Humans possess an innate ability to create a home no matter where they are. For 15 years of my life, that home was small-town suburbia in West Chester, Pennsylvania. If you had asked me how well I knew West Chester last fall, I would have scoffed – I knew it all too well.
I knew the gravel roads that twisted and turned like the veins in the back of my hand. I knew the smile lines of my closest friends, neighbors, teachers and family members. I knew the low, baritone cacophony of the blaring train that always delayed traffic. West Chester was an appendage of me – I knew the town like I knew myself.
If you asked me that question today, I’d falter. The truth is that I used to know West Chester like I knew myself. Now, I wander through the semifamiliar streets of D.C. wondering if my definition of home has changed or if I have.
There is a certain paradox that comes with being a second-semester college freshman. I have adjusted and readjusted my definition of home like a camera lens shifting into focus. “I’m headed back home. I’ll see you there,” I’ve said to my roommate about my residence hall room of five months. Calling this unfamiliar place my home is a way of grounding myself, deconstructing a metropolis and pretending to be more secure than I really am through a sense of intimacy.
Since the spring semester began, I’ve felt a lasting sense of déjà vu. Between starting new classes, making friends and losing old ones, I’ve done this all before. But unlike the adjustment period of the first semester, the spring is a blunt reminder of the new era of life I am entering. I’m now in the middle of change rather than the beginning of it. The start of the second semester feels more permanent and precarious than the first.
The second semester, at its core, reminds me that I am a 19 year old who feels like a child while trying to navigate an old, new city and an old, new campus. Sometimes I wish someone would hold me by the tail end of one of those leash backpacks at the zoo, guiding me in every direction so I wouldn’t have to make every decision on my own.
Make no mistake – I love the freedom of college. I get to craft my own schedule, hop on the Metro to explore a new part of town and become acquainted with local coffee shops. I’ve honed my freedom this semester better than I did in the fall. But every once in a while, freedom becomes a cage of adulthood – a feeling I didn’t quite notice last semester. There is so much choice around every corner, and it’s overwhelming. Freedom allows me the range to make mistakes, like trusting the wrong people, not trusting myself enough or trusting the Carving’s burgers a little too much.
Many times throughout the past two weeks, I’ve caught myself repeating a mantra – “Relax. You’ve done this before,” I say, trying to quell my nerves. But have I? Sure, I know my way to Tompkins Hall, but I can’t shake the feeling that I never take the most direct route. I recognize faces in my classes, but looking around at different people in a new 200-person lecture is like visiting the National Portrait Gallery. I recognize the regulars, but I just pretend to know the others so I don’t seem like a fraud in my self-confidence.
Traveling home to West Chester for winter break was like a time warp, a regression from the independence of college back into the safety of my childhood home. My town was frozen in place, and I slipped back into my old routine like muscle memory. I reunited with family and friends whom I hadn’t embraced in months and resumed working at my high school waitress job, welcoming in the familiarity. I both hated and loved the preservation of my earlier life – it was comforting but also reminded me that I am different now, not the West Chester kid of the past. Returning back to campus wasn’t as simple, though – it meant readjusting back to the freshness of college life and accepting the transience of home.
Most of the time, the freshness is invigorating. But then I start to wonder if I’m falling behind everyone else because I feel rudimentary six months into college. I still feel the burden of transitioning from one setting to another, dialing my parents instead of walking downstairs to greet them and navigating Google Maps around the city without my dad to guide me in the right direction.
College is still new, even in the second semester, and that newness is thrilling and daunting at the same time. I feel successful and accomplished for completing my first semester, albeit confused and juvenile as the spring approaches. But this contradiction isn’t the case for every freshman. Many come to college looking for a fresh start, yearning to escape an unfortunate situation or a false reputation that followed them around their gossip-prone high school.
For a lot of us, though, part of growing up is realizing that it often takes longer and feels harder than we initially expected. But humans forge a home out of any place we find ourselves. You might already be there, or it might take some time, but eventually, you will find home once again. And GW can be just that.
Paige Baratta, a freshman majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.
This article appeared in the February 2, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.