Reflections on College

I didn’t get to go to the college I wanted to attend. I wanted to go to New College of Florida since I was a small child (maybe 5?). My dad went there, several family friends went there. I toured it three or four times growing up. I wore the school hoodie just about every day in high school. It was a brilliant, liberal, personal school that had a design-your-own-degree program, was all pass/fail, and was an honors college that required writing a full thesis to graduate with a Bachelor’s. It was on the ocean. It was a tiny school with incredible faculty. As the child of an alumnus, I was offered in-state tuition as incentive to attend. When I was a senior in high school, I applied during early admission, got in, and was offered a substantial scholarship. However, the old Dean, who had known my dad and knew me from all of my visits to the school, retired, and the new Dean wouldn’t give me the in-state tuition. What would’ve been a reasonably-priced education became unaffordable, even with the scholarship. Then, I grew incredibly ill, missed my last several months of high school, and was pretty much bedridden for just about six months. I went to college that year, but it wasn’t the college I’d spent my life dreaming about. I studied Anthropology, Art, and Religious Studies while I was there, and loved my classes, but it wasn’t the college experience I’d wanted. Don’t get me wrong, I’m EXTREMELY grateful that I was able to go, that my family could afford for me to attend (leaving me with no student loans, a remarkable feat these days), that I was able to be so close to home. I had a good college experience, but I struggled. I struggled with my health, with not having the experience I’d expected, with realizing that I wasn’t studying what I really wanted to be studying– writing– because I was afraid that it would leave me unemployed. I loved the Anthropology department, I adored my professors, and I learned things that have made me see the entire world as a completely different thing than I did before. But I still keep the old New College hoodie in a box in my closet because I can’t look at it without crying a little for the college experience I’d always dreamed of having. I graduated with my Bachelors in Anthropology in six years (being sick meant taking fewer classes at a time), magna cum laude, and it was a really triumphant moment for me even though it was in the midst of a personal tragedy. I had great relationships with my professors, I had made friends in school, and I was proud that I had finished something, even if I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Again, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity, grateful to my family for paying for school, and grateful to my professors for their support and kindness. But the lost dream of New College didn’t really stop hurting, even if it faded to background noise. I think we all have this idea of what College Should Be, especially when we grow up in an oppressive place– I grew up in rural North Georgia, where my peers treated me at best like an interesting animal in a zoo, at worst like a rabid animal that needed to be put down– and while I had a really, really good experience at Georgia State and met awesome people and lived good years and did cool things, it was never what I’d thought College Should Be. A home. A place to discover yourself. A place with smart people, people like you, who want to be learning what you’re learning and have long, late-night discussions about those things. You know. That. And part of that definitely came from the fact that I wasn’t in the department I should’ve been in, and part of it was the nature of the GSU campus (very spread out across Atlanta, with no actual real campus at all), and part of it was maybe how sick I was and how frustrated I was. Regardless, I graduated feeling like I’d missed something, and was kind of just resigned to that.

Discovering the existence of Stonecoast was like someone took away the notebook I’d written this whole proud-and-grateful-but-not-satisfied college experience thing in and put it up on a shelf and said, “You’re done with that, look at this,” and handed me a new, completely blank notebook with perfect paper and perfectly spaced lines and my name already stamped on the inside cover. It was like an opportunity for a do-over. It was the college equivalent of if someone combined New College (small, intimate, personalized education, on the water, filled with professors who adore what they do) with Alpha (the writers’ workshop that was basically the only experience I had as a teenager that demonstrated to me that there were good people my age in the world, not to mention people who thought in the ways I did, and showed me that there might be hope for a home for me, somewhere, someday) and plopped it down in the most beautiful state in the country and said, “here you go, Alena, here’s where you belong.” Running into the Stonecoast in Ireland program while I was staying in Dingle last summer just reinforced it for me– these people liked me immediately (which is rare, okay, I know I’m odd) and were so welcoming and kind, not in the “we’re trying to make you feel like we like you” way that I realized then that I had grown incredibly accustomed to, but in the “we actually like you, you are good at things and we have stuff in common and we would like to have you in our group” way. I felt like I had found a home among strangers. I actually went home to Marion House that first night after the readings and just cried, because my life had fallen apart in a way I didn’t even know was possible, but here, on another continent, in a truly miniscule town, was the same school that had looked like a lighthouse of hope in the distance, holding its hand out to me and saying, “Hey, why don’t you read one of your poems for us?” (Actually, that was Ted Deppe and Jean Marie Beaumont and then the class egging me on, but still, the point stands. Hand. Reading. That.) I knew I wanted to go to Stonecoast as soon as I heard of it, but that experience showed me that maybe I could actually GET IN.

