To stump an out-of-state student, ask this question

When “just ‘cause” isn’t a sufficient answer

It’s a question we all get. You’re sure to hear it, whether you hail from Hong Kong, were brought up in Brooklyn or are so thoroughly Charlottesvillian you remember Venable Elementary School on 14th St. as the place you learned long division rather than where you contribute to the smattering of red cups crushed — like your innocence — on the sidewalk.

I am willing to bet my next month’s rent that someone has asked you this at least once: “Why did you decide to go to U.Va.?”

To attend college is, if nothing else, a huge privilege. But there are more than 2,000 four-year institutions in this country, and while U.Va. is certainly an academic standout, it’s still just one good school out of plenty.

I come from California, a state most people I’ve encountered seem to think of as the magical place where the clouds rain golden burritos and all the Über drivers have whips like Maseratis and Teslas. I have personally been asked why I go to U.Va. about 289 times.

The inquiry is no softball. It’s not like I can pluck out an easy answer like “The administration pays me in Five Guys little cheeseburgers, with no onions, to go here,” or “My beating, feeling heart told me the 22903 is where my stormy soul will finally be at peace.” I’m not athletically talented enough to have been recruited to play a sport. My parents are not alumni. I didn’t win a fat U.Va. scholarship or anything. I don’t even get in-state tuition.

During my time here, what has frustrated me more than anything else is how difficult it is to answer this question. In response I usually offer a weak explanation of how I wanted to try something different after high school, how I’ve always loved the history entrenched in Virginia, etc. Though such replies are not false, I’ve never felt like my sentiments expressed an adequate answer to others or, even more terrifyingly, to myself.

In my history seminars this year, I’ve been learning a lot about how people understand their immediate worlds. The historian Inga Clendinnen, in explaining the fundamental views of time, religion and social hierarchy of the Maya and the Spaniards they encountered in the 16th century, called the concept of a ‘worldview’ a ‘system of meaning.’ In the 1960s, James Baldwin described similar structures of knowledge ‘systems of realities.’ These classes — which I dare not skip after calculating how much a 50-minute session costs — have me wondering about my peers’, and my own, systems.

This semester, and for however much more time I have at this school, I’m going to identify and articulate the reasons behind my confusing relationship with U.Va. For example, hopefully I’ll better understand why I can love how stepping into a Lawn room feels like stepping back into the 1800s, while resenting how they’ve become a tangible way of measuring someone’s academic and social value.

My quest will also include an attempt to see how much the school and region’s histories shape my system of reality. Because even the act of sitting in a park, with a perfect shade-to-sun ratio and a centerpiece statue of some Confederate general on a big-ass horse, tugs at contradictory emotions. A lot of these lovely buildings, landscapes and the general environment are marked by immoral symbols and foundations. How does one reconcile the barrage of the ‘good,’ the ‘bad’ and the ‘okay’ present in everyday life?

In times of particular consternation, I try to remember some of the things I could only experience at this particular school. These realizations take the amorphous shape of memories.

When I scrunch up my eyes, blocking out my immediate vision, I can see myself receiving a warm hug and a “Go get ‘em, girl” from the life-affirming Miss Kathy, as she swipes my ID card for another dining hall breakfast. I remember the two-night slumber party, during which we crowded around a single laptop to watch movies and drink tea, hosted in my apartment during last winter’s abrupt snow storm. I can imagine myself plopping on the green expanse of the Lawn so epic it’s capitalized for the 10 minutes before my next class, watching pods of friends picnic beneath the ash trees, which swell with each breeze.

It’s undeniable — the University has been a platform for so many thrilling things, like falling in love with someone at an Honor trial or impulsively getting a lip piercing. In certain moments of duress, remembering these things assuages my confusion.

But while I search for my own answer, I’m going to turn this question right back around on you.

Why did you end up here?

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