To get back home, I hop onto the train — two, to be exact. After the Metro-North comes the New York subway, a short journey to the place where I grew up, a place where everything remains curiously familiar. At this time last year, the genesis of my first year, I found it difficult to discern how different of a life I would lead on this campus. After all, how much of a contrast could exist between places only two hours away from one another?
But the differences were clear the moment I got off the train at Grand Central. As I physically distanced myself from campus, further and further with each stop, I also solidified an emotional distance. There was a sharp cognitive dissonance between New York Leila and Ivy League Leila. Within the walls of my home, I spoke Spanish with my abuelita. I ate the meals that pulled me back into childhood memories, the familiar flavors serving as a comfort of sorts. When the weekend getaway ended, however, I’d retreat back into my college self. Each day brought a new responsibility, another box to tick off. I was living two separate lives; my “real” life at home and the other life I was existing in on campus.
I soon learned that distance has little to do with what marks the differences between one place and another. At home, I laughed a little too loud and talked a little too much. In contrast, when I was at Yale, I watered myself down. I was dancing the line between a raw version of myself and a carefully cultivated persona. On campus, I would smile, but not too widely. I’d make conversation, but never be too forward. I was incredibly particular with the things I chose to do and the words I decided to say.
I did all of this because I felt uncomfortable. I was in a foreign environment, so I withdrew. But it was this exact resistance to opening up that caused an immense sense of loneliness, in addition to the initial discomfort. My hesitance to be myself only deepened my lack of belonging. In essence, I felt unhappy because I didn’t feel at home and didn’t feel at home because I was unhappy.
Why is it that when we don’t immediately feel accustomed to a place, we blame where we are rather than who we are? Rather than seek the warm relief of intimacy we developed within our hometowns, we tend to compartmentalize; there is school and then there is home. While there is a clear distinction between the environments in which we grew up in and the demands of a university like ours, we should remember that this is where we’re going to spend pivotal years of our lives. Realizing that might finally help us break down the school vs. home dichotomy, pushing us to make homes out of ourselves.
The greatest disservice I’ve done to myself throughout my college experience is not making the most of it. I lived my first year as an unoccupied body, merely floating through. This year, I’ve made the decision to look within myself, rather than physical places, for wholeness. I’ve always grappled with the concept of “finding yourself” because I found it a bit redundant. While I saw merit in the idea, I couldn’t help but think, “Why can’t I find something that is already there?”
I think that, now, I’ve found my answer: I’m never going to find the elusive missing piece that will make everything feel complete if I continue to seek parts of myself in other people and other places. If I want to feel at home no matter where I am, I need to build a safe place out of myself. I’m hoping that this year, I’m able to start anew.
Leila Jackson is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column runs every other Thursday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .