Follow Your Heart

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an occasional series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” in which writers share lessons from their experience with higher education. The author is currently a Pope Center intern.

The latter part of high school can be a confusing whirlwind, filled with preparation for the SAT, waiting for results, visiting and applying to colleges…the list goes on. As acceptance letters trail in, the pressure really turns up. The spring of my senior year, “have you decided where you’re going to school yet?” was the big question on campus. We all wanted to find out if our friends would be attending the same university—and were already planning weekend visits to those who weren’t.

At the end of my junior year of high school I had moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. In my senior year I was deciding between Florida State University (FSU), an internationally-recognized university with a large and diverse student body, and the University of North Florida (UNF), a smaller commuter school next to the beach and close to home.

I applied to UNF just as a back-up plan, but never really intended to go there. The first time I stepped onto Florida State’s campus I felt at home and easily envisioned my next four years at this well-established institution. I looked forward to challenging and diverse subject matter, being away from home, attending sporting events, joining clubs, and getting involved in Greek life. Although I didn’t know what my future had in store, I felt that Florida State would give me the academic skills, responsibility and personal experience to help me succeed.

With such strong feelings about a school, you would think nothing could have held me back, but I never attended Florida State. A high school relationship kept me from making a life-changing decision.

In March of my senior year I received my acceptance letter from Florida State. Elated, I called my boyfriend to tell him the news. Unfortunately, Dan wasn’t nearly as excited as I was. He had yet to receive an acceptance letter from the school.

Before we had begun the application process, Dan and I expressed a desire to attend the same university. Well, this was my first big mistake. Although it is exciting to find out that you and your best friend, or someone close to you, will be experiencing the next four years together, you should never make that plan ahead of time. Dan and I were very close and wanted to go to school together, but as we later found out, relationships will not succeed if you are not your own person.

Dan eventually did receive an acceptance letter from FSU, and even a nice scholarship. But he chose to attend North Florida for the fall of 2006 because he received an even bigger scholarship. He wanted to be close to his family, and he thought the school had a better program for his communications major.

This is where I really started to become confused. I toiled over whether to attend FSU or UNF for nearly two months, weighing the pros and cons.

Florida State has a rich academic and athletic history, culture and tradition, and a beautiful campus. Most importantly, it symbolized growth for me and felt like a place where I was meant to be. UNF was close to home, right by the beach, and my boyfriend was attending there…but those are pretty much the only “pros” I could come up with. And, in fact, I didn’t even want to go to a school that close to home—I wanted independence.

As for the cons, well, UNF felt completely wrong for me when I stepped on campus. I doubted that the courses would be enriching or challenging. I didn’t feel that I would have a “once in a lifetime” college experience there. That should have been enough to lead me in the right direction, but I let my emotions stand in the way.

I decided to go to UNF my first year with plans to transfer if I wasn’t satisfied with the education and lifestyle. Unfortunately, I knew as soon as classes began that I wanted to transfer. The courses were easier than those taught at my high school, the majority of students didn’t take their education seriously, and the university lacked campus culture since it is a commuter school. Also, as a fairly new university, tradition and athletic popularity were non-existent. I just didn’t feel that it was where I belonged. I wanted to go to an institution that inspired me, and the drabness of the new, yet neglected, architecture and a lack of academic challenge did everything but that.

About the time I began to request transcripts and fill out applications to transfer to Florida State, I found out that my parents were moving back to North Carolina. Having recently visited my best friend at UNC Chapel Hill, a school I had always wanted to attend while I was growing up in North Carolina, I again discovered those feelings of “this is the right school for me.” I liked it even more than Florida State and knew that UNC is one of the best public universities in the country, so I decided to apply there. I had already missed the deadline to transfer for my sophomore year, so I continued to work hard and applied for my junior year.

Thankfully, I was accepted. I transferred at the beginning of the summer before my junior year to get adjusted and start making up for credits that would not transfer over. The moment I began my career at UNC I was in love with it and I haven’t looked back since. I feel more academically challenged by my teachers and peers, I am inspired by the history and culture that surrounds me on campus, I attend many sporting events, I am involved in the UNC chapter of Kappa Delta (the sorority I joined while at UNF), and I feel that I am preparing myself for law school, which is my current career path.

Although I did make a large mistake by not choosing college based on my goals and desires the first time around, my mistake helped me grow. I am more independent, have a harder work ethic, and a better understanding of what I want, partly because I waited longer than some to obtain it.

My high school boyfriend and I are no longer together. We stayed together the whole time I attended UNF and broke up shortly after I transferred. Being on my own without an “attachment” at UNC allowed me to experience life and college in a whole new way that assured me my relationship with Dan wasn’t right for me.

So if you’re thinking about choosing the next four years of your life based on a friend, think again. People change and grow, just as I did, and relationships will, too. The choice of college will not affect the solid relationships that are meant to last a lifetime. Make your decision for you and your goals, and the friendships will take care of themselves.