Last summer, I spent a lot of time walking. At the close of each business day, I would set off on my journey home, bypass the smelly, tourist-ridden Times Square subway stop and head straight down Broadway. Every day, I would walk the 28 blocks back to my Union Square apartment. Eventually, I knew that 28-block stretch like the back of my hand.
Yet what struck me most about my daily walk home — more so than any passionate protester or the jaywalking pedestrians who seemed to treat life like a game of Frogger — was that not once did I run into a single person I knew. Not a single person. I was never alone, but sometimes it sure felt lonely.
Moving to New York City this summer reminded me of how I felt as a first-year just moving onto Grounds. Since nothing ever happens the way you imagine it in your head, I tried to prepare for my move to college — and New York — by over-packing and overcompensating when someone asked if I was excited to be going on this great new adventure.
“I am so, so, so excited,” I would respond, channeling the enthusiasm of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.” In reality, I was anxious about leaving the comfort of familiarity and afraid what came next wouldn’t be much better than what I was leaving behind.
Still, there was certainly an immense power and excitement in all the possibility that lay ahead. I could reinvent myself. I could explore new places. I could meet new friends. I could do things I’d never done before.
Part of that of possibility slipped away as my friends and I settled into our majors, clubs and sports teams around Grounds. Instead of wondering, “What if I tried something new?” like we did as first-years, we are now wondering, “What if I had majored in something different?”
“What if I had gotten involved in that organization?”
“What if I had spent more time in Alderman?”
We’re wondering if we’re on the right path, comparing ourselves to those around us who appear more put-together and further ahead.
It’s human nature to wonder “what if,” especially in a time of transition. But it’s also important to remember we are only 22, and there is immense possibility waiting to be explored in the “real world.”
Sometimes we forget how young we are. This is partially because being 18 feels like a lifetime ago — when we were younger we thought 22 was just so old. We thought we would have everything figured out by then. We would finally be the big fish in the small pond.
But the real world is not a pond — it’s an ocean. It’s vast and overwhelming and there’s always something new to explore. We are not stuck on a path we set for ourselves at 22. We can change. We can go back to school or move to a new city, decide we hate it, and move to another city. We can always go home. We can quit that boring job and write that novel we always thought we would publish. We have not peaked at 22. If we don’t believe the best is yet to come, what’s the point?
Yet the “what if” persists. Come May, we will no longer be surrounded by 14,591 people close to our own age. People whom we’ve known forever. People we don’t even really know, but had a class with first year or Facebook stalked one time. People who are on the exact same journey as us.
That’s why I was so excited to come back to Charlottesville after a summer of walking 28 blocks alone in Manhattan. The 14th Street I walked on there was filled with people on different paths. The 14th street I walk on here is filled with friends, shouts of “we should get lunch” and memories of the times we stumbled home after a party with friends.
Part of the reason we hold on to good things so tightly is because we fear something so great won’t happen twice. I’m not walking around saying, “I don’t want to graduate,” because I’ll miss writing papers and stressing out when I pick the letter C on a scantron four times in a row. No, I’m walking around saying, “I don’t want to graduate,” because then I’ll have to leave this microcosm that makes me so happy.
During spring break, I went back to New York City and walked those 28 blocks again. Unsurprisingly, I did not run into a single person I knew. What was surprising was that in the nine months since I last walked down Broadway the stores, billboards and the people had changed. It did not stop moving forward because I was gone.
Similarly, this University thrived long before I was accepted, and will continue to do so long after May 19, 2013. That’s what makes it so great. I suppose whoever called it “commencement” was onto something. Even if I want to hate the thought of graduating, I know that — like the city and this school — I have to move forward into a new beginning.
But, like I said — we can always go home.
Katie’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.