Laura Donovan
July 19, 2014 11:09 am

A relative just graduated from high school and is getting ready to attend Stanford, an accomplishment in itself. It’s been fun to have her commencement ceremony and lovey dovey prom photos pop up on my newsfeed, especially with the stresses of adulthood regularly weighing on me, but as the summer goes on and we get closer to the start of fall semester, I worry about her. Like me, she had a boyfriend her last year of high school and they’re adorable despite the giant wedge life is about to place between them. They’re going to different colleges but hoping to make it work. It’s the same mentality I had going into undergrad, and it ended up ruining my first year at the University of Arizona.

Three months before starting college, my dad lost his five-month battle to liver cancer. Because he’d gotten the diagnosis on Thanksgiving, everyone expected his circumstances to negatively impact my senior year, especially since he passed away the morning of prom, but no one told me how it would shape my college experience. When it came time to leave home and move over to the dorms in August 2006, I realized I would be facing a lot of changes at once: new state, new school, new social structure, new environment, etc. Losing a parent was hard enough on top of the huge transition and rite of passage, so I chose to stay with my high school sweetheart who would be attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado. It seemed like the best decision at the time. We’d only recently gotten back together after a tumultuous breakup worthy of a Taylor Swift song, so I wasn’t about to throw that away. I’d lost my dad. It was too soon to lose another person I loved.

I thought going into freshman year with a boyfriend would make me feel better about the fact that I had no friends. While my hallmates, all of whom were too busy with their new sororities to engage with anyone outside the Greek system, went out to parties and dinners together, I holed myself up in Coronado Hall to write letters to my significant other. He was only allowed a couple phone calls a week at the Academy, so we corresponded mostly via snail mail. I vowed to write him a letter every single day, oftentimes sobbing on each page.

“I’m not making friends,” I’d write. “I try, but everyone on my floor is only interested in hanging out with sorority girls. No one invites me to anything. I’m eating every meal by myself.”

He encouraged me to initiate conversation and get to know the ladies anyway, but on the rare occasions they said I could join them on excursions, I still felt guilty about attending parties without my boyfriend. Whenever a guy tried talking to me, I felt obligated to mention being in a long-distance relationship. I didn’t want to drink much either, as my boyfriend was also under 21 and not allowed to imbibe at his strict military school, and that kept me from relating to my fellow classmates.

I wasn’t too interested in partying but still wanted human interaction, so my boyfriend suggested joining a club. One day, I received a $5 bill with a sticky note instructing me take someone out to ice cream. “I guess this is long-distance dating,” my S.O. wrote. “Treat a cool person to ice cream. On me.”

Back then, five bucks was more than enough for two cones at the Tucson Baskin Robbins. The problem was finding someone to go with. So I took myself instead and ordered two giant scoops of Mint Chip and Mint Chocolate Chip in a big cup. That had been my dad’s standard order at B&R, where we went as a family twice a week. A lump formed in my throat as I tried to consume the dessert, which had once made me the happiest teenager ever. That, of course, was back when I still had a father, a strong social structure and a relationship that hadn’t run its course.

Many of my classmates were ready for the summer when it finally came. “God, I am so over freshman year,” my roommate would say. “Get me back to LA.” She’d been so excited to start college that she overdid it her first year. I’d been thrilled as well, but I held myself back. I’d let freshman year pass me by in order to maintain my long-distance relationship.

That, as I learned the summer after freshman year, wasn’t working either. My boyfriend only had a few weeks off and devoted the majority of them to his family. They all wanted to spend the Fourth of July at his summer house five hours away, and though I asked to tag along so we could finally see each other after months apart, he was hesitant to send any false message to his relatives . . . and me.

“If you come up for the Fourth, my family might look down on me,” he said. “They might think we’re really serious about each other. More serious than we really were.”

I understood and I didn’t. We’d just spent our entire first year of college dating from afar. Was that not a serious commitment? Or had it just been easy, comfortable and convenient for us to stay together that whole time? A younger version of myself would have wept after he made that comment, but I sadly agreed with him. Worst of all, I felt we’d ruined the great thing we shared by holding onto it for too long, and for only doing so out of loneliness.

When he returned to school a month later, I asked how he’d feel about me coming to visit. He didn’t seem interested, so I straight up asked whether he wanted to see me or not.

“I don’t know,” he whispered.

By the end of the call, we were no longer a couple. After recovering from the initial shock of truly breaking ties with my first and only love, I realized we’d made the right choice. Sophomore year was two weeks away and I could take full advantage of college life as I hadn’t freshman year. I could go to too many parties, have stress-free conversations with men and finally get that clean slate I’d robbed myself of the previous year. I could make up for lost time.

The rest of college was phenomenal, not because I was single, but because I finally allowed myself to live in the present. When graduation rolled around in spring 2010, I didn’t even want to walk at the ceremony. I wanted to stay, especially since I hadn’t fully appreciated college my first year, when it turned into a place that took me away from my boyfriend rather than an educational institution bursting with opportunity.

My eldest brother Kevin met his wife Barbara their first week of college. When I finished school without ever having a boyfriend (aside from my high school sweetheart), I thought I missed out on the great American college experience by tying myself down too early.

I know now that everything worked out just fine. I didn’t have a boyfriend in college, but I met the love of my life three years after obtaining my degree. I wouldn’t trade what I have today for anything in the world, but I would tell any new college student that going off to school with a significant other is limiting socially as well as personally. You can’t grow if you refuse to part with the past. I wish someone had been honest about that when I was 18 and more ready than I thought for a new beginning.

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