One of the most challenging things about growing up is realizing that who we are and what we like don’t always align with who others are and what they like. Yet, at a phase where fitting in and belonging feel so important, it is tempting to ignore our truth and be guided by the rest. But, when we do so, it isn’t unusual to look in the mirror and think “this doesn’t feel right, but maybe this is what finding me looks like.”
It takes a lifetime to figure out who we truly are and every stage of life brings us closer. As my good friend Liza reveals, sometimes an undoing process is necessary to finding true contentment and is not impossible to uncover if you feel yourself slipping away. It just takes a bit of stillness and a two Euro tea.
I have a long list of schools I’ve attended- from elementary to college, I’ve had a tendency to jump around. I’ve always left out of my own volition and I haven’t used transferring schools as a way to run away from my problems. I’ve always made friends, I’ve always found a nook or cranny that becomes “My Spot”. But I felt like I was always searching for something more. While I was content, I wasn’t myself.
In the spring of 2019, I decided to transfer to Brown University from the University of Southern California. I had a blast my freshman year and had tons of friends- but from the moment I stepped foot on campus, I knew in my gut that it wasn’t my place. Whether or not this is too pretentious- it kind of is, I’m self-aware-, I felt too neurotic, too serious, too pensive for sunny Los Angeles. My mind was always elsewhere, dreaming of roaming the halls of old libraries and wearing turtlenecks, as opposed to walking down fraternity row and wearing game day apparel.
I had tried to turn my introverted self into an extrovert because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do in college. And it was, quite frankly, exhausting.
So I was off to Brown…not.
I was admitted to Brown for the spring semester and was to spend my fall term at Trinity College Dublin in a program for transfers. The privileged brat inside me had her alarm bells ringing: but I always wanted to study in Paris! Who does their abroad semester in sophomore year? Although my track was already a little different, being a transfer, I was a bit peeved at yet another roadblock thrown into my journey to Brown.
I was lucky enough to spend that summer in Berlin, which was more incredible than I can begin to explain, but that’s a story for another time. I had felt more free and more myself living alone in a foreign city, away from the social confines and expectations of a university. I only knew the fifteen or so kids in my program; it was too small to form a weird, high school-esque hierarchy and I made three best friends who I shared everything with. Yet somehow, when the fall came around, all I wanted was to be back on a college campus.
Dublin wasn’t perfect. I didn’t love my classes at Trinity and I didn’t have the Normal People love story with a pensive Irish boy I expected (I’m very idealistic). I kept falling ill and struggled to figure out the Irish healthcare system while barely being able to get out of bed. I don’t usually get homesick, but I missed my family. I was lonely. But my time in Dublin brought out a piece of myself I left for dead when I went to California in 2018.
I learned to love being by myself again. There was no expectation for what I was supposed to be doing or who I was supposed to be doing it with. I pride myself on being an independent person, but I still get caught up in the drama and games of college cliques and the culture of “popularity”- it’s hard not to. But in Dublin, none of that existed. No one knew me and I knew no one. I have never felt more distinctly myself than when I was anonymous and alone in a foreign city.
Let’s be clear- it wasn’t pure, off the rails, unencumbered joy. But I found contentment. I found simple routines, basic pleasures that were mine and mine alone, shared by me and me only. I had a handful of close and true friends; we were bound by the shared loneliness and confusion that comes with being thrust across the ocean when you hoped you would be elsewhere. My social life consisted of going to coffee shops and ordering a two Euro tea so I could sit there for five hours with my book; getting dinner with friends and being in bed by 10 pm on a Saturday night; exploring old churches and finishing off the day with a cheap cider.
There was no hypothetical social calendar I felt I had to adhere to. I began to unlearn a year of trying to keep up with people I had little to nothing in common with.
People always tell you that in college, you will finally find your people. You will finally find your niche and it will all be seamless and wonderful and you’ll realize how much better the place you’re in now is better than your high school. But honestly, that’s complete and utter bullshit. People suck, life is hard, no matter where you go or how old you are. You can still get sucked into caring about the social food-chain, even when you’re supposedly in a place where everyone is above that.
My fifteen-year-old self would hate to hear this, but I don’t think college will be the best four years of my life. I really don’t. I love learning, I love meeting new and diverse groups of people, I love challenging myself. But I have never been more Me than when I was 3,000 miles from home and free from the hand-holding, confining grasp of American university life. Even at Brown, my dream school, I still see remnants of the things I disliked the most at USC. I still catch myself, in moments, trying to adhere to what my high school self would think was acceptable. Which is beyond silly.
I’m going to try to relive this autumn in tandem with last year’s fall. Obviously, the realities of today will make things look a little different. But I will continue to invest in myself and the things that make me feel warm, proud, and truthful. There is safety and joy inside yourself- you just need to know how to look for it.
Originally published at http://ursuladedekind.com on August 27, 2020.