The first time I walked through campus as a student, I wore a Michigan crewneck that my mom bought me at a department store, hoping it would cover up the deferral and two rejections I was carrying around on my back. The font spelling out the name of the school was just the tiniest bit off-brand, but it would take a keen eye and a long look to recognize that it wasn’t the real thing, so I figured I’d get by.
And then I hit the Diag, where I was swarmed by M Den–approved apparel, and my sweatshirt turned into an advertisement for my fraudulent presence on campus. I took it off in a bathroom in Mason Hall before my first class, and it sat at the bottom of my backpack for the rest of the day.
I spent most of my life listening to my family tell me that I belonged at Michigan — it was progressive, it would challenge me, “it’s just so you” — but I was academically burned out by my junior year of high school. My heart wasn’t in my first U-M application — which earned me the deferral and first rejection — my grades weren’t good enough and neither were my standardized test scores. So I committed to Michigan State, my safety school.
I wasn’t necessarily bitter about ending up at State, so I decided to settle in and make peace with where I was. I made friends; I found a major I liked; I acted like I was going to spend all four of my college years in East Lansing. But my family wanted me in Ann Arbor, so I grudgingly applied to transfer. Rejection number two landed in my inbox a few months later.
If I had any lingering desire to end up at U-M when I submitted that second application, there was absolutely none when I applied for the third and final time in my second year at State. My heart wasn’t in that application either, but my grades were better and I had kind professors who were willing to write recommendation letters for me. Still, I’m partially convinced that what ultimately got me into this school was pity, the admissions committee finally deciding to give me a chance after noting how much money I’d spent on application fees over the years.
Evidently, third time’s the charm. When I got in, it was a hollow victory; not only did I not want to leave Michigan State, I really didn’t want to go to Michigan.
That first walk through the Diag in the fall of 2019 was marked by a deep bitterness. At the will of my family, I had left behind friends, opportunities, the relatively more affordable East Lansing renter’s market and, most importantly, over 30 untransferable credits. This doomed me to a fifth year in college, perhaps the most frustrating thing about the entire situation. A fifth year was never a part of my plans; it didn’t feel right to me that I would spend the majority of my college career at a university that I resented because I was sure it didn’t actually want me.
Now, three years later and just days away from graduation, Ann Arbor is the first place I’ve ever felt truly comfortable calling home.
I would describe my eventual love affair with the city as an unfolding. At first, I was determined to keep my arms crossed firmly over my chest. This would be the place where I got my degree and nothing more. Maybe I wouldn’t have a lot of fun, but at least I would have my convictions.
But the first thing I was willing to concede that Ann Arbor had over East Lansing ended up being the key to my unfolding: I could actually walk around Ann Arbor. At Michigan State, memorizing CATA routes was essential for getting to anything on time; at Michigan, I can walk from my apartment (two blocks from East Quad) to Kerrytown (on the other side of town) in less than half an hour.
One of my favorite movies, Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” asks me to consider if love and attention are the same thing, and my many walks through Ann Arbor confirmed for me that they are. I worked in Kerrytown Market for a little over a year, and making that diagonal trek, cutting through the heart of the city three or four times a week, made me pay attention.
In the window of a house on Catherine St., a picture of Serena Williams hangs proudly. Two blocks away from my apartment lives a dog named Lyla, who always comes to the fence to greet me when I walk by. My favorite street is a tiny cul-de-sac off of South Division, where I hope an alternate version of me is raising her kids and barbequing every Saturday with her neighbors, who are also her best friends.
There’s a tree across the street from the apartment I’ve lived in for three years; I’ve watched its leaves fall off and grow back every year, I’ve watched its colors change. On one frozen, misty morning, I walked through the Diag and watched someone skate on a large patch of ice that had formed over the grass between trees. I watch the Michigan Theater marquee display new movie titles every week.
My arms unfolded by degrees; the degrees were made up of Lyla, a cul-de-sac, an ice skater. They were what ultimately made me feel like I belonged in Ann Arbor. They felt so small; they felt like little, quiet secrets that the city was letting me in on, asking me to give it a chance. After I started to notice them, loving this place came so easily that I gave up resisting.
It wasn’t until this fifth year, the one I hated the very idea of, that I was ready to start loving the bigger things, too. I joined The Michigan Daily and found a home at the Arts desk and a family in the people I worked with. I spent the first semester trying to write a senior thesis and, even though I eventually gave up, I met some of my closest friends in the process. I said “yes” to everything. I fell in love with someone and got my heart broken for the first time.
That night, I made the walk from Kerrytown to my apartment after we broke up. It was near midnight as I walked down Liberty Street. I watched people pour out of the Michigan Theater after a late night showing of “Reservoir Dogs.” I wondered when the freshmen at the back of the line at Necto would give up on trying to get in and call it a night.
I was on the phone with my best friend, sobbing and pushing my way through crowds when I made it to the end of the street and looked up at the State Theater, all lit up, and I realized that I was always bound to love this place. I was unraveling, and there was nowhere I would’ve felt safer doing it than the corner of Liberty and State on a Friday night, in the middle of a place where that picture of Serena Williams and the tree outside of my apartment existed alongside me.
Whenever I tell anyone I love Ann Arbor, that I really believe it’s where I was meant to end up, it still feels a little like a concession. My arms might have unfolded, but maybe my fists never completely unclenched. But now I love walking through the Diag — have started to treasure it, even, knowing how little time I have left to do it. I can feel how desperately I’ll miss this town, how long it’ll take me to feel so comfortable in another place, how much goodness and warmth I’ll be leaving behind.
On the other end of the next momentous walk I take in Ann Arbor is my diploma, and it’s an infinitely more nerve-wracking endeavor than facing my first day at Michigan in a crewneck from JCPenney. Maybe, if I can get away with it, I’ll wear that crewneck under my robe as I walk across the stage. If I belong here, it does too.
Statement Contributor Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.