southern colleges
Flagler College, in Saint Augustine, Florida, epitomized everything good and bad about going to college in the south. (Image via Visit Saint Augustin)

I used to spend the winter months in a t-shirt, lounging on a seawall (as comfortably as you can “lounge” against stone), often with a cup of coffee from the local Australian theme café in hand. Now I spend those dreaded months in a mound of blankets, huddled next to the old radiator in my apartment complex and hoping that ice isn’t accumulating on the steps outside.

When I tell people that I moved back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from sunny St. Augustine, Florida, all I receive are quizzical expressions and the inevitable question of “Why?”

There isn’t a simple answer.

I have always loved the warm weather, which honestly doesn’t make me all that different from most; but I loved it so much I was willing to sacrifice the other seasons just to live in a place where it felt like summer year-round. As a tween, I would partake in cringey online activities like publicizing countdowns to summer and complaining relentlessly that I was not at a beach. So, when it became time to look into colleges, I was enamored with the concept that I could go anywhere I wished. (Except to California. That one was swiftly vetoed by my parents.)

The freedom was dizzying. As I learned the majority of my peers were sticking to local universities, I could not believe it. Hadn’t they seen all the coming-of-age movies where a high school graduate moves across the country and starts a completely new life? You can go somewhere where no one knows your name, your horrendous middle school fashion choices or anything about the history of you.

Determined to follow this path, I began my journey. I applied to five southern colleges, my top choice being Flagler College in Saint Augustine. I distinctly remember brushing my teeth as I heard my mom yelling from downstairs that I had received a packet from them in the mail. After rushing down the stairs, I ripped it open and both of us started to cry and embrace each other as soon as I saw the word “Congratulations” at the top.

When the time came for the big move, we made the 13-hour drive and finally arrived after two days of travel. It was my first time experiencing the school in person, and I could not stop smiling. The campus was picturesque, just as it appeared in every magazine and website I saw it on. My luck just kept increasing, as I got to live in the Ponce De Leon Hotel, the focal point of every postcard.

I did not know yet just how rigorous of an adjustment it would be for me to attend a southern college.

The environment of a southern college versus that of a northern one proves to be like two separate worlds. The first difference that pops into my head is transportation — specifically, skateboarding. I cannot speak for every southern college, but Flagler College was teeming with skateboard culture. (Or pennyboarding, which was something I had never heard of prior to moving there.) If you weren’t skating to class, it was probably because you forgot your board that day or your roommate stole yours in a rush to make it to lecture.

I, however, don’t possess an ounce of the balance necessary to be able to skateboard, so my walks to class consisted of me either swerving to avoid oncoming skaters or gazing longingly at those gliding down the road, making it right on time for class while I lagged a few minutes behind.

Skateboards are something I rarely see in Pittsburgh. The icy winters are a valid reason for half the year, but even in the summer months I don’t see many people zipping around on boards. The health-conscious population typically opt for bike travel, but most here simply rely on the bus system, something Saint Augustine did not have.

You also can’t compare the North and the South without discussing food. For a person who eats a lot of Taco Bell, I sure was a food snob while attending a southern college. The South did beat the North in some food spheres, but if you value pizza as much as I do, a southern move might not be worth it. Again, I cannot speak for the entire southern half of the United States, but in St. Augustine, every pizza joint that I tried was atrocious. I don’t know if it was the area, but I swear no one knew how to make a proper pizza.

Then again, if you enjoy traditional southern cooking, your taste buds would be delighted there. One breakfast place right next to the radio station that I worked at was always raved about. The restaurant served a multitude of homemade jams to put on waffles and crafted the most delicious chicken and waffles I’ve ever tasted. I still dream about that place.

southern colleges
Gaufres and Goods, in Saint Augustine, epitomized everything good about Polish cuisine. (image via Pinterest)

My favorite place in all of Saint Augustine was a little hidden shop called Gaufres and Goods, which sold traditional Polish food and could be found tucked away in an alley. Growing up in Pittsburgh, there were Polish delicacies on every corner and at every family gathering, so this eatery felt like a little slice of home. They serve pierogies there, which I made all my new Floridian friends try since they hadn’t heard of them previously. Let’s just say I was not the only one dying to go to Gaufres and Goods after that introduction.

A particularly impactful contrast was the people in Florida compared to what I was accustomed to in Pennsylvania. My peers were friendly overall, but I found it much more difficult to make lasting connection and be social. I maintained a small group of friends my first year, but in the following, all but one had transferred to another school or moved back home. I tried my hardest the first semester of my second year to apply myself and make friends by hitting up old acquaintances and working on making new ones. However, Flagler College proved to be more cliquey than my northern one.

People were friendly on a surface level, but never wanted to hang out beyond their already-established friend group. Many people I tried to connect with preferred to keep to themselves; there seemed to be a large population of loners. I ended up exhausted from trying to apply myself to clubs, events and anything I could to try to make connections. All the while I became increasingly homesick, missing my high school friends back home, my family and the easier nature of forging friendships up north.

In the end, I made the decision to move back home after my first semester of sophomore year. It should have felt like a hard choice, but it never really did. It felt right. I knew in my heart that Pittsburgh was where I needed to be. I came to realize that even in my first year living in Florida, when I had a stronger social circle and was generally content, I missed home.

It took me moving far away to realize that you can still change your life by staying right where you are. I felt so overwhelmed by my options and was so intoxicated by the idea of starting over, that I seemed to forget the fact that I love my home.

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