After my college acceptances came in, I had the option of two extremes: I could go to schools nearby—The University of Tennessee Knoxville, twenty minutes away, or Maryville College, a liberal arts school inexplicably in my tiny conservative town—or I could go to Wesleyan, 800 miles from home. Looking back, it seems almost insane that I chose to go to Wesleyan, knowing that the distance would be insurmountable from both ends. I would rarely be able to visit home, and my family would essentially never be able to visit me. The obstacle, of course, was not really distance, but money.
Many high school seniors are nervous about going to college far from home. After all, our parents are the center of our world from the time we are born until the time we graduate from high school—sometimes annoying, but always there with a plan and a hug and those soccer cleats you left at home. It’s a big adjustment for any teenager, but in reality, for a well-off or middle-class student, attending college two hours away or twelve hours away is relatively the same experience: you’re more likely to be able to go home for all school breaks and have your parents will be there for during Parent’s Weekend. For a student from a low-income background, the story is much different. During my time at Wesleyan, my mother was able to visit campus exactly twice—once to pick me up after freshman year ended, and once for graduation. My father only made it up to Connecticut once, to see me graduate. I never had a visitor to show around on Family Weekend, or to introduce to my hallmates and friends. This was not my parents’ choice. They simply could not afford to visit me.
For me, this immobility was the key defining factor of attending college far from home. Thanksgiving, Fall, and Spring Breaks were times of year I watched my friends, even ones from as far away as California, pack up and head back home, while I generally remained stranded on campus. This is simply another sacrifice low-income students often have to make if they want to attend prestigious universities. Because I participated in a Thanksgiving Parade with the marching band during my senior year of high school, the November after college graduation was the first Thanksgiving I had spent with my family in five years. If someone had told me that was going to happen before I accepted Wesleyan’s offer of acceptance, I would have been terrified.
If you go to school far from home, you, too, are likely going to have to get used to being alone at times when you might otherwise have been with family. It is not as easy to share your triumphs and fears with the ones you love through technology, and sometimes when you need your family the most, they won’t be able to be there. That’s the bad news. The good news is that attending college far away from your hometown also opens a lot of opportunities for you to enjoy new kinds of experiences. I found that I was sometimes grateful not to be headed anywhere for Fall Break—it was so short that I was perfectly content to re-charge by watching Netflix in my room for four days and watch my jet-lagged hallmates wander in Sunday evening before classes began. Those Thanksgivings I missed with my family? I spent one with a friend’s family in Boston, where they rented out a dance hall filled with both music and tables of food to celebrate the holiday. I spent another watching a James Bond marathon with a different friend’s family in a nearby Connecticut town before making my way back to campus for an exciting adventure of trying to figure out how to get back inside my dorm without my key when everyone was gone and Public Safety was closed (Spoiler Alert: I knocked on a lot of windows). I spent another Thanksgiving in New York City, standing in the cold for hours and hours to watch the Macy’s Parade go by, and another in New Jersey, eating traditional Chinese cooking instead of green bean casserole and mashed potatoes.
There will probably be times that you feel lonely to be so far from home. But I promise that no matter how lonely you feel, you won’t ever actually be alone. The campus may seem quiet, and it may seem like every person you know has gone home except for you, but there are other students experiencing the same feelings all across campus—students who may not be able to afford to go home, like you, or international students, for whom a two or three-day break from classes isn’t even close to enough time to get home, or even students who don’t really have a home to go back to. There are other people in your same situation, and even if you don’t meet up with them while you’re stuck at school, it can be nice to know that they’re there. You will find people who refuse to let you be alone on holidays, who will bring you into their families and traditions. You will go on adventures you never expected, and learn to be independent just a little bit faster than everyone else you know. And, in this age of technology, home is only a phone call, a Skype date, or a Snapchat away.
Maybe you’re the first member of your family to go college, or the first to finish, but regardless of your circumstances, going to college will change your life—it’s meant to change your life, to make it better. Eight hundred miles may seem like a long way to be from home, but for me, and for some of you, it was only the first step.