Mehr Gupta, Juliet Pohly, and Jackie Wirt from the class of 2016 are all best friends who coincidentally attend college in California. For seniors looking at universities on the west coast, it is important to consider the diversity of colleges that California offers, different in terms of size, student populations, and location. Three SAS alum answer questions pertaining to their experiences as a first year student at their college.
What college do you go to and why did you choose it?
Mehr: I currently attend Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. I mainly chose Oxy because it offers a well-rounded liberal arts education and a strong Psychology program. Los Angeles is also a great place to be with a lot of opportunities, entertainment, and great weather.
Juliet: I go to California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly SLO). I chose this school because the academic programs are structured with a “Learn by Doing” philosophy. It is a very career and hands-on experience oriented school. California is nice and is also relatively closer to Singapore compared to other states in the U.S.
Jackie: I attend University of San Francisco. I chose USF because I knew that it would be extremely diverse and liberal. Personally, I wasn’t looking for “the typical college experience,” if you will.
What are you studying currently?
Mehr: I plan to declare my major in Psychology, but currently am not studying the subject. This semester, I am taking the following courses to satisfy certain core requirements: Hollywood Representations of Race & Ethnicity, Introduction to Sociology, Math as a Liberal Art, and Spanish 102.
Juliet: I had to declare a major when I applied because you take major specific courses as soon as you start school. I am currently studying Agricultural Business which is like business, but with a concentration in food and agriculture.
Jackie: I’m majoring in communications just because it’s extremely broad and I didn’t want to go in undecided (not that there is a problem with that). The courses I’ve taken this semester are Intro to Buddhism, Business Statistics, Rhetoric 130, and Dance Appreciation.
How hard or easy was it to adjust?
Mehr: I personally found it very difficult to settle into college and still don’t think I’m completely adjusted. I figured out how to do my laundry, clean up after myself, and things along that realm pretty easily. I think I’m a responsible person and can manage college expectations, but I still struggle being so far away from home and my family. Leaving Singapore’s diverse and multicultural environment can make you feel like an outsider and make it harder to find people you connect with.
Juliet: It was not hard for me to adjust to living on my own, but I didn’t expect how hard it would be to be away from my family. I also go to school in a relatively rural area with poor public transportation so it has been really hard to adjust to not being able to get around easily like in Singapore. I feel really trapped without a car. There is so much more happening in Singapore and SLO is kind of dead.
Jackie: For the first week it was definitely difficult. I’m currently living in a really small residence hall with a total of 13 people on my floor and my roommate and I are the only two freshman in this hall. It was really tough to branch out and socialize because most people were meeting people and making friends with the people on their floor. I think that there was also somewhat of a culture shock; even though we went to an American school, it’s totally different to the way these kids grew up and so at times it’s somewhat hard to relate and that can make it hard to adjust. But because I literally live in the middle of the city and there’s so much going on around me all the time, there’s never a dull moment and there’s always something to do.
Is college what you expected it to be?
Mehr: Yes and no. I knew I wouldn’t get the traditional “college experience” filled with football games and big parties when I picked a small liberal arts school, and I don’t regret that. Although Oxy is racially diverse, I didn’t realize the international student community would be so small. As I’ve grown in these past few months, I’ve realized that a lot of things I looked for in college in high school are not necessarily what I want now.
Juliet: I guess I kind of knew what college was going to be like but for the most part it is not what I expected at all.
Jackie: It’s definitely not what I expected but I’m honestly really glad that this is what it ended up being. I think I’m much happier now compared to both high school and if it were to have been what I expected it to be.
Do you still talk to your friends from high school?
Mehr: Yes! I snap, text, and Skype my friends all the time and their “finstas” also give me the latest scoop. It’s really nice that some of my closest friends live in California because I can see them.
Juliet: Yes I still keep in touch with a lot of people through the Internet and social media. I live 3 hours from LA and SF so it’s pretty easy to go and visit my friends whenever I want.
Jackie: I try to, but anyone who knows me knows that I am the world’s worst texter so it’ll sometimes take me days to get back to them. It’s not because I don’t want to text them but a lot of times it’s because I’m crazy busy and trying to get involved. It’s kind of hard to balance friends here with friends from home (especially the ones that live in Singapore because of the time difference).
What is your favorite thing about your college?
Mehr: The attention and assistance offered. In a small school, I am not a number. I have personal relationships with my professors, who are easily accessible and want to help me succeed. Other departments, such as counseling and the residential office, also help make college a better environment for students in any way that they can.
Juliet: My favorite thing about Cal Poly is the academics. The “Learn by Doing” is not just a slogan but is so real; I have done so many real life assignments and learned so much cool new stuff. For people who are engineers, they have to do things like pull apart and put back together machines or learn how to weld things. The focus on getting a job right out of college is also really big and they want you to be prepared to work in the field you are studying. I also really like that it is an academically focused school; people have to be smart to get in and almost everyone here is really motivated to learn and do well in school. I like how everyone cares about their grades and school is their #1 priority.
