Growing up in a small town, I was sure I wanted to go somewhere huge. When I was accepted into McGill, I knew this was the place I wanted to be- it was big, located in a metropolitan city, and totally different from my small town.
When I told my friends – most of whom chose to attend small liberal arts colleges – many were shocked. “Forty-thousand people?!” people told me, and I would just shrug them off like “Yeah, it’s a big place!” I would think about the number, but never actually process it.
But then I actually came here. And I realized something: there is a huge difference between imagining the number 40,000 and living surrounded by it. I knew it was a large amount of people, but being in classes of 1400 students, dealing with lab sections that fill up in a day, and having professors who don’t even know the name of a single student in their class really put it into perspective.
This is a big place.
I wondered why it never occurred to me just how large a number 40,000 was. After some research, I realized the reason this came as such a shock to me is because our brain is just not evolved enough to process large numbers. This idea is called “scalar variability”. It basically says that the larger the number you are processing, the fuzzier the estimate or visual representation you will get.
Try it! Imagine five people standing in a room. Really, it isn’t that hard of a feat. But now imagine a thousand people in a room. Are you really able to picture the magnitude of these people with the same clarity? It becomes much more of a challenge.
Now, try 40,000.
I can honestly say that the first few months of my transition from a small town to a gigantic university, like any first year college student, were very difficult. I was not used to the mass quantities of people in classes, in my residence, in the libraries, or even in the streets. I felt very alone at times.
However, while I was scared of the large numbers at first, I now welcome them. They have encouraged me to build my own community and surround myself with friends who I found through the different clubs I joined. They allow me to meet new people every day. And I know, once the class sizes shrink in upper years, they will give me access to some of the top professors in math and science research in the world.
While I found the huge number of people who go to this university intimidating at first, I realized it has allowed me to become more independent, and to surround myself with people and friends who I can truly say I care about and found on my own. Having that support from a smaller community within this large institution makes it all the more worthwhile. While my brain may never truly know what 40,000 is, the ten or so close friends I surround myself by are much easier for my brain to manage, and I don’t know where I would be without their support. And that is what has helped me deal with the transition to this huge university.