The Aloha State has nothing on these college towns.
Although Hawaii was just ranked the state with the highest sense of well-being, cities like Ithaca, N.Y., Ames, Iowa and State College, Pa. — which were ranked the top three college towns by the American Institute for Economic Research — have everything a college student could ever want: unparalleled food, killer concerts, one-of-a-kind residents.
You name it, these cities have it.
About 200 miles northwest of New York City lies Ithaca, home to Cornell University, Ithaca College and what Taylor Long calls “Idealistic Bohemians.”
“There’s a lot of culture and a lot of hip energy, but also this really earnest, small-town vibe,” said Long, who is a senior at Ithaca College. “People fall in love with this city. It’s the sort of place where your weird projects can thrive.”
The city is home to intellects, a Burlesque dance troupe, a newspaper that reports only positive news, an extensive farmers’ market and thousands of ambitious students. In fact, because of the town’s unique energy, The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks are frequent visitors.
Despite the eclectic mix of residents, the city’s party scene is fairly tame, another reason Long thinks the college town is unique.
“When I think of college towns, I do kind of think of Penn State or something like that where there’s a row of bars and a row of frats, and everyone is running around naked with their chests painted,” Long said. “I think [Ithaca] may be No. 1 because it is very unique and kind of is actually a college town, not just like a town dominated by one particular college.”
Students walk past the Campanile on the Iowa State University campus in Ames, Iowa.
As anyone in Ames will tell you, there’s more to Iowa than what you might think.
“People don’t know that things exist in Iowa,” said Devon O’Brien, a senior at Iowa State University. “The Midwest doesn’t exist to anyone on the edge of the country. They don’t know, but there are amazing things happening out here.”
When O’Brien was looking for a college, she wanted to break away from her small-town roots in Pella, Iowa. She hoped to find a larger university that allowed her to explore different social groups and meet new people, which is exactly what she found in Ames.
Four years later, O’Brien has discovered that it is the residents who make the Midwest town.
From student musicians who are on brink of stardom to journalists who have launched eight campus magazines, the city is an incubator for innovators.
“We have so many awesome people creating amazing things all the time,” O’Brien said.
When Garrett Lent visited Penn State’s law school, he wrote on the group’s Facebook wall, asking if any student would be interested in showing him around.
“I was instantly getting messages back from people, and it was just a very immediate, welcome feeling,” said Lent, a first-year law student at Penn State. “[State College has] kind of got that small-town niceness to it, but at the same time, it’s not a small town.”
Perhaps the small-town vibe stems from the fact that Penn State’s campus and the city’s downtown are located in a central area, allowing students to transition from an academic mindset to a social setting almost immediately.
On any given week, students can find award-winning artists performing at local venues. Zac Brown Band, Bon Jovi, Lil Wayne, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John are only a fraction of the performers who have made a pit stop here.
But, like Ames, it’s the welcoming atmosphere that is State College’s selling point.
“You come into town, and you immediately know that you’re a part of something bigger,” Lent said. “Bigger than the university, bigger than the mascot, bigger than the football team because you are a part of Penn State as soon as you come into State College.”
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