Little Fish in a Big Pond

If you have trouble dealing with the energy of a large school, here are some of the best ways to cope with your fear.

By Karen Juarez, University of Illinois at Chicago


Some people feel butterflies on their first day of school; I do not. I feel anxiety, or specifically, agoraphobia.

As a student on the verge of graduation (#2017), I’ve started looking back on the wild, bizarre ride that has been my college career. I started my undergraduate career by attending community college, not only because I had no idea what to study, but because I frankly did not feel like spending $30,000 on gen-eds and dorming.

For me, community college was a lifesaving, glorious experience, the exact opposite of what I was feeling about my first day at a public university. But the time came to move onto bigger things, so I left for my first class with a calm mindset.

Agoraphobia in College: 7 Ways to Deal with the Crowds

Image via USCF

But, as I reached my destination and stepped off the train, something changed. The burning in my soul would not stop, though my heart almost did when I crossed the street from the train station onto campus.

See, my problem is not that I chose the wrong college; the problem is that I misled myself by creating unrealistic expectations of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Yes, the school is huge, but not big enough to be considered a maze. Even today, however, nothing gives me more chills than the memory of trying to get through the quad for the first time.

I gulped, as I braced myself to make it through the mess of loud, lively students meeting up with friends after class. Time moved in slow motion for the few seconds it took to walk from the quad to my class.

As I opened the door, I froze. Eighty students sat in a tiny room that I couldn’t even call a lecture hall. All I could think about was why I had to take this specific class—couldn’t I have chosen a different hour for the lecture? The seats were small, I was surrounded by people and I couldn’t breathe.

Still, as you probably have guessed by now, I’m still alive. Despite being deathly afraid of the commotion of large campuses, I was able to conquer my fear, and can now navigate crowds with relative ease. But, those first few weeks were a nightmare, so if you have trouble with agoraphobia, or even just don’t like crowds, here are a few tips for dealing with a big campus.

1. Visit the Campus on a School Day

Do not repeat my mistake. When I visited UIC it was during summer, and other than the few classes that were in session, there wasn’t much going on.

If you get anxiety like me, make sure to first visit your potential dream school on a normal school day, if possible during a peak hour. If you take a tour during its heyday, specifically the late morning or early afternoon, you can experience the sizes of the crowds as people move from one side of campus to the other.

I also encourage you to hang around the campus after the tour ends. Explore buildings, check out the library, test out the cafeteria or the cafe scene on campus. Before you give your heart (and your money) to an institution, engage with the environment, all while making sure the shoe fits.

2. Ask, ask, ask!!!

Some questions you may want to ask yourself during a campus visit are: Am I comfortable with the amount of people here? Am I comfortable with the average class size? Can I see myself finding a comfortable, quiet space to study or relax in?

Agoraphobia in College: 7 Ways to Deal with the Crowds

Image via The Odyssey

While asking questions, be sure to keep in mind that class sizes get smaller as you progress into higher grades. Also, certain places may always be busy, noisy or just extremely populated.

You may also want to talk with someone who attends the institution, as oftentimes your tour guide or even just a friend can provide you with the answers you are so desperately seeking. Choosing a college isn’t an easy choice, but questions can only help assure you are making the right choice.

3. Location Matters

The setting of a university also affects your decision, and being comfortable as an agoraphobic person has a lot to do with your level of comfort with the town the school is in. I have a problem with crowds, but UIC is just a few train stops down from the Chicago Public Library, whose golden doors hold an escape for me.

I could have chosen University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, another public school in the Illinois university system, but there is no escape from the dead zone Champaign becomes during summer. Not to mention Champaign’s surroundings are cornfields and cows, which is scarier to me than the crowds rushing to make a train at 8 a.m. Sorry!

4. Take in Your Surroundings

First breathe and give yourself time to adjust. I want you to really breathe in the environment, the loudness, the crowds. But, if absorbing your surroundings is something you cannot do, then ignore everything. Put on some headphones and listen to music; with time, your surroundings will become a blur.

Music can help numb your senses so you can slowly adjust yourself to a new place; it can help you calm down too, if you start getting anxiety.

5. Make a Friend

Even if you hate everyone, it’s always good to know at least one person in your classes so you can find out what you missed if you happen to skip class one day. Although I didn’t make friends until my fourth class of the day, the first friend I made is now my best friend.

Suddenly, I am not as lonely as I was before, and I can rely on someone if I do happen to break down or have a panic attack. The safety net a friend provides puts your mind at ease, and the sensation can help you release the stress you’re holding onto.

6. Get Involved (or Don’t)

You can choose, and the ability to do so is what’s beautiful about college. You make your own schedule: You go to class, or you don’t. A big reason for my decision to attend UIC is the amount of people who commute to school.

Although the idea is a bore and extremely time consuming when put into action, commuting is part of the reason I feel comfortable attending classes here. I get to go home, back to the safety of my room where it’s quiet and no one can bother me. I would love to be involved in clubs and groups, but money is important to me, so I have chosen to work instead.

The situation may be the opposite for you; maybe you have decided to live on campus, or in an apartment off campus. Getting involved can make you less lonely, and it acts as another support group. If you feel like you are part of a group, then there’s really nothing that can trip you up. You have successfully integrated yourself into the big blob of people you feared. Simply put, you have tricked the system by becoming a part of it.

7. If All Else Fails, Transfer

Public universities aren’t for everyone, and neither are large private institutions. Don’t be afraid to be comfortable in a space. If peace of mind and serenity disappear after 10,000 students, go to your happy place. As I said before, my small community college of 2,000 students was my heaven.

Agoraphobia in College: 7 Ways to Deal with the Crowds

Image via Hamilton

Remember that no one is forcing you to stay in a chaotic, distracting environment; you are at college to learn to earn a degree for yourself, not anyone else. Students have to deal with being sleep deprived, hungry and broke, but one thing you should never have to live through is your mental state being disturbed. Safety and health should be priorities, and always remember mental health matters just as much as physical health. If you cannot make a large institution work, do not be afraid to make a move.

If possible, online classes can give you the comfort you need. You will never have to leave your house, so you should consult a class catalogue if you are seriously considering making online classes a part of your schedule.

Through a lot of patience and perseverance, as well as confronting my fear of the train every day, I have been able to make a large school work. My current state of peace with my surroundings did not come without trials and failure though; there were many days during the first month of school that I believed I couldn’t make it.

When I’m on campus, I finally don’t feel like I’m in a foreign country where everyone is staring at me because I’m different. I learned that if you let the blob, the mesmerizing scary crowd, absorb you, then it cannot hurt you.

It is also okay to have time to yourself. There are still days I cannot stand the people or the noise, so I retreat to the library. My advice, if you choose to attend a large public institution, is to give the place time. I cannot promise things will be fine, but since I am my own test dummy, I can tell you that the only thing hurting me right now is the 10-page paper I have yet to start.

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