Rescuing My Relationship with College
Art by Kirsten Hemrich
The worst year of my life started when I walked on Grounds in the stiff August heat to move in to my first year dorm (sans AC). Red-faced, insecure, and awkward, I felt like an intruder on an intimate scene--as if I had just walked into someone else’s life and didn’t know how to leave.
I felt disconnected from my space, my room, the classrooms, the food I ate, the clothes hanging in my closet. Nothing seemed to be mine, not even my sense of self, left in the backseat of the car my parents drove away.
Coming to UVA, I had expectations of what my life would be like here. I heard from the tour guides, read the brochures, and meticulously researched the culture of the school from the time I decided to enroll here until I moved in. Somewhere within that time, I also lost a sense of security in who I was. Even before I stepped foot on Grounds, the things I rooted my identity and future in removed themselves from me. Senior year of high school, I ended my basketball career after 10 years with a concussion and a confusing combination of relief and grief. I cut my hair and got (terrible) highlights. My grandfather died, prom came and went, I took my last AP tests, and walked at graduation. I was losing something in every aspect of my life that constituted the basis of my confidence and self-conception. Time moved faster than ever, but every day felt like an agonizing journey towards an unknown future.
So by the time August came around, I was already unsure and anxiety-ridden. I spent my first Virginian month in a daze of humidity and painful self-consciousness. Walking around, I only saw myself as a reflection, the way other people would see me. I sized myself up, noting the unnatural bleach in my hair, the clothes that defied any sense of personal style, the sweat on my brow, and the blatant rigidity in my manufactured movements. I avoided mirrors and the texts from my parents.
I saw my experience at UVA as an ugly blemish on an otherwise smooth life. I was lost as to how to translate the deftness with which I navigated my familiar life of 18 years prior to the utter strangeness of a school and place that seemed to fight against me no matter how hard I tried. I had plans to become the ideal UVA student, and when I failed at them, I thought that meant that I didn’t belong here.
Even before I stepped foot on Grounds, the things I rooted my identity and future in removed themselves from me.
I was trying to live up to the expectations of what I thought UVA wanted from me, rather than making UVA what I wanted of it.
In the process of transitioning to college, I never let go of all my preconceptions of what my life would or should be like. These notions stopped me from ever actually living and experiencing the school as a temporal setting rather than an overwhelming facet of my identity. Once I realized that UVA wasn’t the culmination of my life’s work, but instead was a step in a process or a journey I was able to stop putting so much pressure on myself to perfectly immerse myself in this environment. It took me a year to accept this distinction, but once I did I was able to draw myself out from the place deep within where it was hiding.
I stopped taking classes that I hated. I dyed my hair back to a flattering color for my skintone (then stopped dyeing it altogether). I bought an eyebrow pencil. I started developing my interests and activities out of my natural inclinations (even if they were different from the “plan” of my life). I realized that having my own living space drastically affects my mental health and capacity for productivity and relaxation. I tried to set up a life for myself that involved challenging aspects but within a comfortable environment that would facilitate individual, personal growth.
I hate August in Virginia, and that’s okay. I don’t owe anything to this school. I don’t owe it any ounce of perfection or idealism. I used to be infatuated with the idea of college--I thought that I would become myself here. The fact is, I already was and am myself and that will absolutely change after I leave here also. I try to maintain a permeable barrier between myself and UVA, in all its beastly glory. I am a UVA student, but I’m not the UVA student. I’m allowed to pick and choose the aspects of the University and its culture that I want to incorporate into my life. Seizing that ownership over change allowed me to realize that I can never be an intruder on something so fluid and so distinctly my own.