Making The Transition From A Big City To A Small Town For College

“Oh my God, say coffee!”

This was one of my first interactions in college. It was a pre-orientation canoe trip on the Delaware River leading into my first semester at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and my fellow students were intrigued by my “New York” accent. I introduced myself as “Sam from Brooklyn,” and the stereotyping began. I did not know about small-private-college-NJ/PA culture at the time, but I was about to learn what it was all about: white baseball hats with funny acronyms; The Dave Matthews Band revered like it was the Jimi Hendrix Experience; and Lacrosse.

Having spent the majority of the first 18 years of my life in Brooklyn, I knew nothing about these things. While I adapted in time, the initial culture shock caught me by surprise. If, like me, you are starting college in a small town after attending high school in a big city, here are some things you should know.

Differences and Challenges

Limited Options

If you were raised in a major city, you probably grew up walking around your neighborhood, people watching, and learning about different cultures within your melting pot. Aimless walks with your friends were their own education.

In a small town, you will see a lot of the same people over and over. You may find yourself craving the anonymity that being surrounded by strangers in a city can provide.

“Going In”

If you were raised in a big city, you might consider “going out” to be watching live music at a major concert venue, selecting from a wide variety of dance clubs and bars, or even walking around with friends to soak up your city’s nightlife culture.

In a small town, there’s the one fancy place, and the one more laid back place, and that’s it. If your school has a strong Greek presence (meaning fraternities and sororities), you will become familiar with the interior of their houses. If you don’t go Greek, or Greek life isn’t big at your school, then your dorm or off-campus house will turn you into a homebody. Expect occasional bouts of stir-craziness.

Breaking the chains

When I was in college, The Olive Garden was the place to be. I’d go there with my parents when they visited, and we’d see everyone else there with their parents. Other options included Arby’s or Perkins (the Denny’s of Pennsylvania).

Coming from a city where I had an eclectic variety of foods to choose from, I soon found myself frequenting fast food establishments to get a break from the college cafeteria.  As a fellow city person, you’ve probably spent much of your life mocking tourists for coming to your special place and then eating McDonald’s. You will do the same, and it might require a drive.


The school store becomes your one stop shop, like an educational Costco. You will not only buy your books, you’ll buy clothing, food, and pretty much everything else that you need. Imagine if Staples expanded to sell all things, and it was the only place you could go.

In a city, you can walk or take public transportation to do your shopping. If you have a car with you at school — which in itself is a major life adjustment — then your major shopping trips will involve going to the mall with friends.

Tips to Facilitate the Transition

While you may find yourself yearning for highways and skyscrapers, there are some wonderful benefits to living in a small town. Try these tips to help you adapt to your new location:

Just because you’re from the big city doesn’t mean you’re better than other people.

You may think that you have been exposed to more of what’s considered to be sophistication and culture, but keep in mind that cities do not make up the majority of America; they just receive the most attention.

Be open minded about the small town where your college is located. If you take being exposed to a new culture as a learning opportunity, then you are bound to absorb important lessons from the people that you’ll meet.

Appreciate your close friends.

People who grow up in big cities tend to know a greater number of people due to the population density. A lot of those people are merely acquaintances. Take this college opportunity to make close friends. These are the friendships that will last a lifetime, when the acquaintances have long since faded away.

Build a community.

While being in a small town means seeing a lot of the same people wherever you go, this is a great chance to build a community. There is something to be said for being surrounded by friendly faces when you go to the grocery store or for a walk in the park. Be courteous to your new neighbors, ask them about their lives. Making the effort to turn your town into your community will help you feel at home in a way that seems impossible in a city.

Try new things.

Being in a new location means new attractions. If your town has an orchard nearby, picking apples with friends can be a great activity in the fall. Maybe there are hiking trails in the area, or a trivia night at the town’s bar. Whatever your town is known for, go out of you way to try it at least once. Who knows, it may even surpass some of your city experiences.

Take road trips.

Go home when you can. If you’re able to, you should return to the city a few times each term. You will appreciate home even more, and it can help you find peace when you return to your small town setting.

You can also take road trips to neighboring towns and states. This is a great way to get to bond with friends, and to explore new parts of the country.

Don’t play a role.

Many of your classmates may be planning to move from the little town where they were raised to the big city. They might see you as the representation of what city life is like, but you do not have to be that. Just be yourself, as share as much about city life as makes you comfortable. You don’t have to constantly remind people of where you are from.

Remember, you chose to go away to college for a reason. This is a defining moment in your life. One day, you’ll look back from wherever you’ve ended up, and you’ll appreciate the ways in which your small town college experienced shaped you into who you are.