Leaving the Ivy (2)
Continuing my series on why I transferred out of an Ivy League school and into a state university:
#2 Know Your Roots
When I first went off to the Big City, I thought it’d just be like this giant community of people. Sure there’ll be millions of people living in the same area, but places are divided into neighborhoods for a reason and I’ll get to know people at my university and how different can it be, really?
But it was like going to a foreign country.
There was a city culture I never knew existed before I left. I had some inkling to how people on the East Coast differed to people from the MidWest, but I was caught off guard for having to deal with it from day-to-day. I didn’t realize how much I missed interacting with strangers, ones that’d smile at you if you catch their eye, or have the cashier draw you into a conversation while checking you out. To be honest it was a big culture shock that I wasn’t exactly prepared for. There were so many people everywhere and yet:
There was a feeling of isolation. I could walk aimlessly for hours around the city and no one would care, no one would text me to ask where I was, if I was coming back that night, if I wanted to get lunch together… I had a lot of friends, but it’s like the roots of a tree, stretched out tendrils but all so close to the surface with no real depth to them.
I’d never thought of myself as a Midwestern girl. I’d never thought about my Nicaraguan roots–Spanish was just a language I spoke at home with my parents and family, it didn’t define me. Smiling at strangers on the street, saying hello/goodbye and asking about their day to cashiers or other people was just being polite. Instead in the city, holding eye contact with someone or smiling at them was taken as a come-on or something impolite and they’d ruffle their feathers and shift their gaze elsewhere. Trying to have a conversation with strangers like waiters and such was more complex–just tell me what you want to eat and let’s get this over with. I’d never thought how much I’d miss speaking Spanish with other native speakers and not feel like a grammatical moron. Or have people tell me my Spanish was bad or that my accent was thick (in Spanish, I have a perfect Midwestern english accent)–and that was because I spoke with a thick Nicaraguan accent whereas people in the Big Apple were so much more used to Puerto Rican accents or Dominican and had never heard an accent like mine before. I’ve also never been ‘trained’ in Spanish, just spoke it around the house and read uncomplicated novels or watch telenovelas on Univision.
But in a place so unfamiliar–with people everywhere, speaking all kinds of languages, and yet leading lives completely independent of each other, I craved something familiar. I should have joined a Spanish-speaking club or hanged out with the same group of people often (like I’d been used to in high school), or something else to make me feel even a little closer to home, but I found none of those things or enjoyed them as much as I thought I would. I was a stranger not only to the world around me, but in my own skin.
I thought I was a chameleon able to adapt to wherever I was and be happy there. But instead I found that I did have a deep connection with my past, that it was a part of my present me, and to deny that part was like trying to say to yourself ‘I know I have this left hand, but I’m right-hand dominant, so I’m going to pretend my left hand doesn’t exist and constantly use my right-hand’. Maybe that wasn’t the best analogy, but I think it gets at the basic idea…
Now, I’m not saying the city’s a heartless place filled with isolation and heart-break or a place so diverse that you could get lost in its folds. For ever instance I can think of something ‘rude’ happening to me in the city, I can think of something kind someone did for me. For instance, this one time I was trying to move my things from my dorm to a storage unit, and I had these two big suitcases with me. I was using the subway (it was only three stops away), but the escalator/elevator was broken down so I was trying to carry up these giant suitcases, and this stranger walked up to me and offered to help carry it up. This happened a number of times to me–strangers offering help when I was struggling to lift heavy things. And oftentimes the city would fill me with wonder. I’d often walk aimlessly around the city, heading to Central Park or Times Square or other parts of the city, and I’d just stare around at all the shops and people and walking and think about my life and how I’d gotten there and just enjoying existing.
And because my roots were loose–because I didn’t understand even who I was and what my own background even meant to me–I became a little lost. I began to adapt the ways of a city-dweller. I kept my interactions with strangers short, stopped asking cashiers how their day had been going, and kept it to ‘hello/goodbye’. I remember coming back to the Midwest and I’d go to a store, some super market, and the cashier was smiling and very friendly and asked me how my shopping experience had been, commented on the weather, and such while checking me out. And I froze. I just frowned down at my wallet, responded stiffly until I warmed up, and thought ‘Just take my money!’. I’d forgotten about the Midwestern warmth, and for the first time I noticed what changes the city had wrought in my personality. And I recognized that it wasn’t a change I wanted.
So, I changed again. I went back to my roots, back to where I grew up, and became a person I can be proud of. A person who once again smiles at strangers, strikes up conversations with only-goodness-knows-who, and can relax around people. At my university, people often leave their wallets or purses and phones on a table to save their seats while they go get food in the dining hall. Which i never saw at my old university unless they had a group of friends already saving them a seat. It took me a while to trust the general public of my university again, but I’m glad I did.
And it’s not just me. It’s not just me who notices the differences between the East Coast/city-life and Midwest living. A good friend of mine, who’s still going to my old university because he’s getting a free ride at a top-notch university, says he’s pretty unhappy there. He feels the disconnect of the city that I felt, even though he has an unholy amount of friends and is one of the most open, charming, and charismatic gentlemen I know, the city culture brings him down a bit.
SO, in conclusion, for all you prospective high school seniors, hoping to go to an Ivy League university or to another place prestigious in another part of the same country (or abroad), just be aware of where you come from. Remember what all brought you to be the person you are today and don’t forget it. Learn to embrace your past so you can adapt to your future.
Keep and eye out for reason #3: Costs