Make it Small

It is that time of year again when high school and community college students are taking hard looks at universities and determining where to apply, possibly rushing to meet early-action deadlines.  We have already hosted one Open House on campus, with our largest attendance ever, and will host another group of visitors this coming Sunday, October 28.

One question that I am routinely asked is: “Is it better to go to a small or large school?”  It is clear that there is a tradeoff – bigger can be better, because the implication is that there are more opportunities for students.  This means more majors and minors to select, more clubs to join, and more activities in which to participate.  But one can also make a case for small – not feeling like a number and the potential to have closer relationships with staff and faculty are positives.

But what if you want the best of both worlds?  Then you need to go to a “bigger” school and, as I advise my students, make it small.

Make it small?  That means finding ways to be a part of smaller, more intimate groups on campus.  When I pursued my undergraduate degree, each day was marked by a sea of humanity wandering across a sprawling campus.  It would have been easy to feel like a number.  But I joined a number of groups and participated in a number of activities to “make it small.”  I joined the marching band (yes, I was a band geek playing trumpet) which brought my world down from thousands of students to just a few hundred musicians during rehearsals.  (It was even smaller if you just considered the trumpets!)   I also joined an engineering society; a social fraternity; an honors society; intramural teams; and worked part-time in a research group for a professor.  Each of these interactions made school seem small, and those experiences made my undergraduate experience memorable.

For students still looking to choose a college, I suggest you attend a school with a myriad of degree options that are of interest to you – because statistics show you will likely change your major.  Even if you know your major with certainty, you might want to add other credentials – from minors to study abroad.  A bigger school will provide more of these options.

In addition to the educational offerings, make sure that the school has a number of activities that interest, or might interest, you.  I quickly browsed our offerings at UMass Lowell to discover over 250 student clubs and organizations! The options covered every walk of life,  categorized according to: Academic/Professional (such as those affiliated with a major – like an engineering society – or career); Club Sports; Culturally Oriented; Graduate Student Organizations; Greek Life; Honors Societies; Media; Performing Arts; Service Oriented; Special Interests; and Spiritual.  (See for a list of options with descriptions.)

Another way to make the experience small is to engage in a Living-Learning Community (at least that is what we call them at UMass Lowell –  Here, students with similar interests are housed together, with weekly programming centered around the theme of interest.  At UMass Lowell, we have 23 LLCs!  The College of Engineering supports three, including “Women in Science and Engineering,” “Developing Leaders in Engineering,” and “LEAF: Leaders in Environmental Advocacy of the Future,” and our students participate in numerous more.  In my interactions with students living in LLCs, they truly enjoy the programming as well as the constant contact with potential study buddies.

In addition to clubs, societies and communities, your university of choice (and perhaps the immediate area) should have a number of opportunities for you to have intimate experiences, such as lectures, debates, shows, and workshops.  Attending these with friends and colleagues, or making new friends and colleagues at these events, can also help make your college experience “small.”

For those already in college, get involved!  Our data shows that students who are engaged in activities with a cohort of students – such as a club, society or living-learning community – are retained at a significantly higher rate than those that are not engaged.  I guarantee that these experiences will also enrich your college experience.

So, yes, I am biased – I prefer a big school because I want every possible experience at my fingertips.  I want the opportunity to try new things and meet new people, as well as continue to participate in activities that I already enjoy.  These experiences and opportunities made my big school experience, small.  UMass Lowell is not huge, but it is big.  For our students, it means we have a comprehensive list of offerings to get involved.  I encourage you to look at our offerings, and see how you can “make it small.”