• Michael Whaby

The “Little” Guys: Making the most of smaller universities

By Michael Whaby

Freshman move-in day for me was in August 2013, at West Liberty University (WLU), a small public university near Wheeling, West Virginia—and a rather pleasant 1 ½ hour drive from my hometown in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. WLU, which is home to around 2225 students, is situated on a rather secluded, mountainous hilltop and was often considered as “the high school on the hill” because many students that graduated high school from the Wheeling area went there for college.

As with many other smaller universities (we’ll consider that as less than 5000 students) WLU had a focus on undergraduate education. And if you’re anything like me, you were quite possibly a little late to the game regarding making the most of that focus. It was really hard for me to realize that professors, most of them, actually care about the education and development of their students. When you start putting things into that perspective, and you consider what it like might be like at larger universities, you can really leverage the benefits that small universities offer—both during and beyond your education there.

Below, I’ll talk about some of the things that struck me as outstanding benefits from my experience at a smaller university. And, as I often remind readers, these are things that just might be relatable to you. Others more equipped to be self-propelled may have thrived better at a larger university; however, I do consider my past self myself as being included in that crowd—at least not until I gained the necessary tools to be a bit more independent.

Here we go.

1. The numbers game

Stating the obvious right off the bat: you are not just a number. For instance, I was never in a class with more than 50 students. In larger universities, you might find yourself in an auditorium of 200 students in a single class. Here are a few reasons that numbers create benefit for the “Little” guys:

  • More accountability is held over each individual student in a smaller class—it’s easier to notice a missing face in a class of 50 or less than in a crowd of 200.

  • I’d actually argue that there is more cooperative, constructive collaboration in a smaller class. People might feel more comfortable being interactive in a smaller class being around familiar faces. Social pressure could cause hinder questions or ideas in a larger crowd.

  • A sense of belongingness in a smaller class can actually help build relationships and reduce the imposter syndrome.

  • When it comes time for letters of recommendation, having professors that actually know you as a student and a person will make a huge difference.

  • Smaller class sizes offer the advantage of the professors having a better gauge on what information is and isn’t getting across to the students.

I’m going to stop there. I was going to talk about Dunbar’s number—or the Law of 150—but I digress. (If you’re curious about that phenomenon, you can read more here.) If you can think of any other benefits or cons, feel free to leave thoughts in the comments below.

2. Nurturing

Somewhat building from that last bullet point above, as professors at smaller universities tend to focus more on education than research, they really do have a good gauge of where each student stands in the class. This allows a tailored sort of education; it allows more nurturing of each student’s needs. And, nudging back to the numbers game again, the students may have more one-on-one time with the professors, if needed.

In undergrad, I needed this nurturement, and it was unlikely that I could have been pampered like this at a larger university. Knowing that I could email a professor whenever and actually get a response, or even just swing by one of their offices to ask a question, eased my mind and anxiety and ultimately allowed me to excel.

3. Sleep and time

I lived on campus, so this might only apply to those that do as well. But I could wake up 10 minutes before class and make it to any class on time. I mean, I didn’t practice this—I actually woke up and got breakfast at the café—but so much time is spared when you attend a university with a smaller campus.

When I left WLU and went to the University of Pittsburgh for my Master’s degree, I commuted and thus had to wake up so much earlier. I missed the luxuries of everything being right there within walking distance—classes, the café, the gym, my friends, etc. Being at a smaller university gave me extra snoozy time and just more time overall that might have otherwise been devoted to commute.

4. Community

And last but not least, when you attend a smaller university, it’s very likely that you’ll experience a sense of community. I really felt that I became part of the community not only at WLU, but also in the surrounding community of the Wheeling area. By making friends and meeting people outside of WLU working off campus, I really began to feel that sense of belongingness.

This actually had some spin-off benefits as well. During undergrad, I was planning to go to dental school (even though I am now a PhD student) and it became very easy to find dentists to shadow and even build relationships with. In these smaller communities, you can always find connections. And many times, those connections may even start with a professor connecting you with someone from outside of the university—that’s how it worked for me.

You might see yourself at a disadvantage, for instance, if applying to medical school from a smaller university. You are usually applying from the outside and likely had less access to larger university hospitals and less opportunity for interaction with medical students—those insights really help. (Kelsey Robertson, now a 4th year medical student who actually went to WLU, talks about some of these points in one of our previous posts.) But keep in mind what you do have: a good support system with professors who actually know you, and a nurtured education that should really flourish whenever you move on to the next step. Use these things to your advantage.

I want to add that while comfort will likely be established at smaller universities, keep in mind that you will, sooner or later, leave this comfort zone and branch out. So, I would really recommend keeping and establishing ties that extend outside of the university and community grounds. Leaving WLU was much like leaving home, but it was absolutely an essential step in my educational and personal development.

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