Tales of a Small Fish in a Big Pond

My final college decision came down to two very different options: a private liberal arts college (~1500 undergraduates) and Illinois (~33,000 undergraduates.) Faced with the existential question of whether to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond, I chose the latter.

I’ll admit, the transition to a school as large as Illinois wasn’t easy. I remember attending my first lecture in Foellinger Auditorium (which seats 1,565 people) and thinking to myself, “There goes my plan to make friends in classes.”


Luckily, my discussion sections maxed at 25 people, so there was still some hope. It definitely took time to adjust, but I can now say I’m a proponent of Illinois’ “big pond” feel. Here are some reasons why:

1. Life is one big pond.

No, seriously. Apparently there are 7.4 billion people out there—that’s a pretty big number. While college isn’t exactly “the real world,” it’s the last stop before “the real world,” so why not prepare yourself for what’s to come? My time here has taught me how to be competitive, but it has also taught me to be humble. I’ve had the opportunity to befriend students from all over the world, and I think it’s made me a more curious and educated global citizen.

2. You have more room to explore.

When you attend a large university, you’re automatically surrounded by the best of the best. Whether you’re interested in research (Illinois is an R-1 research institution) or sports (we’re Division I), you’ll have the right resources at hand. If you’re not quite sure what you’re interested in, that’s even better! You’ll have plenty of options to choose from—more than 1,400 registered student organizations, to be exact.

3. There are plenty of other fish.

Another perk of being in a big pond is having access to an expansive alumni network. With fellow Illini in over 170 countries, it’s impossible to forget your orange and blue roots no matter where you go. Lately, I’ve come to appreciate this a lot more throughout my job search—it’s nice to be able to reach out to alumni with experiences in literally any industry or geographic location I’m interested in.

4. You can downsize.

You can always work to make a big pond smaller, but the opposite is much harder. For example, of Illinois’ total undergraduate population, roughly 3,000 are in the College of Business with me. There are around 130 students in my business fraternity, 26 of which were in my pledge class and are some of my closest friends. I’m also currently part of a 6-person team that’s organizing Startup Bootcamp, an accelerator program for student entrepreneurs. My point is, the numbers can be as big or small as you’d like them to be, but having that personal choice is key.

These are just some of the reasons why I’m happy with my small fish, big pond existence. I know I threw out a lot of numbers, and if you’re anything like freshman Ria, you’re a little overwhelmed right now. That’s okay! Just keep an open mind and allow yourself to take a chance—I’m glad I did.


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