“Hometown”: a word with a seemingly straightforward definition, bringing to mind elements of one’s childhood and the relationships that shaped it. In college — especially a college with a large student body, like the University of Michigan’s healthy diversity of in-state versus out-of-state students — the concept of a hometown adopts an entirely new meaning. This is precisely because every student’s perceptions of their hometown are distinct, molded by their unique experiences.
This fascination (and maybe an added desire to visit a new place) drives many to embark on journeys to their college friends’ hometowns. These hometown visits are an opportunity to discover the roots of your closest friends, to see why they are who they are, or why they’ve come into college looking for change or expansion. It’s an intriguing part of relationship-building, immersing yourself in the lifestyle of someone close to you, a concept that has even been codified among prominent pop culture franchises like “The Bachelor.”
But whether you’re hosting or visiting, hometown visits can be jarring, like puzzle pieces belonging to different sets that are pushed together in the hopes of fitting. It can seem as if individuals from your friends’ lives have suddenly been copied and pasted into your own.
The idea of taking college friends to a childhood home can present a cocktail of emotions: stress, excitement, fear or even embarrassment. There is an inherent privilege in being able to bring people home and enfold them within a piece of your past. For some, parents or relatives scattered across multiple homes or cities may complicate the idea of hosting school friends. For others, it can be anxiety-inducing to go back to a childhood home where they cannot express their true identity. If family or hometown community members don’t support expression of one’s gender or sexuality, returning to these places may drain individuals of energy or a sense of safety.
The word “hometown” may feel like a contradiction if the place where someone grew up wasn’t always welcoming enough to call “home.”
I am fortunate enough to feel comfortable returning home and to possess strong relationships with members of my immediate family, as are several of my college friends. Over the past year, I’ve been able to go on and host my own hometown visits with the people I’ve met in college. Whether I spent an evening or a week in these new environments, each has granted me a glimpse into the lives of those I’ve really only known for a couple years but feel as if I’ve known for much longer. The biggest thing I’ve learned from these mini-vacations is this: Hometown visits can leave very different impressions, depending on the character of people’s relationships with their communities of origin and especially with the people within these communities.
College is a time characterized by change, where many develop into different versions of themselves. And past and present versions of self collide on hometown trips — so is this clash discordant or harmonious? Can it be both? What does this imply about your friends, your relationships with them? And is it really so bad if the mixing of worlds isn’t completely effortless?
Preparing for the visit
There really isn’t a surefire way to prepare for a hometown visit. Like any trip, logistics are always important (timeline, lodging, food, budget, activities), especially if you’re the one hosting. But there is no way to completely predict how you — or your college guests — will interact with the “other” group: your family and high school friends. The best thing to do is get an idea of the setting and the characters of the people you’ll run into during your stay.
I grew up in the suburbs of a Midwestern city, like many of my friends, so their descriptions of their hometowns were short and to the point. They shared their favorite restaurants, commercial areas, parks or attractions in nearby urban areas that we could explore as part of our visit. They coordinated with their parents about meals and activities. One of my friends even sent a daily itinerary and packing list, just to be clear on the plan.
These preparatory details are fairly characteristic of all trips. But the most distinguishing detail of the hometown trip is preparing specifically for the people: how your friends act around them, what you might talk about and the attitudes of everyone you may meet.
Mental preparation on both the hosts’ and the guests’ behalf often coincides with logistical readiness. My friends have had varied reactions to bringing their University buddies back to their hometowns. While they all have strong relationships with their families, the prospect of actually making the trip back, to spending prolonged periods of time in a place they had largely grown out of, make some wary to return.
One way to clarify a friend’s relationship with their hometown is to take note of the verbiage they use to describe it. In one conversation with my roommate, I struggled to find the words to describe my childhood home. He had said “your parents’ house” while I settled on “my home home.” Even though I’ve only lived there about two months thus far in 2022, I still mentally classify it as my personal headquarters. The degrees of separation from hometowns are extremely varied in college as the concept of independence takes on different forms.
On one of my overnight stays, I got into my host’s car, ready for the multiple-hour drive, and sensed that his emotions were somewhat unreadable, his mind occupied. Though he was very close with his extended family, he told me on the drive back to school that being with his family stressed him out. He was someone used to living independently and self-sufficiently, not needing to be directly in the vicinity of his childhood home.
One of my other friends outlined how I and another college guest would be spending ample time with their entire family, a normal and enjoyable prospect for them — while I mentally energized my introverted self for a night of extensive socializing. On a different occasion, I watched a friend remove the nail polish from his fingers in preparation for a hometown visit, not wanting to deal with the comments his family might make if they saw it on him. Another, whose hometown I still have never been to, said many months ago that she would take us there for an hour and then would want to come back to Ann Arbor.
The mental preparation for taking on a hometown visit, whether you are visiting or hosting, is extremely subjective. Absorb the information given to you, directly or indirectly, about the energy and relationships you might encounter. But the only way to truly experience a hometown visit is to dive right in.
