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Advice for New College Students From a Recent GradCambria Pilger
Living at home this past spring, college felt like a strange dream. I’d remember walking across campus...as I walked downstairs in my family's house to join a Zoom lecture. I printed out pictures from college to keep by my desk — but the smiling girl in them didn’t seem like me.
I’d spent a semester and a half on campus and yet, suddenly, I needed reminders for the place to even feel real.
I couldn’t look back fondly on my freshman year without the reality of what I missed sinking in further, so in general I tried not to think about it at all. When my family asked about school, I didn’t have any new stories to tell. It felt like I’d been robbed of the memories I was meant to make.
While most of spring semester was stripped away, due dates, projects and exams stayed. After my last final, even those reminders vanished. I knew I’d changed during my time in college, but without closure — time with my friends, spring activities and events, goodbyes, a teary move-out — I was in limbo. There was no punctuation to my freshman year.
It didn’t help that I had no belongings to tie me to school. Before spring break, I’d excitedly packed my small carry-on, locked the dorm room door behind me, and boarded a flight home. My college gear, notebooks and mementos were all left behind. I didn’t believe it when I heard I wouldn’t be returning. It may seem trivial, but each time I wore an old high school t-shirt instead of a college one, I felt more detached from who I was at school.
Three months after I left, I found out I could return to pack up my things. I knew visiting campus would likely bring up the loss I hadn’t dealt with, but I wanted my move-out.
My mom agreed to drive with me to St. Louis on the assigned weekend. The summer days in quarantine, which had so easily blended together before, suddenly felt slow. It was the first time in weeks I had something concrete to look forward to.
At last, we were on the highway...for twelve long hours. The sun was setting by the time we took the exit towards campus. I didn’t care how late it was — I had to see it! Streets I knew replaced the boring interstate. We passed the grocery store, my favorite restaurant and finally, unbelievably, there it was: my school.
I stared out the window through tears at the familiar stone buildings. It’s here, I thought, it’s still here. It wasn’t a dream anymore. Everything was just as I’d left it.
In an instant, sadness over the time I’d lost was replaced by the joy of being back. As soon as we were parked, I leapt out of the car, more energized than I’d been in months.
With my tired mother at my side, I practically sprinted towards the red stone buildings, following paths I’d learned as well as the layout of my childhood home. I noticed the minute differences as if it had only been a day. The trees were fully leafed out, the grass was lush in places it used to be trampled on, and the humid air felt wrong like this place had skipped spring.
At home, it had been hard to appreciate the times I did have in college without dwelling on the time I lost. Now, on campus, the timelines finally separated. I could talk about the good moments without the accompanying disappointment. Even in my shortened freshman year, there was so much to cherish.
I felt like an enthusiastic but disorganized tour guide as we walked around, telling my mom all the small stories that I couldn’t conjure up at home but which now flooded back because I was in the place where they happened. I pointed out the buildings where I’d attended my favorite classes, and outdoor seating where I’d studied with friends on mild afternoons.
Finally we settled on a bench in the oldest part of campus. Eating the picnic dinner we’d packed that morning at home, my mom told me I seemed like a different person — and in some ways, I was. The person I'd become during my semester and a half in college was excited and driven. When I'd lived on campus, I felt wonderful joy (and fear) knowing there would be something new to do each day. There were so many people to meet, professors to learn from, and new experiences to dive into. The longer I had lived there, the more the new place became my favorite place, and the buildings became another home.
I could’ve stayed on the bench all night, but we needed to get up early the next morning to pack so we headed to the car. In the dark, wandering back through the quiet campus, I felt somehow right again.
The next day, it took two tries to unlock my dorm room door. I pushed it open to find everything exactly as I’d left it — my bed haphazardly made, miscellaneous papers piled on the desk, a laundry basket full of clothes it would now be way too hot to wear, a wall calendar open to March.
Despite my better judgment, I rolled my empty suitcases into the room and went straight to the calendar, flipping through it and skimming the dates that had come and gone. Seeing all the events that had never happened, I again felt the loss of so many unmet expectations.
When I’d imagined packing up at the end of freshman year, even before the pandemic canceled college, I always figured I’d be emotional and nostalgic. In actuality, as my mother and I began packing, I stayed surprisingly relaxed. I thought of everything my friends and I had missed, and part of me was disappointed, but I was also so happy to see the tangible evidence of my rich, busy life at school. I got distracted leafing through a journal, laughed at the joke Valentine’s Day card a friend had given me, and felt excited about my future.
Taping closed each box for storage, I imagined the day that I would open them again, pictured unpacking my things in a new room and feeling the excitement of a new year.
I had already done the part that should’ve come after move-out. I was keeping in touch with people online, and I knew the feeling of missing this place. I'd already gotten through a lot of it, and so I could pack up knowing that, when the time came to leave, I’d be able to let go.
My freshman dorm room, finally empty, didn’t make me sad as I’d expected. Instead, it gave me much-needed hope.
My freshman year didn’t end on my terms, but after packing up, I left St. Louis feeling optimistic. I took the things I needed and left what I didn’t. I took that burst of energy accompanying the tears when I saw campus for the first time in too long. I left the weight of the plans on my wall calendar. I didn’t need or want anymore to feel as if something had been stolen from me.
It wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be to get back in the car and head west again. I know that the buildings will still stand when I return, and the part of me that I lost by spending part of my freshman year at home will come back, too.
College move-in is approaching! Help your student prepare by making sure they have everything they need for a successful freshman year.