The beauty of university is in its violation of absolutes. The theories you learn in one class will be contested in another, and history can, to your dismay, be subjective. Outside academia, in a job, school club or another social circle, your perspective is regularly challenged through meeting new people. Answers come with more questions, and nothing seems concrete.
Seniors, like myself, love it; underclassmen, you will too. University destroys what you thought was your last absolute, too—home. Every time you return to your hometown, you take everything you’ve learned from university and analyze it. You’d figure that eighteen years anywhere and you’d know the place from top to bottom. But, after four years of frequent (or infrequent, as described later) visits home, you’re still questioning whether home changed, you changed or both.
Freshman Year: The Return
Your new home is a lot brighter than it should be. The walls of the dorm are bleach-white, and all your shit is in boxes. In a panic, you’ll spend the next few weeks unsuccessfully making your mother’s lasagna recipe and lighting the vanilla crème candles you stole from your (former) living room attempting to make this bland space comfortable.
A federal holiday comes up and the university closes. You find yourself with a three-day weekend, no homework and a car you haven’t driven past campus. You don’t want to admit it, but you’ve been waiting for this window, and you drive home. As you pass small towns along the way, you’re almost shocked at seeing the trip you took a month ago, when you didn’t know when you’d see any of this road again, in reverse. Pulling into your driveway, you feel an indescribable relief, as if you never left at all and those few weeks of college were an interruption to an otherwise perfect summer.
Everything is the same. You’re still close to your high school classmates, and they all look as they did at graduation. So, really, nothing has changed other than an urgency to get away, that home is keeping you away from your responsibilities. If you go home every weekend, expect a similar experience each time.
By the spring, visits become less frequent, and there are larger periods of classes, reading and assignments that you’ve gone through, giving you a new routine. This is the first shift away from home, when you’re so concerned with schoolwork that being anywhere but your dorm induces paranoia. You’re happy to be home (your parents never fail to remind you how happy they are, too), but you went to college for a reason and that purpose will continue to ingrain your new routine.
Sophomore Year: The Big Shot
You’ve had a year of independence and can manage being a student; so, the transition from summer to the fall semester is seamless. With the freshman timidity gone, a new-found confidence leads to approaching people in classes, going to office hours with your professors, attending club meetings and a more serious approach to academia. When you finally visit home again, the confidence follows. You’re now very critical of your hometown, scrutinizing its traditions, people and even your friends. This arrogance is cliché, reaffirming the image of the naïve, ideological college student, but everyone goes through it. Of course, this doesn’t last long, you’ll get schooled eventually. And when you do, you’ll realize how little you know. You go from chastising to observing, looking past the surface level of your hometown and seeing it for what it is, not for what it should be. You, rightly, see that it’s the same as you’ve remembered, and unstimulating.
Some of your high school friends who took a sabbatical after graduation are now in school, others are working full time to support themselves and a few you never hear from again. The distance has affected your relationships with those you’re still in contact with, and you feel you’re always playing catch up. This can either reignite the arrogance (lack of connection with your friends based on intelligence) or lead to an epiphany: your lives are different, and we’ve moved on. Assuming you have the epiphany, the city you go to university, and the people in it, become more interesting. It gets easier to return to school after each visit, and you continue to become more active on campus.
Junior Year: The Roots
You may have opted to spend the summer after your sophomore year in your university town. The network of people you’re in has eliminated any alienation from your first semesters, and you start thinking about your life post-graduation. Your first visit home likely won’t be until an extended holiday break. An ideal visit home becomes home-cooked meals, updating your parents on your progress and several solo drives through town. Memories play on a loop every time you pass your high school, ex’s house, a beach access, corner store and other haunts. You weigh each moment, and the days are slower than you remembered.
Your parents are noticeably more open, seeing how independent you’ve become. They’re unbashful in relaying their coming-of-age stories, offering a model on how to, or how not to, do something. You listen, you laugh and you cringe. These stories reveal a side of home you never knew existed, and its history is suddenly interesting. Any old picture tacked on a restaurant wall is examined like an artifact. Small businesses, open long before you were born, are no longer distance markers, but remnants of a past you weren’t a part of. You realize that you, nor anyone else from your hometown, are larger than it. Home becomes a class on history, anthropology, sociology and hard knocks.
You may not tell your remaining high school friends every time you return home. Like your freshman year, home once again becomes an escape room from the life you made: it offers a space to reflect, as you’re too busy to do anything else when you’re in school. The memories you’ve made in university are more vivid but less nostalgic. You hold a new regard to your home and the people in it, even those who never left it and might never come to the same conclusions.
Senior Year: The Truce
Two semesters, ten classes, twenty-plus textbooks and an internship until graduation. University went by faster than high school, it seems. You’ve mapped out a post-graduation plan, or maybe you’re burnt out and haven’t. Either way, you’ll be spending all your time in your university town. Classes are more intense, the loans are collecting interest, and graduate school applications are due soon. The break in between semesters offers a small window to go home for the holidays, and only those days, as you’ve got a job and senior thesis to get back to.
You’ve made the drive home so many times you don’t need your phone’s GPS, and you can do the trip without a single stop. There is no more nostalgia with your visits. Your hometown is a part of your life, falling into the rhythm. You no longer return home, you go home. The imminent changes to your life post-graduation are unknown, but you’ve regained the original absolute. Accepting the place of your upbringing, you come to peace with it. Maybe you’ve gone through all this; maybe not. If any of the above is relatable, you’re in a good place.
You hear often that leaving home gives you the opportunity to “find yourself.” What people fail to mention is that you won’t find yourself in the places you go. Rather, your leaving is to view your hometown objectively and map out what shaped you. Leaving your hometown will break your heart, and the four years you spend in university are not unlike the period after a break up. As aforementioned, you will go through stages of denial, rejection, progression and then acceptance of your hometown. It will be there, whether you will be.