at all. I had no idea what to major in or what college to look into because I didn’t specialize in one thing. I was that kid who did everything—I had no real calling. Everyone said to follow my heart, but the things I loved to do were dance and write, and what do you do with a degree in English or dance?
I ended up going to a local state school undeclared and thought I would figure it out eventually, but when Cornell offered me a guaranteed transfer as an environmental engineering major, I accepted. I did it because I knew I would never pick unless I threw myself into something and decided if I liked it or not. The plan was to go to my school for a year taking specific classes and then transfer to Cornell my sophomore year. The classes I had to take made me a biophysics major at my school, something so defined and difficult that I would either love it or fail miserably.
By October I knew I wouldn’t be going on to Cornell. I had found a home at my school and didn’t want to leave that behind. But in November I finally accepted that I was under a ton of stress and that it was more difficult to handle than I wanted to admit. In December, I realized I wasn’t just stressed out, I was unhappy. At the end of the semester, I compiled a list of things I learned about myself in the first few months of college.
What I Learned
First of all, I should not be a biophysics major. As luck would have it, I hate biology. Some people love it, but I think biology is the most boring subject I’ve ever taken. Yes, I made it through that semester. Yes, I can make myself learn biology and even biophysics. In fact, I’m pretty good with math and physics. Still, as much as I appreciate the physical universe, I don’t want to be a biophysicist and I don’t want to be a doctor. As a matter of fact, I am that person we all laugh at in bio lab who questions animal testing.
Second, I should not be an engineer. One of my roommates calls me ‘Whole Brain’ because I do well in math and science, but my artistic side is just at strong. I guess she’s right, because I can’t stand only doing the technical stuff. I’ll be the first to stand up and announce that I love physics, but when I went to see my old dance studio’s holiday show, I realized that by cutting all the artistic things out of my life I had left a part of myself behind. I’ll never get that out of calculus and physics. Someone else might, but I won’t. Engineering is a wonderful profession that takes a lot of intelligence, but it is not the kind of intelligence I want to commit my life to.
Third on my list is this: this was not the school for me. I knew this when I visited my senior year but I questioned myself, and when I couldn’t decide what to study I went to the only place I had applied undeclared. Don’t get me wrong—it is a beautiful campus, I made friends who mean the world to me, I’ve had opportunities I never expected—but I couldn’t do what I want to do there.
I have two passions: dancing and writing. Now I’m pursuing them. I didn’t return second semester and started instead at Point Park University in Pittsburgh as a dance major with a concentration in jazz. I’m now declaring a double major in print journalism. It’s a far cry from biophysics, I’m well aware. It also all happened very quickly.
I returned home for Christmas break and got a chance to really think about being unhappy at school. I knew the stress wasn’t the true problem because the feeling of stress was very different than the feeling of being sad when I thought about my days as a dancer, or the detached feeling I got when I walked past students in the arts building.
I tried to find what I was looking for where I was—I joined swing dance club, I went to campus club performances, I was a novice rower on the crew team—but I needed more. I realized that I had done just what I expected: thrown myself into a crazy major and hated it. It was time to try something else.
My first semester at the new school was hard—I wouldn’t recommend transferring half way through your first year. People had already settled into their groups of friends and the most difficult part was finding a way in. I missed my old friends. I missed our Thursday night “Grey’s Anatomy” tradition and the roommate who was my best friend. At Point Park, I didn’t watch “Grey’s,” and my new roommate went home most nights. Soon enough I found a best friend, though and I fell into another group of friends who spent their Thursday nights glued to a different set of TV shows.
I still miss my old school sometimes. It still feels like home to me when I visit or talk about it. I know, however, that I did the right thing in leaving. Even if Point Park doesn’t work out for some reason, I learned more about myself in those few months than I ever would have if I’d stayed. The experience alone is enough to make me say I’m glad I transferred.
There are many reasons why I decided to transfer, some more influential than others, but they were all important. I started my freshman year at Cedar Crest College, a small school in Allentown, PA. It was not my first-choice school, but a series of unfortunate events led me there. Think Murphy’s Law times 10. I ended up having only one choice left of the 5 schools where I was accepted, that I could actually still go to.
I tried to think positively about everything, knowing that God must have wanted me to be there for some reason, even if I didn’t know what that reason was.
It was an all women’s college, and I was skeptical about that right off the bat. I had always found it easier to be friends with guys than girls, but since I had no other choice, I decided to step up to the challenge. What I found was that it was really cool, almost like being at summer camp all year round. You didn’t always have to primp or worry about looking your best because it was just you and your girl friends going to class. There was a lot of female empowerment going on, and I really loved that feeling while I was there.
However, outside of campus, there wasn’t that much to do. I was fortunate enough to get involved with a group called SEVEN at Muhlenburg College down the road from my school, which was a Catholic young adult group that met each week. There wasn’t anything like that available on my own campus, and I would carpool with some classmates each week to Seven. It was also great way to meet other people (like guys, ones that you knew would be okay to take home to mom and dad since they were good Catholic kids). I didn’t want to lose track of my faith while I was at school, and it’s really easy to do. We supported each other in our faith and it made it easier to keep it up. It also gave me the opportunity to go to mass at 7pm on a Sunday night, so I didn’t have to wake up super early, which was nice.
I really enjoyed my time at Cedar Crest, but I knew there was something missing. I had wanted to do Navy ROTC and the opportunity for that just wasn’t available in Allentown. I also missed home, not necessarily my family, but my friends and just having something to do. Allentown is in the middle of nowhere, and I was bored. Then there was the boy factor. It wasn’t necessarily the lack of them at school, but there was one in particular that lived in Rochester and I wanted to be with him.
So I looked at my options and applied to schools in the area. I’ve always been a bio major, that didn’t change when I switched schools. I chose Rochester Institute of Technology because I liked the feel of the College of Science. And I loved it. RIT was the place I was meant to be, but I like to think that I was also meant to go to CCC for a year, and meet some really awesome people who I will now be friends with for the rest of my life.
Check out (and download) our 2009 Freshman Survival Guide here.
This article was originally published on August 21, 2008.