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I wish I could explain how it felt finding out I wouldn’t be venturing to campus as a freshman. Sitting underneath the string lights on the patio at my dad’s house this past July, my parents told me I’d be staying home my first semester. The water in the nearby pool was calm, and this summer was pale in comparison to the ones I’d spent before it. Though the news seems minimal, I felt like my entire world was crashing down around me. One by one, my dreams fell from the sky like the stars I’d wished them upon.

Like many college age students who’ve had their lifelong plans stripped away from them in the age of coronavirus, I’ve felt torn between my need to stay safe in a pandemic and my deeply rooted desire to bask in the freedom of my adolescence: to live selfishly and party without a single thought of consequence. The facts bleed into fiction in my head, and all I think about some days is my stolen youth. 

If I were 18 before the start of my freshman year, I could have gone on campus, no parental permission needed. But instead, here I am, a few days shy of my 18th birthday, still reconciling with unsettled anger at my parents for their decision. I didn’t know, but my parents had been talking to each other about me staying home since spring, so that summer night I felt blindsided. It’s not helpful to be told as a 17-year-old that you’re not missing out on anything by missing your high school graduation, the summer before college, with it’s coming-of-age allure romanticized by Hollywood, and the start of your freshman year. Knowing my parents only want what’s best for me makes their words hurt more. 

I’ve been sheltered my entire life, the kind where my parents were so concerned with the “What Ifs?” of every situation that they accidentally raised me to be paranoid and crippled by the fear of doing normal things. The fear of getting kidnapped every time I drive or go inside a store by myself is a product of that. I never went to any events in high school. Sure, I painted my lips red and dolled up for the annual homecoming and prom — well, my junior prom since COVID-19 ruined senior prom — but I never engaged in school pride. Streaking my face with the pride of my school’s colors to chant at soccer games against our rival magnet school might as well have been an alternate universe to me. I promised myself I’d do things differently this year. I’d be the girl marking her calendar with every WKU football game, posing for pictures with Big Red every chance I got and obsessively collecting red towels. 

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Being sheltered has made me sometimes crave an adrenaline rush from doing something potentially dangerous, because I feel I haven’t lived a normal life. Acting out on this craving is one of the things I’m scared of. I worry this desire won’t go away.

I spent the entire summer texting my two best friends about their own college adventures. When they told me about getting to know their roommates, I longed for my own real college experience, complete with finding my first best friend from school. The fear of being replaced never crossed my mind. Outside of seeing my friends once for a picnic at Nashville’s Parthenon replica and a few errands around my hometown, I’d spent the better part of my five-month-long “summer” at home. My high school peers were all gearing up for the event of their lives, the moment they left home, while I was nearing nothing.  

I’ve always seen my life in absolutes. Staying home the first semester of my freshman year of college meant that my chance to have adolescence-inspired fun had passed me by, and I’d experienced none of it. Glossy eyes glued to my bedroom ceiling, I spent most of my nights listening to songs like VÉRITÉ’s “Living” and Taylor Swift’s “My Tears Ricochet” while switching between Instagram and Snapchat. My best friends were free to explore, taking pictures in mirrors like we all used to do together senior year. I was a train going nowhere, unsure of what happened to my tracks. 

There was one August night when I knew everything had changed. My two friends moved into college two weeks before WKU began classes. My best friend of nearly seven years, let’s call her Scarlett (not her real name), had moved into her dorm and was now hopping from building to building, looking for something to consume her. She’d spent her evening drinking, in search of a metaphoric high fueled off her newfound freedom. I’d spent the majority of the night crying, pen in hand, and bleeding ink onto diary pages, surrounded by symbols of childhood: stuffed animals and the scratched Taylor Swift “Fearless” album I listened to in my youth. “How I lost my best friend of seven years in three weeks” sounds like the title of a story time video on YouTube; I never thought it’d be my life. People around me used to say Scarlett brought some of the worst parts of myself to light. In her, I found my docility submerged beneath a wave of sassiness unnatural to me. We were born a week apart, came from similar backgrounds, and we used to joke that she was the evil complement to my good twin image. It wasn’t until recently that I realized they were right — Scarlett and I are different in many ways. 

Watching Scarlett have her fun sucked, but WKU’s bid week was the worst of it. Though I spent my childhood watching shows like “Greek” and movies like “Legally Blonde,” I never gravitated towards sorority culture. I figured I’d be the only brown girl there, and after spending my entire life epitomizing the “awkward black girl” teen trope, I knew I didn’t want to compress myself to fit in that space if I didn’t have to. 

Even though I’ve never had an interest in joining a sorority, there’s something about a now familiar sadness that causes me to see my lack of freshman year experience in every situation. I watched as my new WKU peers posted their bid week outfits, or midday Starbucks runs with their boyfriends. Here I was at home, forming lifelong memories much different than the ones I expected to be writing in the pages of my diary. My life was stationary, my social growth stunted.

I texted Scarlett once again. We’d spent everyday for years texting each other from morning until night, but this time she wasn’t receptive in the way I thought she would be. I know college comes with all sorts of obstacles — people are never as available as they used to be. But it wasn’t until I asked her about having a heart-to-heart conversation about our friendship that I realized we weren’t only on different pages, we were reading different books entirely. 

“I feel like I’ve moved on you know?”

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I’d told her I didn’t think we’d be friends for much longer if we didn’t discuss the issue that was wedging us apart. 

“Anyone that isn’t here isn’t a part of my life anymore,” she said, lighting aflame my mental glass menagerie made of high school friends I thought I knew. 

My best friend was the last thing keeping me together in the mental prison I’d built for myself. I didn’t want to bother her with my tears, so I told her she made perfect sense. It was clear that a Bitmoji “Hugs?” sticker from her wasn’t enough to pull her back into my life. I couldn’t relate to her even though I tried, and it was clear that she felt she was better because I couldn’t. 

With three of my coming-of-age milestones occurring in the midst of a pandemic (graduating high school, turning 18 and beginning college from home), I’ve been forced to adapt. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that change is inevitable, and in that regard I’ve decided to reinvent myself before I move to college next spring. The steps include: highlighting my ebony-colored hair caramel, shedding my permanent “substitute teacher” wardrobe for something more chic, and finding my own eclectic crew of girls to hangout with.  

It’s strange the way things happen. I may not have potentially gained the infamous “freshman 15” with my roommate, but I met another WKU student who is experiencing freshman year from home and is enduring the loss of a long time best friend after attending separate colleges. Either by God’s design, the irony that accompanies life, or both, the girl I met lives in my hometown. We’ve discussed having potential study sessions to hangout. 

These days I feel a sense of hope no longer eclipsed by the familiar comfort of sadness. I may have lost my best friend, but I’ve learned some valuable lessons in the process. Some things don’t require an A-Z plan to realize — my college adventure is one of those things. While I may feel lost in a space between high school graduation and a “real” college experience, I know that I will someday experience all I dreamt about.

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