Find your home away from home

A bunch of blogs on the internet explain the factors people need to consider while choosing a university to attend. A lot of these are great, but I think a lot of them don’t give great advice to someone who can’t attend a campus tour and get a feel of the school. I was in this position too so if you are confused about the process of picking a school or about the transition to college, keep on reading!

Choosing colleges was a pretty different experience for me. I had to consider a bunch of factors. Since I was travelling all the way from Dubai to somewhere in the United States, I was not fixated on the location. I felt this way because regardless of where I end up, it would’ve been a new experience. Then, my parents considered if they knew anyone in the town/city I go to. This was a safety and a comfort thing. Safety wise, if anything were to unfortunately go wrong, I’d need a local guardian. There is no way that for every small emergency I want my parents to spend a day on a flight. Secondly, I hadn’t ever attended boarding school or anything like that, so I thought it was safe to assume I never understood homesickness. Maybe I could crave homemade Indian food every once a while, or maybe I would simply want to speak of common movies and shows, or simply wish to spend time with someone who seems familiar because we come from a similar place.  I didn’t know how I would feel in that setting and I most definitely wasn’t sure how many people I could relate to would be at Pitt. Fortunately, I found friends that helped me connect to my cultural roots and never let me miss home. Additionally, it helps that Pitt has some great Indian restaurants (Tamarind is my personal favorite) and middle eastern food spots (like Ali Baba).

Eating Tandoori Chicken at Tamarind after a busy day

Besides considering the factors I elaborated on, I certainly considered the cost of living + tuition rates for universities. This leads me to my main factors – academics and research on campus. While I looked at prestige and rankings, it wasn’t that important in my opinion. I saw a statistic that said something like – students at more prestigious universities who’re not doing as well, tend to have a harder time later on as well, than the students at a “less prestigious” who’re at the top of their class. I personally think it’s possible that’s true because you need to find an environment where you can grow and where people can support you well, rather than you having to fight to do satisfactory. Not every place is a place for you to thrive, and that’s alright, but it’s so important to acknowledge that.

My main way of seeing what all the universities were like and finalizing what schools I applied for, were the class catalogs. Pitt has very interesting professors doing research and I was very excited to learn from all these cool classes. I also think most professors and administrators are super kind and supportive and want you to help you. I really dislike saying follow the way you feel, just because it’s vague, but I when I got my Pitt acceptance letter, I really did feel like “This is where I belong”. The more I learned about Pittsburgh, the more it felt meant to be. One of these things was the weather!! I love rain but since I am from Dubai, I rarely get to see it. As soon as I came to Pittsburgh, I was welcomed by the rain. Another one of these sweet surprises was the best of both worlds staying in a university setting, but so close to the downtown area. These things are just additional, but for me personally, it was really nice to find these coincidences.

North Oakland just after it rains 🙂

I don’t have a lot of advice to give about figuring out your major because I was always in love with neuroscience. However, I do encourage all students to try everything at least once. The majority of the students I know are pre-med, so that made me think about the possibility of switching, but quickly I realized how it was not the best fit for me. Similarly, that’s how I figured out what exactly I want to be doing neuroscience research in as well. I tried to take as many electives as I could and while I enjoyed every single one, because at the end of it, it is neuroscience, I realized I am fascinated by some topics significantly more than others and found some methods I am interested in working with too.

View from downtown Pittsburgh

So really, to anyone confused in college about their future, I think the best decision you can make is to try it out and get your hands dirty. Since I’m in the STEM field, I can mostly only speak on that, but the opportunities to explore your possible future career are numerous at Pitt. I HIGHLY encourage you to explore these as best you can. Every experience counts because you could realize where you dislike, what motivates you to get out of bed every morning or even what you enjoy as a hobby and love to learn for fun. Figuring out what you like is the process of college – from applying to graduating! This can be something broader like discovering which university is your best fit, or something specific like what exactly do you wish to pursue research in.

I want to mention the importance or co-curriculars and how they are key players in your transition to college, as well as out of it. They are the best ways to develop valuable skills to compliment your future job, but it is also a great place to collaborate with other students and meet new people. I got the opportunity to do a virtual archival research project this semester and I genuinely learned a lot! Did it make me want to shift over to history? Not really. But it still introduced me to a whole field of research and helped me get some valuable experience about the research process – figuring out what I like, understanding how one piece of data leads you to another, and also you’re your hypothesis can change over time.  Most importantly, it made me comfortable with uncertainty and reaching out for help when you need it. Transitioning to college from high school for me was mainly facilitated staying busy and making a new life in Pittsburgh. It is important to remember that you will be here for about 4 years so take the opportunity of exploring a new place, discovering the best coffee spots or cute gelato places and getting to know fellow panthers who’re all doing wonderful things.

Cute coffee spot in Shady side just opposite UPMC children’s hospital

I want to end off by saying, regardless of where you go, don’t ever stop glamorizing your life! If you’re really happy about getting to college, getting to live in a wonderful city (like Pittsburgh), you should feel happy and proud that you made it here! After all, think back to the person you were in school, filling out college applications, wondering where you will end up going to for your undergraduate/graduate studies. It’s so important to celebrate these highlights and allow yourself to be truly happy about your accomplishments, in addition to planning for the future.

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