Small-town campus vs the urban university – what’s right for you?
It isn’t only your choice of degree subject that will shape your student life – location can make all the difference.
The big-city student: ‘It felt a world away from London’
My rude awakening began at the bus stop. “Mum, guess what? The buses here come every 10 minutes!” an excited fellow student was saying on the phone. Being from London, buses don’t normally warrant a call home. If anything, there would be riots if three didn’t arrive within a quarter of an hour – let alone one. But then revelations like this were just the tip of the iceberg during my first two years at university.
I admit I hadn’t really done my research when I applied. My choice to study in Cheltenham was based largely on my unconditional offer – how could I say no? It led me to a town that was completely alien: where London is polyglot and polychrome, my new home was vanilla.
I started fresher’s week with high hopes. I’d already been out in other cities – Coventry, Southampton, Portsmouth – so I had high expectations for my first night out. I hadn’t realised there were only two student clubs, after the town’s third had recently closed down. Disappointing would be an understatement.
Undeterred, I stepped on to the dance floor, drink in hand. Here I noticed something was missing: the music. The clubs’ Spotify playlist was monotonous and not open for negotiation. Requests were “against policy”. My other option was the fresher’s ball – where the student union had booked, um, Blazin’ Squad.
At my small-town university, there were a lot of students from small towns. While this isn’t a bad thing in itself, it does make it hard to relate to those who’ve seldom ventured from their roots (on the bus or otherwise). The town, with its population of 110,000, could often feel insular and even claustrophobic.
That said, it’s not just the place that makes your student experience but the people. My best friend was a girl who came from a village without a single non-white resident. The girls that I worked with during my first year also introduced me to the most eclectic crowds and venues.
Smaller universities have their advantages, too. While my Oxbridge and Russell Group friends lament their lack of contact time and impersonal lecturers, mine really took an interest and helped me find job opportunities.
The small-town student: ‘Blending in did not go to plan’
We all want to run away at some point as teenagers. But no one feels this more deeply than the country kid.
Raised in rural England, university would be the antidote to my sheltered upbringing. At least, that’s what I hoped. My yearning for the city life came from a specific desire to blend into the crowd. In my home town, being black meant that I was part of a tiny, almost non-existent club known as the ethnic minority. It felt important that I should break out of white-dominated suburbia and mix with people who looked more like me.
I set my sights on Manchester. The city was over 200 miles away from my beige southern town and the four-hour drive meant that mum couldn’t just pop in anytime she fancied. The perfect escape.
However, I soon found that change can be tough to handle. The best things I had imagined about city life – the fast pace, the 24-hour amusements, the bustling crowds – quickly became the worst.
Blending in did not go to plan. My southern RP accent clashed with the northern voices around me. I was branded as the posh girl, despite my upbringing in a low-income, single-parent family. And the new ethnically diverse friends I had hoped to make rejected me because I “spoke white”.
The environmental differences between my small town and the city also began to grate. I didn’t like looking up and seeing the artificial glow of streetlights instead of stars. It took a while to get used to all the noisy people in my halls and on the streets.
Like so many other new students, I struggled in my first few weeks. I felt bombarded with different experiences. But what I failed to realise was that everyone around me, no matter where they were from, was experiencing something similar. Getting lost and feeling scared weren’t exclusive to me. Once this sunk in, I began to enjoy the freedom that city life provided and reconnected with the reasons I chose to be here in the first place.
To others moving from a small place to a big city, I’d say this: don’t set your expectations too high and take time to explore – the further you venture, the less foreign everything becomes.