Adjusting to the bright lights of the big city

By Ashleigh Viveiros

Post-secondary education can be an overwhelming experience for any student. Suddenly, you're expected to do more, do it better, and hand it in a whole lot sooner than you've ever had to before.

Throw culture shock and homesickness into the mix, and it makes the whole university or college experience that much harder to get used to.

For the thousands of rural students coming to urban centres across the country for post-secondary education, the experience can be a life-changing one.

Unlike their urban counterparts, who are used to the various conveniences and hazards of big-city living, the farm kids and small town escapees can have a lot more to deal with than just your regular first-year stress.

"It was very much a culture shock," says 21-year-old Nancy Spenst, who grew up on a cattle farm in the small village of Rosengart, Manitoba, before going to college in Winnipeg.

One of Spenst's biggest adjustments had to do with simply remembering to lock her doors when she left her apartment, something she rarely worried about in her hometown.

"Even just something as simple as that, and even looking behind your shoulder when you go outside," she says. "Just the simple little securities that you take for granted in smaller towns."

Security concerns aside, coming to a bigger city also exposes rural students to a range of cultures, beliefs, and experiences they may not have encountered in their smaller communities.

"(You have) a narrower view of the world. Just having experienced less," says Charlene Booy, a fourth-year mathematics student at the University of Winnipeg who grew up in the predominantly Mennonite town of Winkler, Manitoba. "You also have a different foundation, I guess."

Booy says she can understand how the experience can be overwhelming for more sheltered rural students, and thinks many go through a sort of "adolescence" when they go to school away from home.

"Winkler, like many small towns, is kind of in a bubble," she says. "It's kind of important to be exposed to lots of different ideas and ways of doing things."

Spenst agrees, noting that the time she spent away from home helped her grow as a person.

"It really opened my eyes to the world out there," she says. "It was a big transition. For me, it was a lot of growing up in a year."

As with any student going to school far from home, keeping in touch with your support network back home is key, says Booy.

"Keep connections from home strong," she says. "And also make an effort to get involved in your new community."

But while some out-of-town students find they prefer city living, others are all too eager to return home soon after graduation.

"I like (smaller towns) because there's just more of a community. People know each other," says Julie Peters, another U of W student from Winkler. Peters says she will likely return to a smaller town one day to raise her own family.

So, if you find yourself hating the city and longing for the wide open spaces of rural Canada, take heart, because you know you can always go home again.

In the meantime, here's a few tried and true tips to help get you through:

  • E-mail and instant messenger programs are a homesick college student's best friend. Unless you can afford to pay astronomical telephone bills, you're going to want to make sure you have access to the Net to keep in touch with friends and family back home. Some schools even provide their students with free dial-up access. So check it out, and log on.

  • If you just can't stay away from home for long, car pool. Aside from saving gas, it can whittle what might be a costly trip for one person down to a much more reasonable amount. That said, don't travel home every weekend. You'll never experience all the city has to offer if you spend more time trying to escape from it than living in it.

  • Make like a squirrel and stock up on food. If you're lucky, you'll have parents who like to send you back to the city with a cooler full of leftovers. Yes, you're all grown up now and independent, but are you really going to turn down your mom's home cooking?

  • If you come from a small town or farm, sometimes the city can seem like one big concrete jungle writhing with people, vehicles, and pollution. Take the time to check out the better side of your city--visit the local parks and other attractions and you'll see that, at its heart, the Big City isn't all that alien.

  • Even if you find yourself hating the city and pining for home, try to make the best of it. After all, if you've come from a small town where the main form of entertainment on a Friday night was hanging out on Main Street, surely there's got to be something good to be said for urban entertainment options.

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