Ever felt like your college experience just wasn’t quite matching up with everyone else’s?

Ever asked yourself if you were at the wrong school?

Ever thought about transferring?

Read on.

My First Year Of College Described Through Some Common Questions You Will Hear In Your First Year At The University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign

Who Do You Know Here?

My name is Nolan Woods. I know Catherine from high school, where I like to think my insightful peer reviews of her English papers contributed heavily to her development into the promising young blog writer you have before you today.

I’m writing this particular article because I’ve had a first year of college experience that is unfortunately not uncommon, but is also completely opposite of Catherine’s. Catherine goes to a small and incredibly prestigious and selective private school on the west coast, and in her first year she has had wonderful fun and had an enriching and fulfilling education alongside similarly minded and spectacular peers. She has had the best possible outcome in regards to her college application process and first year university attendance.

I on the other hand made a variety of decisions– good and bad– as a senior in high school that led me to attend my last-choice university among the prime selection of institutions to which I applied. An enormous public school in the flat agricultural heart of the Midwest, the university hosts a mighty student population of 43,603 including over 9000 international students. With multiple engineering programs of prestige exceeding that of Ivy League schools or the West Coast elites, the university ranks very highly in national collegiate standings and produces some incredibly bright and powerful scholars.

As a Big 10 school with eleven bars on the immediate campus, all of which require only 19 years of age to enter, the school also produces a truly astonishing amount of vomit.

What House Are You In?

I spent my first semester in Scott Hall, a coed dormitory located within the university housing region affectionately nick-named the Six Pack on account of the six identical dorms in the near vicinity. I was lucky enough to have several other friends from back home living in the same dorm, which meant I instantly had a group to go out with the first night that included friendly faces I could count on and several new faces that could eventually become great friends.

We spent our first two weeks hopping from frat party to frat party, imbibing irresponsible amounts of illicit substances (allegedly) and getting the feel for the party scene. Greek life at the school is enormous; people will argue that you don’t need to go Greek to have fun at this particular university, but their follow-up will be: but why wouldn’t you? There’s a house for everybody, and everyone parties (at least until they all head to the bar). There are competitions abound through philanthropic endeavors and intramural athletics, and everybody wears their letters to class.

Do You Think This Test Is Curved?

As I mentioned earlier, the university has some tough programs, and the administration likes to weed out the unqualified students who are taking up valuable exclusive slots.

The college of engineering demands almost the full 18 credit hours per semester, every semester, of hard sciences and advanced mathematics just for a student to graduate in the expected four years. The business school is so competitive that prospective business students need not apply if they have less than a 3.9 or higher GPA.

You’ll run into some very intelligent people at this school, and a bewildering number of them will be sitting in Calc2 on a Wednesday with a splitting hangover courtesy of Wine Night at Cly’s.

So What Have You Been Up To?

I just unenrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Yup. After just one year, I have determined that me at UIUC is like a triangle peg into a square hole; at first it looks like if you maneuver it just so, it may fit with a tilt and a twist, but the reality is that peg isn’t going to fit and you’re just going to chip the edges trying to force it.

Everything I’ve said is true; and here are some additional truths. The engineering and business programs are excellent; because those programs are where the administration sends all of its money and attention. If you’re like me (a liberal-arts student) you could very well end up with a par-for-the-course or even sub-standard set of classes and programs.

My best anecdotal evidence is from the start of second semester when I signed up for PS222, a political science course on ethics in public policy making. On syllabus day, the professor announced that he didn’t actually care very much about political science and was pursuing his master’s degree in graphic arts, and therefore we would be getting a stripped-down version of the course with less material. I dropped the course that same day.

On the social side of things, I have to say: I have nothing against Greek life in general and I even think I would enjoy it, but I have some issues with UIUC Greek life and I could not get into it.  At UIUC people will tell you that there’s a house for everyone and that tiers are all nonsense and everyone just has a good time and doesn’t worry about status, but that’s just completely untrue.

Greek life is competitive and houses have reputations good and bad, and like all generalizations about people, they exist because they are generally true. For example, there are three “Royal” sororities, the Queen Houses, and every year they have a Royal Barcrawl. Sounds completely equal and non-monarchial and status-related, right?

Anyway, I made a bunch of friends first semester who all went Greek, but I held out to see what school would be like without going Greek; I ended up having no friends anymore as they all got too busy with their Greek stuff. So after doing the whole partying thing for the first time in my life and having a blast with it that first month or two, I wasn’t able to go out again except on very rare occasions where I could beg someone I knew in a house to let me into one of their bigger parties.

