My parents like to tell people that I chose my college by looking at a map of the U.S. and finding the farthest point possible from home. That may as well have been true. From Los Angeles to my college town in Vermont, the distance is almost 3,000 miles, or a full day of travel with no direct flight.
I didn’t choose to go so far away from home because I wanted to run away. My family and I have always been close, and—after a lifetime of cross-country moves—I loved being back in Southern California, where I was born: home of my relatives, Japanese pastries, and the beach.
But even though I loved California, I’d grown up moving, and I wasn’t ready yet to stay in one place. And at the same time, I was so tired of starting over every couple of years as the new kid in a new town. I wanted to find a campus that fit me as perfectly as possible, then make that place my one, undisputed home for the next four years.
That’s exactly what college turned out to be for me. At a small school, in a small town, in a state with a population just over half a million, my classmates and I turned inward for entertainment. During our first year especially, in an all-freshman dorm, we bonded over the smallest things: the first thunderstorm, the first snow, the first streakers (whose clothes we hid in the communal kitchen’s oven).
Away from my family for the first time, I began to notice things about myself that I’d always taken for granted. Through all our moves, my parents had always chosen the neighborhood with the best school district they could afford. As a result, we often ended up outliers among upper-middle-class friends. That was still nothing compared to the environment of a private liberal arts college in New England. Enough of my friends were also on on financial aid with part-time work study jobs that I never felt alone. My biggest challenge was to trust that I was enough, that I had just as much a place in my classes and at parties as those students who had been socialized in this world from childhood.
Away from my family, I also began thinking more about race, especially the difference between how I see myself and how others see me. One look at my parents may be enough context to understand why I look and act the way I do, but without them, I’m usually seen as white. Early on in my freshman year, a close friend told me, “You act a lot more Asian than you are.” She said it as if she were genuinely puzzled by a brown-haired girl eating miso soup, and that made me think too. How Asian was I? And if my face alone couldn’t communicate that, what could?
Meanwhile, many of my high school friends had stayed in California and gone to state schools, some even choosing to room with people they’d grown up with. They were having a great time too, but a different time. And while I missed them, I loved the feeling of breaking from everything I’d known. My new friends were from places like Kansas and Vermont and Singapore. I learned so much from them, like how to ski and how to make curry in a totally different way than my mom made it. When we were in pain, from heartbreak or imposter syndrome or depression, we tried our best to help each other through it, with dorm room dance parties and cuddle piles and long conversations in Adirondack chairs as the fireflies came on.
If I have any regret about choosing a college far away, it’s only that, back in my home state, I’m miles from almost all the friends I made on campus. I talk to the closest ones often, and a group of us has gotten together once per year for all five of our years beyond graduation. But I miss even the people I don’t know well enough to call. I miss the community we all shared for four years in a little town—a warm togetherness like the glow of a tent with a party inside, surrounded by rural darkness.
6 Things I Learned My First Year of College
[Image via Warner Bros.]