As someone who was born and raised in Ann Arbor, people always ask me, “Do you regret staying home for college?”
Maybe they are shocked that I would elect to live so close to my parents, high school friends or the familiar streets of my childhood. Maybe they aren’t surprised at all, picturing every Ann Arborite as born with maize-and-blue streaks in their hair, prophesied as a future Wolverine. Maybe they envision college as the time to leave the nest, and that true growth comes from the discomfort of change.
In reality, when I stepped onto campus in 2017, I was happy to be close to my parents, I made it a point to meet new people and it was then that I went to my first ever Michigan football game. So while I didn’t quite leave the nest by coming to the University of Michigan, my experiences here have taught me that you can still grow even if you physically stay in the same place.
Consider this: A brown building with grey scaffolding and green ivies slithering up its side. If I told you only of this image, you might be picturing many different locations, and most likely, none would evoke deep feelings of community, stress, inspiration or love. You’d just be imagining a building. But if I asked you to consider the Hatcher Graduate Library, with its quiet marble steps and a labyrinth of stacks; or the Law Quadrangle, with the daunting gaze of stained glass over sunbathing students; or even the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, with its suspicious smells and people taking phone calls in the stairwell, then they become more than places or structures. They become breathing, living things, full of memories and relationships and emotions because it’s not the places that shape us, it’s the people and experiences inside of them that do.
I didn’t grow any more or less because I stayed in Ann Arbor, I just grew in different ways. It’s a theme that I’ve explored more and more as my senior year at the University comes to a close: Who would I be if I made different decisions? If I could go back, would I have done things the same? What are my regrets? For a while, I lamented over the classes I took or didn’t take, the places I lived, the programs I applied to. I thought about the times I stayed in instead of going out, the sports games I never attended, the friendships I turned away from and the ones I maintained. In those moments of intense introspection and regret, I have felt the urge to reach out to the younger people in my life, to help them avoid the mistakes I made, to curate their college lives into the most fun, diverse and educational experience possible.
But while the media might try to tell us differently, there is no formula for a perfect college experience. It arguably does not exist at all. There is only your college experience, and assigning it objective values of success — like if you had a close-knit group of friends, met the love of your life or got a prestigious internship — or values of failure — like if you didn’t get honors, had trouble finding your people or spent a semester depressed — will leave you permanently unfulfilled, suspended in air, reaching for the preconceived notions and examples that would validate your experience. Indeed, if you spend all of college trying to curate the “best four years of your life,” you will only end up relying on other people and their experiences as indicators of the merit of your own. And the best way to go through college is in your own organic, unique and personal way.
I’m reminded of a piece I wrote at the end of my freshman year when I was a columnist for The Michigan Daily’s Opinion section. When I pulled up the old document to compare it to this one, I found myself laughing endearingly, if not a little critically, at the memory of myself at the time, a self reflected in that prose. I was 18 years old and freshly heartbroken; I didn’t have many friends nor plans for the summer. That anxiety, sadness and resentment are palpable in my words: A lesson I’ve learned in college is that vulnerability usually comes with hurt. To show real emotion, to allow yourself that honesty, will lead to pain. And while in that column I ultimately argue that being vulnerable is what gives life its meaning, the passage communicates a loss of innocence, an introduction into adulthood.
That’s a big part of college, one that is discussed less than the more tangible introductions to adulthood, like cooking for yourself or paying your own bills. To be sure, not all of us arrive at college with bright-eyed naivety and idealism, but for many, this campus is where we experience our first blows of loneliness, betrayal and insecurity. It’s where we start realizing the uglier aspects of the world and humanity, adjusting and maturing in the process.
And yet, college is also where we often experience the euphoria of an awakened mind and stimulating coursework, feel first love and touch or meet the people who inspire and shape us. It’s where you can walk into any classroom and almost hear the humming of eager minds at work, enter a campus bar and be met with sticky, tipsy smiles or just simply be studying for class when you realize, Whoa, this is my passion, this gives me life.
This dichotomy of highs and lows is one I began understanding even in my first few months at Michigan, and I wrote about it in the same freshman-year column: I often experienced isolation and togetherness within the same day. I felt impassioned in one class and resigned in another. I balanced finding myself with finding someone for me. Indeed, at an age and in a setting that is so unpredictable, so charged with energy and hormones and curiosity, we never quite know what we want, what we’ll feel, what we should do.
To me, though, that’s the beauty of college, and one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most during my time at the University. With so many opportunities and people, each new experience has been like the tap of a tiny chisel, each one slowly shaping me into the person I am today as I type at my desk, my cap and gown hanging proudly next to me. Some of those taps are gentle, leaving a smooth, soft finish. Some of those taps are painful; they break off too much, stinging even in memory. But what I’ve learned is to not scrutinize the small cracks in the sculpture, but to rather step back and appreciate the art as a whole.
Of course, this is easier said than done. I have by no means reached the pinnacle of maturity and understanding when it comes to college or even adulthood. I’m still often reckless with the chisel, and at times I have trouble seeing the value in the blemishes that have inevitably occurred over the last four years. I can also imagine that one day I will look back on this column, just as I did with my freshman year one, and chuckle at how little I had yet to discover, how much I claimed to understand with these words.
But that’s exactly what growth is, and just as I used writing to understand the passage from childhood to adulthood back in freshman year, I am using it now to try to put words to the feeling I get when someone asks me, “Do you regret?” I can now confidently respond with a no, because I find it a privilege to have had these four years at the University of Michigan, and I am grateful for every little imprint it has left on me, from the classes that added layers to how I see the world, to the nights I scream-cried in the shower and all the way to this newspaper, that let me, in streaming, chaotic sentences, write about it all.
Statement Correspondent Magdalena Mihaylova can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.