When a Small School Feels Smaller (and smaller, and smaller…)

Last year I wrote about how much I loved going to a small (~2000 student) college. And while I still love the intimate environment that is the Small Liberal Arts College Experience, like with any mature relationship, my love has grown more nuanced over time. Like the way a person starts to notice her partner’s particular manner of chewing their food or the way they leave their toothbrush out on the sink (and–hopefully–loves them anyway), I’ve picked up on the flaws of attending a school with a population skewed more towards deer than students. And before this is interpreted as a merciless tirade, spoiler alert: I love this college anyway.

Alright, back to criticism. At the beginning of sophomore year, I was excited to have a clearer sense of self and of my place in the Hamilton community–I was an editor for the satire paper and lit mag, a soon-to-be Creative Writing and Hispanic Studies double major, a proud Darksider (to the uninitiated, that’s someone who is likely working on a chapbook and would have no idea what to do if a football was lobbed in their general direction–and I say that with the utmost affection). I rode on a wave of innocent bliss, telling myself I’d found “my people.”

But as the year went on and I grew used to the rotation of familiar faces in my habitual study spots, the downside to my relatively intimate clique of friends and acquaintances who shared my interests, aesthetic, and dreams started to cross my radar. You see, the thing is that when you find a group of people that you like, everyone else becomes an other, and at a small school, all those others get slapped with a label and quickly dismissed. You get convinced you know someone’s deal even when you’ve never met. When you ask your friend about someone you just met or an unfamiliar name in your class roster, they’re diminished to a single sentence summary: “oh, she’s cool,” (or, more likely) “she’s a social climber,” “he’s in that frat that broke all those windows at a party last year.” You start reading little things as concrete indications of personality: salmon shorts, dark lipstick, a lacrosse bag, a copy of Infinite Jest. Depending on how you’ve defined yourself, any item could be a sign of instant friendship or instant disgust.

For a while, this kind of diminishing and dismissing of other people was okay with me. Small school or not, nobody has a ton of time to devote to vetting each new person they meet to determine whether they’ll like them or not. Categories and hot takes on other people make it easier to navigate social situations. But at a small school (and likely any school), there comes a breaking point in judging people. Eventually, my small clique of friends started to seem small in a claustrophobic rather than intimate way.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved (and still love!) my friends. But as I approached the end of my second year surrounded by more or less the same people, I wondered, is this it? Is this everyone I’m going to meet here? with not a little trepidation. What if something happened, and some sort of drama broke this group apart? What would happen to us after college? If so many people here were not worth getting to know, that didn’t bode well for the outside world.

Luckily, I said my love for a small school environment is now nuanced, not totally destroyed. This summer, as part of my research and training for my on-campus jobs, I spent a few weeks with people I’d never really spent time with before. And despite my anxiety and conviction that anyone who wasn’t already my friend must not be my friend for some troubling and unshakable reason, I actually enjoyed the company of those relative strangers. And as classes start, I have a feeling I might like some of the classmates I’ve been tempted to dismiss out of hand after nothing more than a quick scan of their Facebook pages.

Yes, sometimes people will be as terrible as I expect. And yes, it’s possible I’ve already met and befriended the majority of people I’ll be closest to in the rest of my time here. But as small as this school is, there are always more people to meet–and it might not be so awful to meet them.

(Original post)


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