It’s back-to-school season. There’s a distinct shift in the feeling and smell of the summer air that triggers neurons in my brain’s memory center to light up. The stores have been mass-marketing school supplies for weeks, Facebook is littered with pictures of friends’ kids donning new backpacks, and the screeching brakes of school buses echo through the neighborhood. Although my school days are well behind me, every time August rolls around, I experience again the same feelings of anticipation, excitement, and nostalgia I always felt as a student.
Back-to-school season always makes my memory dial back to my college years spent as a student in a picturesque little town in central Michigan. Every early September, I’d borrow my grandparents’ van, pack it to the brim with carefully selected necessities, and make the hour and a half trip north to my college campus with my parents. Saying goodbye to my life at home was always hard, but once we were on our way my thoughts became filled with anticipation for the life I’d be rejoining at school and the community I belonged to there.
The last leg of the drive was coasting down a long, rolling stretch of road in the countryside lined with towering trees and farm fields. My heart would begin pounding faster the closer we got to town, and would be practically beating out of my chest by the time we finally reached the main road. Driving directly through town toward campus, there was the water tower, the cafe, the pharmacy, the grocery store, the church, the lone McDonald’s, and—finally—my college, my home for the next eight months.
The campus was a beautiful blend of historic buildings and modern additions nestled within a landscape of plentiful trees. At the heart of campus was the plaza with its criss-crossing pathways and tree-lined perimeter. At the plaza’s center was the clock tower, a colossal landmark visible from virtually anywhere on campus. A broad, twisting oak tree stood beside the student center with history nearly seeping from its thick, ancient branches. A tall white steeple on the Free Methodist church adjacent to campus pointed the way to chapel, our twice-weekly worship service housed in the church’s expansive sanctuary. Sidewalks stretched in every direction connecting each area on campus by just a short walk. I never grew tired of being greeted by this landscape every time I returned to school.
Memories of beginning my freshman year always stir up a special sense of fondness and nostalgia. On move-in day, my parents and I tirelessly lugged my belongings up to the tiny room I’d be sharing with another student on the third floor of the 70-year-old residence hall we’d been assigned to. As the sun crossed the sky and bathed the plaza with afternoon light, we gathered with the other incoming freshmen to ceremoniously start our college journey and say goodbye to our families. I was a ball of nerves, excitement, sadness, and anxiety as I hugged my parents then watched them walk out of sight back to the van.
Acclimating to life on campus as a freshman required all my attention, leaving little time to process how I felt about being away from my home and family long-term for the first time. I was immersed in constant start-of-the-year events, daily meals in the dining commons with my floor mates, and required meetups with groups of other freshmen. Then came the first day of classes, which was marked by awkward classroom introductions and collecting syllabi that detailed an amount of work to be done that both exhilarated and terrified me.
Starting a new school year in college felt very much like returning to my real life. I thrived academically and enjoyed most of my classes, especially those in my chosen major of psychology. I’d made friends and become part of the campus community my freshmen year, and every subsequent return each fall always felt like coming home. I was eager each school year to keep learning, maturing, and figuring out what my place in the world was going to be.
Going-back-to-college season meant a lot of things. It meant shopping for school supplies, planning my dorm furniture arrangement, and meticulously organizing and personalizing my room. It meant hard goodbyes to loved ones and sweet hellos to dearly missed friends. It meant soaking in the last sights on campus of a lush green summer before the trees all around me turned yellow and orange to usher in fall. It also meant, though I didn’t realize it at the time, returning to the place that became the setting for experiencing deep pain, hurt, and trauma.
Despite the complicated mix of feelings I have reflecting back on my college years as a whole, I can’t help but remember those early fall days back on campus with fondness. I have felt conflicted about my choice of college more than once since graduating, and I know I am no longer the same person who once felt so at home being on its campus. But back-to-school season makes me remember the good that happened during my college days. It was an integral part of my journey that brought me to where I am today. For that, I am grateful.