Second semester I rushed again, and I didn’t find a house I liked or fit in at, and I spent another semester alone, despite also joining a variety of clubs where it felt like I was already outside of the freshman clique. Coupling the two semesters of isolation and disappointment with the naturally hard transition away from home, I started to lose my mind a bit.

I had to make a change, and it turned out I needed to be at a different university. 

How Bad Could It Be, Really?

While devising the idea for this article, Catherine asked me to make sure I wasn’t too negative about the school, so as not to offend anybody or deter anybody from attending; and that’s something I’ll touch on now.

My experience at the school was an overall negative one, but that’s a result of who I am, and what I value, and what decisions I made. Earlier I made an analogy that me at UIUC is like a triangle peg into a square hole; the truth is, UIUC has both a triangle hole and a square hole, and a circle hole to boot.

If you’re maybe a little introverted and driven and want to get a prime degree and spend a lot of time in a library and maybe make a few good friends through your living arrangements and professional clubs and the like, you can do that. If you’re extroverted to the maximum degree and want to always have something going on and to go out every night, you can do that. If you’re a bit of a mix, you can swing it, but it may be tough.

The real problem is I’m not going to fit in the square hole, or the triangle hole, or even the circle hole; I’m like an amorphous blob of shape material that’s still looking for a place I’ll fit in. So if it sounds like I’ve been negative towards the school, it’s because that’s my true perspective; but that’s the idea, isn’t it? We all have a different perspective. Just like in one of those commercials with a non-FDA approved drug that you have to ask your doctor about, your experience may vary.

I’m like an amorphous blob of shape material that’s still looking for a place I’ll fit in.

You may go to UIUC and have a first year like Catherine’s, where you become friends with some incredible people and have an enriching and fulfilling experience, or you could go to UIUC and have a year like mine that makes you question if you even want to stay in college.

Well You Can Always Retake The Class Next Semester, Right?

This final question is commonly heard when you’re telling a friend about how hard that weed-out class was and how you got stuck with a D+ after the final exam that you failed. But in the context of this larger article, it’s about giving it another go at the school that didn’t quite click; and the answer is sure, you could try, but no, you probably shouldn’t.

You only have a few undergraduate years, and those years are too short and too expensive to squander on re-doing one. If the school doesn’t feel right, it’s because it isn’t right for you. It can take more than the first month or two to realize it, as transitioning is very difficult, but if you’ve finished a semester and something still seems off, it’s very probable that you need to make a change.

I felt relieved rather than stressed as I filled out transfer applications, because I knew that any change out of the place that had me feeling so awful was going to be a change for the better. And I’m anxious now about doing another year in another new place, but I’m also excited, and that’s how I know it’s not too late to have that ideal college experience.

Anyways, I hope this little journey through my thoughts and musings has imparted some wisdom; I need to get back to work now so I can afford to keep getting educated.

UPDATE: On Thursday, May 18, Nolan accepted an offer of admission from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He will be enrolling as a sophomore there in the fall of 2015. Congratulations, Nolan! 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 7.32.38 PMNolan Woods and I sat one seat away from each other in AP Rhetorical Analysis with Alan Sanders our Junior year of high school. I always looked forward to class with him since he always had something insightful to say during discussions and a smile to share in between.

Nolan graduated from Barrington High School with me in 2014, and is now a college student, groundskeeper and laborer who can’t decide between being a comedian, Peace Corp volunteer, professor, president, or supreme court justice. Oh, and he likes playing games of the video and tabletop variety, and driving or riding anything with an engine.

When Nolan proposed he write this article for CiC, I immediately agreed. While the one of the main purposes of this blog is to share my point of view, I acknowledge that as there are billions of people on the planet, there are billions of different human experiences. I believe it’s critical to bring those different perspectives to light, because a balance of perspective brings understanding, and understanding brings tolerance, respect, and peace. Sometimes it’s hard to know when you’re only seeing one side of the story. I’m all about letting you know by showing you the other sides. 

One comment

  1. This is spot on for how I felt about my Freshman year at Colorado State. Everyone seemed to be partying or going greek. I thought I really liked the school and valued being close to home, but surprisingly, I don’t think this was the freshman experience I was hoping for. I plan to go back for another year to give it another try.


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