Jackie: I love how USF is so accepting, liberal, and diverse. There’s people of all different genders, ethnicities, religions, etc. and everyone here is so free of judgement which is such a huge change coming from SAS. I feel like I can do everything that I did back at home except now with a ton of people who don’t judge me at all. I can dress the way I want, act the way I want, and do the things I want to do without people thinking it’s their business to comment. I really like how it’s not your typical college experience and also how Greek life here is so accepting. It’s not your classic “blonde hair, blue eyed-only” mentality; we have 2 trans girls in sororities here.
What do you dislike about your college?
Mehr: Transitioning into a school with a very small international community is difficult coming from Singapore. Unlike SAS, there isn’t a community of TCKs who respect and relate to my life experiences. The routine of a small school can also get very boring; I have to leave campus and explore LA on weekends, or I feel trapped in a bubble.
Juliet: I dislike the location of my school. Although it’s convenient to be right in between the two major California cities, I still would rather be living in one of them. There are more opportunities in a city and just more going on in general. Another thing I dislike is the lack of diversity; California is a diverse state but my school is about 80% white and there are relatively few international students.
Jackie: Honestly there’s literally nothing that I can complain about. At times I feel like it’s kind of small and there’s not really a community, but it’s never actually been a huge issue.
How well did SAS prepare you in terms of classwork and counselors?
Mehr: I think SAS prepared me really well for college. The courses I took there really taught me how to write strong, solid essays and think critically. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but right now I honestly find my college workload less stressful than my high school workload. I am taking fewer classes and have a lot more free time than I did at SAS. I even get more sleep!
Juliet: I feel that it did help me with my writing but I was never stressed about schoolwork until I got to college. My college work is challenging because I’m doing my work on subjects that I never even thought about before, like agriculture. There is no way that SAS could’ve prepared me for that. I wish that my counselor had challenged my ideas more because I went into our meetings “knowing” what I wanted but I realized after going to college that I was so wrong about what I wanted senior year.
Jackie: In some courses really well, but in others not well at all. I think even though I go to a smaller school with only 15,000 kids and my class sizes are around 30, it’s still a lot more self-motivation and you really have to learn to manage your time properly. At SAS, teachers would always be telling you to get your work done but here it’s really all on you. Even though I’m only taking 4 classes here (7 at SAS) the courses are a lot more demanding and they expect a lot more out of you, so school is definitely a lot harder.
If you could do college applications all over again, what would you do differently and what is some advice to current SAS seniors?
Mehr: Applying to college, I only looked at schools in diverse U.S. cities in both the east and west coast. I’m glad I did this because I think I would have an even harder time adjusting in a place that lacks racial diversity. I also think it’s worth researching about international communities on top of just racial diversity, because those are the types of people you will most likely gravitate towards if you’ve lived a majority of your life outside America. I would advise SAS seniors to be skeptical: don’t assume the worst, but also don’t assume the best. Although I had reservations about the social culture of a small school, mandatory dorm living for three years, and Oxy being right school for me, I sidelined these valid issues by internally defending I made the best choice or listening to people when they said, “You will love wherever you go!” While a lot of things just take time to get used to, what you dislike about the school that you can’t change about the school will continuously bother you. Be true to yourself. It is completely okay to want to experience something new and cross your comfort zone, but also don’t sacrifice who you are or what you believe in. Another thing I wish I paid more attention to is my academic interests. Although Psychology is my main interest, I now also want to pursue topics that further my interest in media and the entertainment industry. I can’t do this in a small liberal arts college, where course selection is limited.
Juliet: If I could apply all over again, I would apply to completely different places and look outside of the US as well. Junior and senior year I thought that I wanted to experience something different from my life for college and go somewhere not in a city and get that true American college experience. I now realize that I need to be in a city and somewhere international and that I don’t actually want that “American state university experience”. My advice to current seniors is to be completely honest with yourself about what your needs are.
Jackie: People are so concerned about school status and not so much about the school of best fit. You should really think about what your needs are like location-wise etc. and do NOT underestimate the importance of diversity in a school. You should really take that into consideration because you will find it a lot harder to connect with kids who were born and raised in the U.S. unless you yourself have spent a significant amount of time living in the U.S. Also come in with an open mind because I think that’s SO important. I haven’t talked to a single person who told me that they absolutely loved their first week of college. But if at the end of the day you still hate where you ended up just remember it’s not the end of the world. Transferring is always an option.
What type of person would you recommend your college to?
Mehr: Someone who is socially aware and passionate. You will enjoy Oxy if you are socially aware, passionate, and seek a small fostering community where your voice is heard.
Juliet: Anyone who wants to be an engineer or architect and happy to amongst a pretty homogenous North American student body, while not particularly opposed to living in “college town” more than a big city.
Jackie: If you’re looking for the typical college experience, USF would be the last place you’d want to end up. I can see why people would hate it. But I think anyone who enjoys living in the city and wants to be doing their own thing should consider applying to USF.