Tuesday, March 24, 2009

College Program: What is it like to attend a large, public university?

The first post in my series on student experiences at different types of institutions of higher education describes the experiences of one college graduate at a large, public university.

Since graduation, this graduate featured has worked in a variety of different occupations and organizations. He currently works as a professional journalist and in non-profit communications management. This graduate experienced family challenges during his undergraduate experience, but overcame them to attain his degree in English and later, a graduate degree in journalism. I admire this graduate's ability to overcome personal challenges and I attribute it to his positive attitude and dedication to what truly matters to him. The interview follows.

What opportunities did you find at your type institution of higher learning?

The greatest opportunity, in my opinion, is the large breadth of programs available and the investment within those programs. During my tenure at my school, it embarked upon a large construction campaign that not only provided new buildings for most of the various colleges, but for some of those colleges, additional teachers and educational resources were hired or acquired to increase the value of the overall education to the student.

Within my area of study, I was able to take time to explore other programs to satisfy my own curiosity and to enrich my overall education. Certain programs received larger support, namely the business, engineering, law and medicine colleges that my school was especially renowned for, and especially proud of. The liberal arts programs did receive a far amount of attention, but being that all a philosophy or English program mostly needs is good teachers and a draft-free room, the requirements there were smaller and mostly addressed.

What challenges did you find at your type university?

Because the university was in a constant state of flux due to a several-billion dollar construction campaign, I remember feeling ungrounded to the school. Classes would move from one building to another mid-term because of the construction. Several times, a class would congregate on the first day of term only to find that we were in the wrong building -- effective administration-student communication was not a strong suit of the school at that time. Because the university was primarily a commuter school, the campus was less a center of student life outside of class than some other schools. In my last year or two of school, this was rectified to a certain extent by a greater depth of campus outreach and programming, but for my first couple of years, I remember feeling as if school was just a place that I went to a couple of hours a day -- my real life existed elsewhere.

Because of the formidable size of my school, I was one of many. Many of my intro-level classes were in gargantuan lecture halls. However, many of these classes held "lab" sessions weekly in which graduate teaching assistants would engage with us one-on-one, or at least in small groups. Some of my favorite classes ever were in these formats.

I also experienced a fair number of challenges as a student. Because of events within my life (my parents announced their intent to divorce on my first day of college), I started losing touch with my studies during my freshman and sophomore year. My attendance dropped, my grades suffered, and a few black marks made their way onto my transcript. Some other schools would have administration check-in on a student like me who would be classified as a problem, or at-risk, but I received nothing. Certainly, I never actively pursued such help, but one of the reasons why students run into problems is that they often lack an awareness of their at-risk academic behavior until it's too late. Luckily, I came around and eventually became a Dean's List student, but for a short, bleak period, I was a hair's width away from dropping out, at least temporarily.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in attending this type of institution? What kinds of students would fit in the best in that type of environment?

Pay attention, and expect few safety nets if your academic progress ever falters. There's room in a school this size for a student who relishes big classes, or small, intimate learning. Some effort on the part of the student to engage with the school beyond the purely academic aspect is required, but if taken, is rewarding. Perhaps the most helpful tip is to find your niche. Clubs, intramural teams, societies all exist for all manner of interest and by taking an active part in one of these groups, your school social network extends beyond that of the computer. Becoming friends within the people of your particular academic program is important, but so is interacting with people throughout the entire school itself.

If quiet, assert yourself and explore your interests. In schools as large as the one I went to, opportunities abound to enrich your own academic interests in addition to your personal interests.

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