During the visits: Some snippets
I shoved the chicken-infused filling into the dumpling wrapper, careful not to put too much — or even worse, too little — into the delicious pocket, lest it break when it was boiled. I carefully folded the dough into a half-moon shape, pinching the ends delicately so it would close without ripping. It was delicate work, and the people surrounding me, who had been cooking this delicacy for years, were watching closely. I wondered if they thought they would have to swoop in to save me.
I was stressed. Though I kept up positive chatter, I felt like if I messed up, they might think me inept, incapable. This might seem like a ridiculous thought, especially knowing how nice my roommate’s parents were. Though I had met them more than a handful of times, I was genuinely uncertain about their judgment of my character based on this task, now that I was in their home. There is an inherent intimacy bred from entering someone’s house, that because I was an outsider, more scrutiny could be placed on me if I didn’t fit into their expectations.
I had an incredibly enjoyable night at my roommate’s childhood home and always love to return, but the idea that I had to prove myself kept asserting itself in my mind. As a fairly new entry into my roommate’s circle of friends, I felt as if I had to make up for lost time. I had to be the perfect guest.
After the four-hour drive, my tired mind was completely unprepared for the influx of people buzzing around my friend, Noah’s, home. Our other college friend, Anna, and I were immediately introduced to his parents, brothers, grandparents (who lived next door) and several family friends, the group growing larger as the night progressed. We all went to work preparing the build-your-own taco feast for dinner, an activity I was grateful for as it gave me something to do, some way to make myself useful.
This was an incredibly close-knit, interactive family. Most of them lived down the road from each other, the rest lived a fairly short drive away and were constantly returning to this place of gathering, eating and spending time together.
I’m fairly close to my immediate family, but here was a group who saw their extended family on a regular, if not daily, basis. They updated each other on developments in their lives, as was made clear by their flowing and uninterrupted conversations. There was a clear, shared familiarity that I was trying to make sense of while also attempting to partake in the communal energy. It was an arduous task for someone not used to making good-natured jabs at loved ones, entering into a large group of conversants with confidence.
The next time I visited, I was prepared for the open interactions. I was able to participate meaningfully, even if it wasn’t the dynamic I was used to in my own home. I accepted that I couldn’t force a connection in two days that they had developed over decades.
On the first and only hometown visit I’ve hosted myself, I felt I needed to bridge the gap between my friend from college, Anna, and my high school friends, who knew nearly every detail of my adolescence. As the facilitator, the only common link, I felt responsible for the others’ experiences, on both sides. As if each person were a reflection of myself, each interaction — good or bad — my own doing.
One night, we had a sleepover with two of my best friends from high school. We talked at length; many events and details of our high school life were brought up, as was natural among people with that particular shared experience. If I ever felt like my friend from school was quiet or disengaged with discussions on events and people she didn’t know, I would extend myself to clue her in on conversations — maybe even more than was necessary. I remained overly peppy and enthusiastic about everything in an effort to mask any awkwardness that might arise.
There is a type of pressure on participants of a hometown visit that I hadn’t considered before I entered the thick of the interactions. My perfectionistic attitude definitely plays a role in creating this discordant energy within myself. Yet, the awkwardness makes perfect sense. Some people are more comfortable than others when meeting new people — but there are bound to be moments of uncertainty or incompatibility, a consequence of embedding yourself within a group of people who have known each other for years.
I hadn’t realized how different the energy of my friends from high school was compared to those in college before they were sitting in a room together. I enjoy interacting with both groups — but that is what they are: two separate groups. Maybe I needed different types of people around me, supporting me, as I took on life’s challenges at different points in my life.
After the Visit
Reflection: an optional, but surely enticing component of the hometown visit process. Interacting with those who have known your friends their entire lives and physically seeing the markers of their young life for yourself can feel somewhat surreal. You recognize that they have a personal history, as everyone does, but you can’t necessarily process it until you experience it.
Throughout college, engulfed in this stage of young adulthood, a strange period in between early development and what’s referred to as “the rest of our lives,” there’s a distinctly curious interest in learning about the experiences of those around you. About who they were before you knew them as classmates, roommates or even chosen family members.
This is an especially critical component of the reflective process after a hometown visit: ensuring that the visit — or lack thereof — does not replace the shared values and experiences that built your individual relationship. The hometown visit can grant an insight into who your friends were. It can also demonstrate the evolution that they’ve gone through to become who they are when earlier influences aren’t around. And bringing someone to your own hometown can reveal how you yourself have changed, if old and new friends don’t necessarily blend right away. Or at all.
Even if their family life or friend groups don’t resemble my own, I have gotten a taste for the pace of life, the types of exchanges and experiences that marked my friends’ development and played some sort of role in making them them. It seems like I’ve been in college for ages, that I’ve known my current friends for ages after spending almost every day with them. But the linear and ever-evolving nature of people’s lives is not truly revealed unless we experience some part of it for ourselves.
Is it truly necessary to peek into the pasts of your college friends? Probably not — you’re friends with them, now, for a reason. But it’s not until we consider the different environments and relationships in our own lives, between our childhoods and now, that we discover how much we’ve truly grown.
Statement Correspondent Sarah Stolar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.