As my parents helped me unload the station wagon and carry my belongings up four flights of stairs on that hot afternoon in late August, the realization that this was the place where I would spend the next four years only added to my excessive perspiration. College. I was about to embark on the adventure of roommates, late night cramming, and defining myself.

I never expected it to be a one-year stint.

When people ask me why I transferred to Grinnell College from Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, I think they expect some sort of horror story. After all, transfers are so few and far between — something awful must have happened for an enthusiastic first-year student to want to leave. But such an assumption is wrong on both counts — on average, most colleges retain only four out of five firstyears, and my experience at Cornell was by no means awful. In fact, I’m grateful for it. I took some incredible classes, made some great friends with whom I stay in touch, and learned a lot about myself. So why did I leave a small, liberal arts school ending in “nell” for a different small, liberal arts school ending in “nell” — also located in a small town in Iowa? At face value, it seems as though the differences couldn’t be more subtle.

Cornell College is an awesome institution (and I mean that in its sincerest form), but it wasn’t for me. Grinnell has proved to be a better match. My reasons might seem trivial to some, but for me they’ve made all the difference. I’ve found the semester plan at Grinnell offers more lecture time than the block plan. Self-governance fuels an atmosphere of student activism and involvement at Grinnell. Without social groups like fraternities and sororities, Grinnell has a greater variety of student clubs and activities to try. Hardly anyone I know has a TV in his or her room, and the dorms, which are inhabited by the co-mingling of first-years through seniors, don’t have cable access. Students on this campus are less likely to wear high heels to class and are more likely to be seen walking barefoot.

Throughout my year at Cornell, I found myself often wondering what it would be like if I had gone to Grinnell. I didn’t want to spend three years wondering “what if,” so I made the switch. While transferring has had its challenges, it wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined it would be. All of my credits transferred, and I’m scheduled to graduate on time. My fear of being constantly mistaken for a first-year has seldom occurred, and the most common mistake people make about me is thinking I’m from Iowa. While I miss my friends from last year, adjusting to a new campus environment was easier the second time around, since I was used to to living away from home. (Meeting a bunch of people while being yourself gets easier with practice … round two was far less nerve-racking.)

But my greatest fear about transferring was I would trade in one set of grievances for a different one. And I was right. Grinnell isn’t perfect. But picking the right college is about figuring out what matters to you the most, and figuring out which gripes you are most able to tolerate. The whole process can seem like a shot in the dark. The best advice I can give is to visit the schools you apply to, and ask as many questions as you can of the students and professors (because after you’re enrolled, you rarely encounter admission staff). Ask the right questions, while you’re at it — such as what people like about a school and what they don’t like. And remember that it is always possible to make a switch — even if you’d planned on being in the same place for four years.

Elizabeth Jach '09 is a Psychology major from Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Elizabeth Jach '09...

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