Walking out of the Chemistry Building after finishing my last final of the fall semester, I did what could only be considered to be, at the very least, necessary: I fist-bumped myself. Pow! It’s a little thing I do after every major, minor or otherwise irrelevant accomplishment of mine. Made it to class on North Campus at 1:29 p.m. instead of the usual 1:34 p.m.? Bam! Good hair day? Pow! Said hello to someone in passing on the Diag without sounding like a buffering CD? H-h-hey, uh, what’s up? Put ‘er there! So as I dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s on a tumultuous final exam, I uncrossed my white-knuckled fingers and gave myself a final fist-bump. Okay, a few. Bam bam bam bam bam!
That last exam marked the end of mine, and about 8,000 other freshmen students’ first semester at the University of Michigan. Not that it was a secret though, as anyone who opened Instagram that day would have seen the blur of maize and blue “Semester recap!” or “Photo dump from first sem!” or the cheeky “1/8 done! (check mark emoji)” posts.
One-eighth? Now I’m no STEM major, but there was no way that statistic was going to be remotely correct for me. Try “9/16 (check mark emoji!),” I chuckled to myself, dryly, swiping out of the app and into my camera roll to compile my own cheeky little Instagram post. But the irony still remained.
While many freshmen in college were experiencing the horrors of communal bathrooms and subpar dining for the first time, I’d been around this same block so many times that it was second nature to shove my feet in a pair of dingy rubber shoes en route to the shower. Being sent to boarding school at 13 years old definitely does that to you. Or, as it was more eloquently put to me at that age, enrolling in a “college preparatory school” teaches you those things, among hopefully others. With the brightly colored pamphlets and the promise of “invaluable opportunities for personal growth,” who was I to argue? Having eight consecutive semesters of on-campus living prior to attending college afforded me a very different viewpoint, what some might call “an edge.” Though, I’m not too sure if it’s a fist-bump worthy epiphany.
After four years at boarding school, my eyes un-widened and my tail debushed, making the whole transition to college feel like a simple school transfer. And no one, unless their school sucked, is excited about transferring to another. I certainly wasn’t. All that was waiting for me at college was an all-too-clean slate that I’d never asked for, and having been hauled off to boarding school at 13, it was no wonder that I hated change. Surveys popularly claim that adolescents who were sent to boarding schools at a young age often “face problems adjusting” after feeling such intense feelings of displacement and abandonment upon moving out.
Being completely separated from my family at 13 years old forced me to become attached to this new idea of “home” at boarding school, especially given that I and other boarding students did not have the “mental capacity for creating a coherent narrative out of these events on (our) own, as (we were) unable to process it” at such a young age. The trip to college not only ejected me from one home, but this time, from two.
Getting ready to leave for college and packing my clothes in boxes labeled “BOARDING SCHOOL” in a rough Sharpie scrawl, I was reminded of the life I was leaving behind, never to experience again. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to a school desk or locker that I’d etched my crush’s initials on with a ruler; I was saying goodbye to my home, my family, my school. Goodbye to stifled laughter and baking in the dorm kitchen past lights-out, goodbye to being forced to sing choral music, of all things, at 8:00 a.m. every Monday, goodbye to throwing eggs at the boys’ dorm rooms on the other side of campus, goodbye to it all. I was trading the friends-turned-family and the school-turned-home for a strange new girl putting up posters on the other side of my likely cockroach-infested room in Mary Markley Hall, a religious use of Google Maps and various Greek letters that made my head spin when I tried to differentiate them. Actually, it all made my head spin.
The idea of oscillating between the two realities of boarding school and home was a confusing amalgamation at my young age, and left me not completely fulfilled in either place. Both were comfortable in their own ways, and leaving two at the same time for a place completely unknown was just about the scariest thing I could do. The back-and-forth pattern of “returning home as a stranger and then leaving just as (I) settled back in (built) a psychological pattern” for me in which I feared change and shied away from a college experience that could potentially bring positive change. I never trusted that I could be fully comfortable somewhere, since there was always an ominous expiration date hanging over my head; just how many “homes” could I keep juggling?
Only after my 10-hour car ride to Ann Arbor did reality spit in my face. Seeing other new students lugging bags from the M Den back to their rooms, their faces bright red with excitement and the effects of a nearly tripled daily step count, I was shocked at how resentful I felt that other people could turn this seemingly horrible experience into an exciting life change. I felt like the biggest Debby Downer in the history of negativity, including, in no particular order, the Grinch, greedy Diag squirrels and Kim Kardashian when she lost her earring in the ocean — not to put too fine a point on it. How could I possibly be excited to give up a life that once made me so happy? How could I be excited to live in a skeleton, a mere echo of my old home? How could I be excited to start the whole experience over again, with no guarantees that things will ever be as good as they were before?
So as to not take you through the whole grueling Kleenex-filled experience, I’ll cut the dramatics short and say that this mindset got real old, real fast. The more time I spent watching people grow excited about something that brought me so much angst, I found myself thinking, How can I allow myself to remain stagnant and wallow when so many other people are being brave, taking risks, finding happiness? It wasn’t easy to get out of this rut, though; boarding school may have given me one of the best experiences of my life, but it also affected the way I adapt and perceive change in my life. A few weeks littered with nostalgia went by and I found myself resisting this change less and less, truly wanting to find a place for myself at the University, rather than wishing and praying for a way back to then.
After my mindset changed, I started to welcome the literal change at my fingertips. I met people who completely changed the way I saw my first semester, and who taught me about the true beauty of being in the first semester of college; nothing was permanent. And most importantly, it is never too late to find your place. Each day brings a new person, a new experience, a new discovery; we are all, from the moment we step onto this campus, basked in uncertainty.
While some people thrive in uncertainty, gobbling it up and taking their life by the horns, others, such as yours truly, shrink away, resisting the possibility for positive change and only expecting the worst. As a freshman, I still don’t feel like I have real roots here, but so what? Neither does anybody else. Friends can be made or lost in a second — one moment you could be crying and the next laughing — nothing is as deep as it seems. After a grueling few weeks, I was finally able to ditch the Kleenexes for the most part and actually make an effort to treat Ann Arbor like my home and these strangers as friends. We’re all welcome to try and we’re all welcome to fail. But as long as we try, we can always get a bump to the fist. Bam.
So as I walked out of that final exam to Markley, ready to pack for winter break, I felt about 10 pounds lighter. Scrolling through my camera roll, I saw myself with arms around people who were once strangers, my cheeks squished to theirs, beaming with bright eyes and — dare I say — bushy tails. I couldn’t help but smile at how far I’d come in just a few months. I still don’t have roots here, but neither does anybody else — it takes time, and I can be patient. That’s my new favorite part of college: the newness, the excitement, the hope of it all. Anything can happen.
I’m proud of myself and all of the other freshmen for getting through this whirlwind of a first semester; it took guts, strength, and for some of us, a whole lot of tissues. I’d fistbump them all if I could. Here’s to the next seven semesters, whether they be out of eight or, for yours truly, 16.
Statement Columnist Irena Tutunari can be reached at email@example.com.