The first time I returned home for the summer, to the suburb I grew up in outside downtown Columbus, Ohio, was two years ago, the May after my freshman year at the University of Michigan. I lived at home, worked at a posh coffee shop a 10-minute drive away and spent most of my free time hanging out with high school friends and trying to catch up on reading. Even though I was busy, I was bored. Just like in high school, I felt I was surrounded by people exactly like me. I knew there was more to Columbus outside the bubbles I hopped to and from where I lived and worked, but I didn’t know how to access what was outside the places I already knew.

I didn’t intend on living at home for another summer, partially because of the boredom I felt during those four months in 2015. But this past winter, out of a series of chance occurrences, I found out about an internship opportunity in Columbus and decided to give it a go. When I settled to the conclusion that I’d be home again, I was determined to make this summer different from the last one. I couldn’t handle another summer under the beating Midwestern sun, glued to the flat landscape by the stifling humidity that hangs in the air. I wanted to try new things, to meet new people, to actually engage with the city where I spent 19 years of my life. And now I had three years of school, a car and a bike to help me do it.

Since the beginning of sophomore year, after my summer at home, I began learning about social issues relating to race, class and gender in greater depth. What’s more, I became specifically interested in these topics as they manifested in current events in Southeastern Michigan. My job as opinion editor at the Daily meant I read tons of articles and had lots of conversations about affordable housing in Ann Arbor, Detroit Public Schools reform, gentrification in Ann Arbor and Detroit and lots of other issues, broad and specific.

The importance of local activism as a means of directly helping people became clearer and clearer to me, while at the same time, I began to understand some implications of my status as an out-of-state student. Though I was learning about issues that impacted all of the Midwest, I wasn’t learning about the state, city or suburb where I grew up. What also became clearer to me was that the people who could give some of the most poignant insight about local issues were people who had simply lived in Southeastern Michigan for a long time. My best friend’s parents, who now live in a suburb of Detroit, can tell me exactly what Midtown was like decades ago because they lived there. It didn’t matter how many articles I read or how many nights I drove into the city for a concert or other event — nothing would allow me the perspective they gained from simply spending time in a place.

Though Southeastern Michigan is where I had my coming of age as a socially aware person, the place I’ve spent the most time is Columbus, Ohio. I can tell you 4th Street did not used to have all the fancy coffee shops and restaurants there now; I can tell you about going to the now-closed mall downtown during my mom’s lunch break on take-your-kid-to-work day; I can tell you about the ice cream shop on High Street with the best ice cream flavor ever — Coffee Oreo — that shut its doors only a few years ago. But, over the course of this past semester, I began to investigate more into the history of my city and began paying more attention to current events in Columbus. In the course of doing so, I was shocked by the things I didn’t know about home.

I started reading poetry from Columbus that spoke about police violence on the Near East Side, right over the edge of Bexley. I started Googling things about economic and racial segregation, only to find out that Columbus is one of the most segregated cities in the country. The dissonance between how well I thought I knew Columbus and how well I actually knew Columbus sharpened the further on I read and the more searches I ran. Though my shock is probably unsurprising to many who are familiar with these issues, I found it hard to fathom just how uneducated I was, despite having been through one of the best school systems in the state.

I knew the suburb where I spent my adolescent years had been dubbed a “bubble” by most of the greater Columbus area — and rightfully so. While I went to a private Montessori elementary school that was considerably diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and ability, I spent my adolescence going to public schools in Bexley, a neighborhood that’s predominantly white and upper-middle class. Bexley is a wonderful and odd little place, 2.45 square miles that’s actually a city of itself inside of Columbus. It has its own mayor, its own city council, and yes, its own school system — it’s one of the best in the state, and it’s why my family moved there when I left Montessori. With wide streets lined with beautiful old trees that flood your vision with green, teeming with blossoms in the spring and summer, Bexley was actually named an arboretum in 2013. It’s different from the stereotypical midwestern suburb in that the houses are older and don’t all look the same; but it’s similar in that its people are mostly homogenous and the community is largely isolated from the world immediately outside its borders.

I could write for a very long time about all the ways my high school education was excellent, and I’d be remiss not to mention the generous and knowledgeable teachers who helped make my experience at Bexley High School irreplaceable. However, I will say my high school education did not offer much in the way of experiential learning and connection to the greater Columbus community. I remember volunteering once, maybe twice, for a community garden on the edge of town. That was a valuable experience I’m unlikely to forget, but still. I feel there have been some gaps in my education, and I intend to close them in the following months.

I’m not sure what form this will take, but my efforts to more deeply know my home will be thoughtful and reflective. I’m particularly interested in the history of the suburb I lived in during my adolescent years, in the neighborhoods directly outside of this suburb, and in the natural landscape of central Ohio. These are all parts of central Ohio’s culture that I hope to learn more about, but I also understand my experiences — researching area histories and meeting new people — may lead me to topics and ideas I haven’t thought of yet.

Wherever my explorations and investigations take me, I’m eager to put the knowledge and skills I’ve built at school to work in order to better educate myself as an informed and engaged member of my local community. I suspect lots of students at the University who are from areas outside Southeastern Michigan, especially suburbs, could benefit themselves and the larger communities they’re a part of by learning more about the histories and current issues in the places they return to when school stops for a holiday or a summer. 

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