Three years ago, pathetic and arrogant, I began college at Michigan State University with a pessimistic attitude that only ceased to exist at certain blood alcohol content levels. That clichéd first semester of college joy was overshadowed by my petty jealousy toward the students at the University of Michigan, an institution that had denied me. In my mind, the purpose of college was to serve as a social and economic class ladder, allowing individuals to ascend to more desirable and influential lives. And the University was everything MSU was not — prestigious, wealthy, elite and, more importantly, filled with students like me.

“Like me.” My unaware, 18-year-old mind actually believed that I was more like the fictional upper-class students of the University, that only if I were to be accepted there could my roadmap toward an influential life begin. I pictured myself as an Ann Arbor kid trapped in East Lansing, an Englishman in New York.

And through a combination of hard work, undying pessimism and a disturbing level of jealousy, I was finally able to join those students with the acceptance of my transfer application. I, in the trademarked University sense, was finally “hoMe.” I would no longer feel like an outsider; I would finally be part of the in crowd.

Yet, ignorant and newly optimistic, I did not understand or care that the concept of “hoMe” was far more complicated than the fantasy that I had concocted in my imagination. I came to realize that MSU wasn’t so different from the University, that a new home doesn’t instantly unlock some hidden character within you and that you cannot and should not shed your past for the hopes of your imaginative future.

Esquire recently published an article by Dwight Garner on social class in America, centering on a question posed by a New Jersey family moving to California in the ’60s: “Where do people like us live?” This question permeates society in the United States. Where do people like us live? Where can we find our past lives in these new futures? The daunting and overwhelming new environments life takes us to require new understandings about ourselves and our hopes. We come to realize that our pasts are the only tangible evidence of who we actually are and that our expectations of new lives are often plagued by desires to replicate such pasts, whether we realize it or not.

Yet sometimes we even desire to shed our pasts completely, to forget everything we came from, no matter how positive or negative. We vehemently pursue futures that have been crafted in our overambitious imaginations. In the United States, this is directly related to social class. We like to believe that, in this country, if we move to a new place, get a new job, make new friends and connections, then we can finally become the people we had only once had imagined.

Yet this is simply not true. A social caste system exists in the United States, whether we see it or not. And though the belief that through admirable hard work and determination individuals can ascend to the highest levels of wealth and power, they never forget or completely lose the past that has shaped them. You can never completely drop the past that essentially created you.

My past has shaped who I am and how I act today. I come from a working middle-class town full of Polish and German families who work on assembly lines, as police officers, sales reps, electricians and other typical, dying middle class careers. Careers in which sizable chunks of income are put toward tuition for Catholic schools that are less like private East Coast preparatory academies and more reminiscent of the 1950s, when priests still hit kids and recess was held on a scorching blacktop parking lot. I come from neighborhoods where lawns are filled with the dumped bikes of kids who are climbing trees, harassing their younger siblings and beating the hell out of each other in tackle football.

But I was always different from the other kids — a little more mature, less interested in sports than in books. I had an exceptionality that made me stand out back home, that grew into an unchecked ego, that led me to believe I was better than other kids and to blindly imagine a future where my social status justified such arrogance.

But I finally was forced to ask, like the Jersey family in California, where do people like me go? The feelings that once convinced me I was far too good academically and socially for home or Michigan State had been replaced by feelings of inferiority and belittlement due to being around students who are smarter, richer and far better connected than I could ever hope to be. My freshman year fantasies of fitting right into place were not reality.

But like every fairy tale, I eventually found my place here. It comes through the recognition of realizing the duality of knowing where you come from and where you’re going. Finding my way in Ann Arbor was almost like taking off a mask covering up the past. I had been convincing myself and others only of someone I hoped to be, but never was. Embracing where you come from is embracing who you are and helps to guide you in the right direction, free from the distraction of lofty imaginations.

I’m not saying the class you are born into dictates your future; I have a little more faith in my country than that. But the overall effect is that you are permanently tied to who you were, and I believe it is necessary to reflect on where you come from to find your home in the future. I found my exceptionality in Ann Arbor. A working-class kid with an expensive haircut, a young man who will intersperse swear words between multisyllabic political terminology in a discussion. All and all, never forget your roots.

Michael Mordarski can be reached at mmordars@umich.edu.

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