"I grew up in West Plains, so it's close to home, and I wasn't completely thrown into the mix. I didn't have to live on campus," she explained. "People come and go all the time at Missouri State-West Plains, and there are non-traditional students on campus, too, so I didn't feel as much like an outsider as I might have in a more traditional, four-year college setting."
A gradual transition into the college setting also helped Lancaster assimilate. She took nine credit hours through the university's dual enrollment program before becoming a full-time student in fall 2011. "The dual enrollment classes definitely helped immerse me more into the classroom experience. I learned how to take notes and handle deadlines," she said. "Having a class with (older sister) Leslie also helped."
Lancaster spent her first full year of college primarily attending classes and, in spring 2012, working at the Garnett Library, but she discovered she was missing an integral part of the college experience with her limited exposure to campus. "I realized there was more to it than just academics, so I decided to be more involved this year," she explained.
In addition to continuing her job in the library, Lancaster became a Student Ambassador, a peer leader for the William and Virginia Darr Honors Program, a group leader for Welcome Week, an English tutor in the writing lab and a tutor for the Promoting Academic Success With Student Athletes (PAWS) Program. In addition, as a member of the honors program, she traveled with a group of current and former honors students to Europe this past May, visiting Germany, Austria, northern Italy and Switzerland as part of a study abroad program.
"It's been easy to develop relationships, especially this year," she said. "I'm more likely to talk in class because I know more people in class. It's also helped me find people to study with.
"Having a social life is important," she continued. "It's good to have camaraderie. You're happy to be at school, and it doesn't make you feel so isolated."
Attending Missouri State-West Plains has been a positive experience for Lancaster, who's on track to graduate with an Associate of Arts in General Studies with a specialization in Honors degree in May 2013, and she believes it has helped her develop skills beyond the classroom.
"Being homeschooled, I was exposed to a somewhat limited environment among people with many of the same beliefs and experiences as myself," Lancaster said. "Being here and becoming more involved has broadened my understanding of other views and helped me develop a respect for those other opinions. It's also helped me in defining my own beliefs and views, too.
"It's important to immerse yourself in something more than your comfort zone," she added. "College can be fun. It can be challenging, but it all pays off."