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How it feels to be a college nomad

Not so long ago, I wrote a piece about transferring colleges twice. Two terms have passed, and I, ever the collegiate nomad, find myself in yet another situation of changing place and, consequently, changing identity. Whether we want them to or not, places shape who we are, define us; they write on us and fill our blank pages with inky letters—sometimes in Times New Roman font, and other times, in Comic Sans.

I find the most recent chapter of my own book of life filled with a bit more Comic Sans at present.

I mean, Comic Sans is a completely valid font, and I am really fortunate that it’s not written in some kind of font like Wingdings like the books of some others.

But the fact is that returning home to the North Shore of Chicago, this unique alloy of beautiful lake-enriched scenery and intense culture of work and education, and eking out a trimester at home due to COVID-19 elicits some unique feelings in me. This home of mine is not just the place where I first learned to ride a pink bicycle at the age of four, my dad, in his 40s and young and running alongside me, or where I picked mulberries, or where I fell in love over and over again with foreign languages, my friends, and my tailless cat.

It’s also where I took a medical leave for depression from my second college, where I dealt with difficult mental health professionals (who had good intentions, but alas, no situation is perfect), and where I called the crisis hotline. It’s where I couldn’t sleep for days on end because I hated myself and it’s where I cried, long and hard and salty and sweet. It’s where someone told me I wasn’t “rational.” It’s where former PTA moms ask me, “Marianne, are you going to graduate on time? Or not, because, well, you know…”

I call these memories and voices “echoes” because they reverberate around my mind as I’m walking or driving through the Chicago suburbs (N95 mask on, of course) as in a cave. It’s as if I still can hear the things people said to me, the things I said to others, during that horrible year. But unlike real, outside echoes, inside echoes don’t stop in a predictable way. Sometimes, when you’re in the place where the sound began, the echo keeps bouncing around your mind even if it was long ago that the sound occurred.

It’s as if I still can hear the things people said to me, the things I said to others, during that horrible year.

It’s only natural for humans to remember the negatives more forcefully than the positives, and plenty of people, such as myself, are experiencing these sorts of  “echoes” of the past as they fly home to roost and hopefully weather the virus. I feel more defined by the negative past events I’ve experienced when I’m in the place where the negative things actually happened, and it’s just something to be conscious of and move past. 

For me also, it’s more than just the echoes of my medical leave that make me a bit pensive during this health crisis. It’s that in addition to the big gap of my college experience formed by the medical leave, I have transferred twice. Indeed, college for my peers has been a story of a distinct place, color, time, and community, but for me, college has been a story of deep emotions, of self-cultivation, and of transience. To return home once again, after spending so much time at home to rid myself of mood disorders, is to further fragment my college journey. It’s a fragment that is neither good nor bad. It just is. Yet it was still relatively jarring to me to go back home just as I was feeling like I was really starting to flourish in college, when I had finally found a home and a professor with whom to do research and a Chinese music ensemble and… an identity. It feels as though I keep doing cannonballs into nice temperature-controlled swimming pools and then immediately being forced to push myself up out of them, hands on the concrete by the yellow five-feet-deep marking and arms pushing my swimsuited body up into the air, goosefleshed and freezing.

Or something.

I’m being dramatic, I know. I’m in a good situation, and I thank the world every day that I haven’t fallen ill with the virus yet and that I am actually attending college. But I imagine lots of people also feel like their homes are defining them and that they are in a state of limbo and change that they don’t necessarily like. So I write this op-ed to say that it’s only human to feel that changes of place are disruptive and difficult, and that sometimes we shouldn’t let places define us so. I’ve spirited through so many places in college and so many feelings, and they’ve all shaped me as a person, but I can choose what pieces of it all I want to take with me.

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