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Learning to Embrace Who You Are

by Sarah Weise, Class of 2020

Photo by Jordan MacMillan, sourced from the Exploration School blog. Myself teaching a class, the “Science of Baking,”  at my internship in 2018.

Despite the voice in my head saying that I shouldn’t memorialize my teenage reputation on the Internet for all eternity, I’m going to do it anyway. You see, I was a nerd in high school. I wasn’t a special variety of nerd, either. I was your typical, marching-band-member-who- sits-in-the-front-row nerd. I had good grades, teachers liked me, and I liked school. I wore plastic frame glasses around the time the word “hipster” became popular and played Magic the Gathering at lunch even though crumbs (gasp) would get on the cards. 

This isn’t to say that my high school experience was tortuous… I had plenty of friends and was really quite good at marching with cymbals. I just felt that the high school social structure didn’t suit me well. Like most nerds, I believed that college would be my opportunity to be cool. I wanted a chance to be someone new in a new place. I thought that the further away I went to college, the more I would be able to reinvent myself. My goals for college were based in a sort of distance to coolness positive correlation function theory. There was one major problem with that idea — it wasn’t customary for young people from my hometown to move far away.

I was raised in the kind of town where it’s not uncommon for your teachers to have also taught your parents. Life is quiet and predictable. Everything a person could need is more or less within driving distance, and anything else you probably don’t need (at least that’s what my grandma always said). Understandably, my decision to apply Early Decision to the University of Rochester came as a shock to many. What did the University of Rochester have that the colleges in Western Pennsylvania didn’t? To me, a few things. One of the most important factors was obviously the distance to coolness function; UR was six hours away and had an incredibly diverse student population, which was exciting for someone who grew up in an unvaried environment. Rochester also had a flexible curriculum model that allowed students to have more academic mobility and choice as opposed to the more common “general education” approach. 

When I enrolled, some members of my community genuinely congratulated me while others quietly interpreted my decision as a slight to our town or perhaps evidence that I thought I was better than everyone else. Despite differing opinions, everyone had one thing in common — they expected me to become a professional who was just as “fancy” as the university I was attending. And, I desperately wanted to live up to their expectations. Looking back, I can now see how contradictory my feelings were; a person can’t start anew while they’re holding on to expectations from the past. I didn’t realize that at the time, though. All I knew was that I wanted to come back to my high school reunion as the astronomically cooler career woman. I felt that I had something to prove. And the career to do just that, I thought, was law. I thought my paychecks would be as glamorous as my pant suits. I thought law was a field that no one could criticize. It seemed perfect.

I only made it through one day’s worth of political science classes before fully admitting to myself that I didn’t want to practice law. The material was so boring… the minutes ticked by on the clock so slowly… the Leviathan only inspired me to sleep. I returned to my dorm that evening, turned on my twinkly lights that the fire marshall told me to take down, and dejectedly stared at the concrete ceiling. What was I doing so far from home? I tuned this question around in my head for hours. I wondered if I should continue to pursue law anyway. Lots of adults don’t like their job, right? My roommate eventually told me to turn off my twinkly lights because she had class in the morning. As I sat in the darkness of my unfamiliar dorm in an unfamiliar city, I felt most unacquainted with myself. 

The next morning, I woke up knowing that I needed to reevaluate. I didn’t know how to effectively manage an identity crisis, so I decided to change my law-centric class schedule to one that had no unifying element and embrace total chaos. I enrolled in a class on Eastern religion, Russian literature, and European occult history. My STEM friends laughed, but I knew that my seemingly haphazard schedule was an intricate experiment in self-discovery. I absorbed myself in those classes and as the weeks turned into months the feeling that I needed to prove something dissipated. I stopped caring what my old classmates thought or what so-and-so’s mother said about me.  

At some point that I can’t precisely identify, I realized that I was still a nerd and that no amount of distance would ever change that about me. And I didn’t want it to. Comfortably looking back on my experiences from a proudly nerdy vantage point, I realized that it was obvious from the time I was a little girl what I was supposed to do with my career. The polaroid photos of my makeshift classroom occupied by teddy bear students couldn’t be more obvious  — I wanted to teach. I was a nerd who would never stop being excited to go to school. Confident in who I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, I applied to the GRADE program.

Now, I’m about to graduate. I dedicated an entire semester to chaos, internally transferred, and still managed to graduate in less than four years. I can attribute that to the flexibility of UR’s open curriculum and the culture of self-discovery that’s present here. The most valuable thing college gave me isn’t the degree I’m going to hang on my wall in a few months, but a genuine sense of purpose. College isn’t about becoming a new person, it’s about discovering who you always were. Or, in my case, learning to embrace who you are.

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