A little too far from Chicago to be considered a suburb and a little too left-leaning for the stereotype of the typical Indiana small town, Chesterton is kind of an anomaly. Its residents are likewise a unique brand, predisposed to the tension between urban and rural, nature and industry, Long John Silver’s and the Hilton Garden Inn.
As any other cliche-riddled small-town narrator would probably claim, anonymity is difficult when a trip to Target means seeing at least four classmates and the mother of a middle school crush. Since many of my acquaintanceships stemmed as far back as the second grade, I was never forced to reflect on my more visceral tendencies, to really evaluate myself as a friend, a student, a teammate, a citizen.
Like many other members of the Chesterton community, I’d been placed into a character mold by simply existing in the town for an extended period of time. The carving of this mold began in early childhood and, by the time I reached high school, was pretty much set in stone. To challenge it would take self-awareness, courage, autonomy: things I didn’t necessarily possess in my younger years.
Such a sentiment seems again a common thread of small-town narratives. The late-teenage burning desire to leave home, is, on the other hand, a nonspecific cultural phenomenon of Americans entering emerging adulthood. Creating an identity entirely separate from that of a hometown, friends and parents is as appealing as it is naive, disregarding the effect that these life factors have on the most natural of habits and inclinations.
My case was far from an exception to this phenomenon: I couldn’t wait to leave home, to break from a lifelong routine in such a localized space. As seems predictable in hindsight, the college transition was anything but smooth. The comfort of my small-town identity no longer applicable, my own self-perception became rather skewed when I moved to Ann Arbor.
Homesickness is nearly inevitable for college freshmen, with cases ranging from mild to debilitating. I can’t speak to the college transition experience of city-dwellers, but I can say that being the only person from my high school graduating class who’d chosen to attend the University was particularly intimidating. Encountering total anonymity for the first time left me more disoriented than driven.
First, there was the Health Science Scholars Program stationed in Couzens Hall. Yes, that’s correct: I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I resolved to believe that I would “just” become a doctor. Following this delusional notion was the decision to apply to a STEM-based learning community for students seeking careers in the health care field. September rolled around and there I was — over-earnest, slightly clueless and the proud possessor of a mere three AP credits from my high school English class.
It was immediately apparent that I was not cut out for HSSP. I had applied, in part, with the hope of finding a community in a dauntingly vast college atmosphere. Instead, I was met with unusually high levels of social and academic apprehension. To put it simply, I just don’t think that surrounding myself with comparatively advanced pre-med students was a particular confidence builder for a girl who hadn’t taken biology in four years, unable to define mitosis if she tried.
I received less-than-satisfactory grades my first semester of college. In the classes in which I found myself deeply struggling, many of my HSSP peers pulled solid A’s. In an experience not unlike that of many other freshmen students, my overall confidence was on a downward spiral. The process of constructing a college identity was off to a rocky start, to say the least.
Without the easy accessibility of my hometown character mold that’d dubbed me a decent student throughout my formative years, I found it difficult to prove my own intelligence to myself. Soon after my arrival to college, I realized that I tend to derive my sense of self from a rather external locus of control, something I’d never before noticed.
Tendencies are in some ways innate. Bound to eventually surface, they can take on various forms of expression depending (not exclusively) on a person’s environment, age and social group. Upbringing has much to do with the nature of these habits, as it hugely determines a primary sense of self.
Additionally, the facets of my pre-college life from which I so badly wished to stray are now some of my favorite parts of myself. Once skeptical of my mother’s affinity for routine and my father’s frequent overworking, I’ve realized that both tendencies play a very real role in my life, no matter how flexible or relaxed I try to appear.
Both have their merits. A love for routine often brings structure and purpose to my life, while over-commitment drives my involvement in a variety of clubs, jobs and academic concentrations.
So thanks, Mom and Dad, for the second-nature inclinations.
I’ve allowed myself to romanticize my hometown a bit, but I do believe it has affected my character in more ways than I currently understand. I gravitate toward large social groups, my affinity for community, of that easy proximity to people I’d known for so long. Many of my friends from home have remained so dear to me; we communicate frequently and value the growth we see in one another. With maturity, those small-town molds have disappeared, and a new level of respect and understanding for separate life experiences has taken their place.
Josie Tolin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.