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First-year files: life at a small liberal arts college

February 21st, 2023

When making college decisions, there’s a lot to consider. If you’re looking for a smaller school with a more personal relationship with your professors that also offers a broad curriculum, a liberal arts college might be right for you. A liberal arts education puts emphasis on exploratory learning and education, which promotes many in-demand soft skills such as critical thinking, team work, oral and written communication, and problem solving.

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In this post a previous Shrop Ed advisee, Evan G., shares his experience as a first-year student at Bowdoin College in Maine. Evan not only compares his experience to that of his twin brother’s at Carleton College but also shares the ups and downs of moving far away from home. We appreciate Evan’s reflections, and I know this information will be especially helpful to current advisees as they build their own future plans.

Overall, so far I have loved my time at Bowdoin. One of my favorite parts about it is that I can’t point to only one thing and say “this is why I love this school;” there are multiple elements that have enhanced my experience. First of all, living in Maine has been amazing, as it is incredibly beautiful and could not be more different from Utah, in everything from its stunningly different natural beauty to its culture. I think this has been a very important change for me to experience, as it is shaping my desires for what my life after college might look like. And, I love being surrounded by greenery, and being a mere 20 minutes from the coast. Secondly, most of the people at Bowdoin are incredible; I have found the community to be extremely welcoming, and most, if not all, of the students share my desires to treat college as a space for learning and growth, not just as a place to party. Thirdly, the academics have been fantastic; it has been a huge relief to move from high school’s exhausting busywork to Bowdoin, where professors place an emphasis on teaching the content in engaging, interesting, and intellectually stimulating ways (although it is of course challenging as well).

I think it is also very interesting to compare my experience to what I have heard from Seth (twin brother). It seems that we both have come to the conclusion that we likely would have been happy at most liberal arts schools, given the similar ideals and values that they strive to represent; there are just a few key differences that make our respective schools more appealing to us, i.e. specific programs, location, etc. With that said, it seems that the main difference (no pun intended) between Bowdoin and Carleton has been living on the East coast versus in the Midwest. I have found people on the East coast to be less warm and less initially welcoming than what I am used to in Utah, and certainly less warm than Seth seems to have experienced at Carleton. However, I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing, as like I said earlier I have loved Bowdoin’s community, and it is simply different than what I am used to. 

I think one of the things that has gone well is adjusting to the academics; I feel that my experiences in the IB program and with AP classes helped to prepare me for college level writing, even if these high school classes were grueling at times. I also think that it has been exciting to find the people I feel comfortable with; Bowdoin creates an atmosphere in which I feel excited about trying new things, whether that is joining a new extracurricular or starting a pickup basketball game with strangers. That is not to say this is not nerve racking but doing these new things has pushed me to find communities that I enjoy spending time in, and has helped me learn more about myself. 

In terms of things that were difficult, I think that the initial adjustment period was the hardest part. I feel that I idealized college before I went, in the sense that I thought much more about the exciting opportunities than the difficulty of moving across the country, completely changing my lifestyle, and making new friends. While it is certainly true that college is a time of exciting opportunities and growth, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to be away from my family and alone in a new place without any initial support from my peers, since I wasn’t close friends with anyone yet. However, this has gotten much easier over time, and I imagine this would be true at any college, as there will always be an adjustment period. 

The most surprising part about Bowdoin so far has been the social scene. I was expecting a very relaxed party culture, but the partying has been more hardcore and common than I thought it would be. It still doesn’t compare at all to the partying scene at a big school, but the prevalence of the party culture was more than I was expecting for a small school in Maine. Luckily, however, there is no pressure to go to parties; it just seems as though most people do party on a fairly consistent basis (although only on the weekends). I was also slightly surprised at the relative lack of diversity compared to my high school; Bowdoin frequently highlights its attempts to create a diverse environment, but I still have made very few friends of color, and they certainly seem much more in the minority than Bowdoin’s demographic statistics might suggest. However, I could also chalk this up to not having met much of the first year class yet; these are just my initial thoughts about Bowdoin’s diversity. 

Finally, I think that younger students considering Bowdoin should understand it is not easy to get to; it is rather remote, and flights into Portland are expensive. However, once you are on campus, it does not feel remote; there are a variety of social and extracurricular opportunities, and Brunswick, its neighboring town, is much busier and more interesting than one might think. I don’t think I will get tired of being on campus over the next three and a half years, as the college does an excellent job of planning exciting events. So, essentially, concerns about the size of the college are so far a non-issue.

I hope this offers a comprehensive look into my experience thus far; overall, I am having a great time and am extremely happy with my decision, along with being incredibly grateful for your assistance in getting to this point.