Going To My Safety School Didn't Ruin My Education. In Fact, It Taught Me Just What I Needed To Learn

I spent four years at a public university — a pretty good one, but not one of those state schools that make it onto "best colleges in America" lists very often. I went on a full scholarship, studied in the Honors College, and lived in the honors dorms my freshman year. But that didn't change the fact that, initially, I felt like a failure for attending my safety school.

I was (and there is no way to say this without it sounding like an obnoxious brag, so forgive me) a stellar high school student. I had been winning "Most Likely to Succeed" superlatives since middle school. I was even my city's "Outstanding Young Woman of the Year" in high school.

I was the one who was supposed to make it out of the state-school grind, to achieve my dreams somewhere truly dream-worthy. But I didn't.

If this all makes me sound like a bitch, that’s because I was one. I was also young and under the impression that I was unique, gifted, and important. And I am. But the thing no one ever told me? Everyone is.

A lot of things happened that got in the way of the "supposed to’s" in my life. As it turned out, my dream schools were expensive. I mean, crazy, prohibitively expensive. I didn’t want debt, and I couldn’t expect my parents to take on that financial burden for me. When the financial aid letters came back from the higher-brow schools I applied to, the numbers were shockingly low.

But that’s not the whole truth: I was also scared of going to schools like Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. I worried that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. I worried I wouldn’t cut it at a top-tier school, among the geniuses with perfect SAT scores and cutthroat attitudes. I worried about leaving home, my family, and especially, my then-boyfriend. I thought I would be lonely — and in way over my head.

And so I played it safe. I took the full scholarship at the university I wasn’t crazy about. And at first, I was bitter. I thought I was too good for everyone around me, that no one was acknowledging my obviously-superior intellect. I sat in massive classes, corralled by harried TAs, and thought, Is this it?

I didn’t want to be brought back down to Earth, to feel like I was just another face in a mediocre crowd. It's hard to imagine you're bound for one place, one very special place, only to end up somewhere that feels distinctly less impressive.

If this all makes me sound like a bitch, that’s because I was one. I was also young and under the impression that I was unique, gifted, and important. And I am. But the thing no one ever told me? Everyone is.

By the second semester of my freshman year, I had made a handful of friends, mostly in my dorm. It was spending time with them began to melt away my attitude. These were people at the same school I saw as subpar, but they were also brilliant. They were budding engineers and mathematicians and sociologists and even a few artsy types like myself, and they were going places, I could tell. I remember looking at a particular friend's math homework and realizing I wasn't the know-it-all I imagined — there was no way I could do that work.

Eventually, I realized that I had actually ended up right where I belonged. Looking down on my peers gave way to letting them in, to seeing greatness and brilliance and kindness in the people I had previously dismissed. I stopped thinking people should know who I was, and started being glad to know who they were.

I could have reached. I might have done OK, even well, at one of those big names I dreamed of when I was younger. Those schools could even have been a better choice for me. The truth is, I will never know.

But my only regrets are my fear and my resentment — not my choice to attend my safety school. I wish I had made the decision I did because I understood what was right for me, and not because I didn’t feel sure of myself.

And I wish it had taken less time for me to realize I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. Being one of many isn’t a bad thing, and not thinking you’re the most special person in the room is a super-important (if unpleasant) life lesson.

That's just one of the many things I needed a safety school to teach me.