I spent the year since graduating doing my best to get published. I’ve had ten publications so far, a couple of which actually paid me decent money (one paid for the plane ticket to Ireland, for instance). I applied to Stonecoast and held my breath. And eleven days after I submitted my application, I got a call from the really cool lady in admissions to tell me that I got in. It was 11:30 in the morning, so I was asleep, and I actually asked her repeatedly to tell me that I was awake and not dreaming (I was kind of a giant spaz). But I got in. My work was good enough. My recommendations were from amazing people, and they said wonderful things about me. My writing was enough to impress what is, in my opinion, the most dazzling array of writing faculty available. Something inside me settled, just a little, like a house shifting on its foundations. For the first time as an adult, I really, really knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be, and I got it. I got into the school of my dreams. And I’m nervous, and I’m excited, and okay, yes, terrified, a little, that something will go wrong. But I know also that if it does, I’ll handle it. I will wrestle any large carnivores (bears, alligators, whatever) I have to wrestle to get to this place. I am going in July. I will be there. I am gonna do the thing. I don’t have words for how excited I am. I ordered a bunch of poetry books written by the faculty so I’m familiar with their work before I arrive. I’m EXCITED to learn things. I haven’t felt like this since the dream of New College got pulled away– not that I didn’t learn things excitedly with the Anthro program, but I wasn’t…eager, I wasn’t hungry to know more in this same way. This feels magical to me. And I’m stunningly, stupefyingly grateful. I’m grateful to get in. I’m grateful that I had the courage to apply. I’m grateful for the amazing recommendations I was given. I’m grateful for the family (especially my mom, who went over every aspect of the application with me and handheld me through clicking “submit”, and my dad, who actually put the envelope with my manuscript INTO THE MAILBOX before taking me for milkshakes) that supports and applauds my writing career. I’m grateful to everyone who pushed me to apply and kept chanting “YOU’LL GET IN SHUT UP STOP BEING SCARED YOU WILL GET IN!” (cough*Jen*cough) I’m grateful to my whole amazing community for this whole thing.

I’m also scared, because academia was rigorous and exhausting and frequently tedious, and a part of me is worried that this will be like that. That I’ll just procrastinate and waste my time. But mostly I’m not. And when I worry, I think back the single best help I was ever given in college, when my professor, Faidra, sat me down and said, “It’s okay for it to be hard.” And I protested that it WASN’T hard, all the work was perfectly doable, I just couldn’t make myself DO it. And she said, “No, it’s okay for it to be hard to make yourself do. It’s okay for it to be hard for YOU, even if the work isn’t hard for you. It’s okay. Give yourself permission for it to be difficult.”
So I’m gonna do that. I’m going to give myself permission for this whole thing to be exciting and terrifying and potentially difficult and just…look forward to that. Look forward to the fact that, even if it IS difficult, it’ll be difficulty on the road to doing exactly what I want to do, with the people I want to be around, in a field I love and am maybe (probably) really good at.

So yeah. Bring on summer. I’m stoked.

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Thoughts on Identity

On days when I’m completely adrift, I think of all the things that remind me of myself. Amber, because it is golden and warm, hard and malleable at the same time. Teapots, round-bellied and givers of comfort. Owls, fluffy and soft, sharp and watchful. Short grain brown rice. Rainstorms. Badgers. Old books. Gluten free scones.

If I cannot come back to myself, I remember the people who raised me. My mother is homegrown tomatoes, eaten in the garden in the heat of summer. Is a cup of Irish Breakfast tea on a Sunday morning, sipped at while watching birds at the feeder on the porch. Is hours of homeschooling, frustration, understanding, support. Is days in the sun by the lake, planning things, knowing that we are both the sort of people who will make sure they come to pass.

My father is learning to paint, the smell of acrylics faint but distinct. Is the sound of a cleaver hitting a wooden cutting board through meat and spices while he narrates like my very own cooking show. Is a bowl of popcorn covered in odd things, eaten in front of tv shows about superheroes. Is a little blue collection of Yeats poems.

My grandmother is the smell of garlic, is the feel of its papery skin sticking to my fingers when I slice through it to make a pasta dish in the middle of the night when I have been too sick to move for days. She is being curled up on a couch and believing that it is more comfortable than the bed, even though it isn’t. Is us watching awards shows and dance shows for the outfits, not what’s going on. She is the hours of planning my hundred different weddings, late into the night.

If remembering the pieces of myself is not enough, I at least know I am some amalgam of warm summer tomatoes, superhero tv shows, and the papery skin of garlic. I’m somewhere in that. And that’s not nothing.