A wave of nostalgia rushed toward me like the wind through Risman Plaza as I walked down the halls of my old dorm in Manchester Hall. I raised my hand to touch my old scratched-up room number on the wall to the right of the steps. So many memories of days spent studying and eating Jive Turkey wraps from The Market and nights spent cranking the rap music in our boxy rooms while we tried on each others clothes before a night out came flooding into my mind that I’m almost light-headed. I can’t believe that just four years ago, I didn’t think I belonged here.
I had no qualms about my college choice until Kirk VanAuken, my elfish high school honors world history teacher sophomore year, gave me some. We were talking college one day in class, and he offered his opinion on a nearby university that happened to be where I was going.
“Kent State. You know what they call that, don’t you? ‘Can’t Read, Can’t Write, Kent State.’”
The first time he said it, I wasn’t very fazed. I just figured he was being snotty since he went to Akron, Kent’s arch rival for his Master’s degree. But it made me much more aware of the overall disrespect of my fellow Stow High School students as well as teachers towards my future school.
My dad worked as an architect at KSU, so I would get free tuition if I went there. I wouldn’t turn down free tuition. And up to that point, I didn’t have any reason to. I was content with my choice.
The next anti-Kent blow after VanAuken’s rant hurt much worse than anything that high-pitch voiced teacher could say.
My best friend Kelsey Mayer was taking post-secondary classes at KSU junior year. I thought she was so cool, in with the college kids taking the same notes and the same tests. She liked it too, but when she started applying to her dream school, Ohio State University, she started getting cocky.
“I would never go to Kent,” she’d snobbishly say. “It sucks. It’s like right in our backyard.”
Why would she say things like that when she knew I was going there? Looking back, I realize we were all disguising our fright about the future with putdowns in the present.
We weren’t ready to separate. The five of us girls had found our way together freshman and sophomore year, and by the time senior year rolled around, we were solid as cement. We dressed the same; in flared, distressed Hollister jeans paired with tight Forever 21 tops. We talked the same “Oh my God did you see how Ryan looked at me in the hall? He avoided me all day.”
We even had the same color hair (all blondes except Kelsey and Chelsea, brunettes.) And we all applied way, way too much bronzer. To even think about half of us being two and three hours away in college was almost unbearable. Not to mention those four years of high school were so jam-packed with football games, parties, girls’ nights, and fun that I don’t think any of us wanted to leave it behind for college at all. I guess the way we coped with it was putting each other down.
I really had nothing bad to say about OSU. It was great for sports watching, great for party hopping, and great for knowledge building. My only comeback was, “Well, OSU is just way too big.”
This wasn’t the first time Kelsey and I would be separated. We were in the same preschool class, then I went to Catholic school for kindergarten and she went to Stow public schools. My parents decided to save some money and send me to Stow high school after eight years at Holy Family, and when I first ran into her at Stow student council, she asked, “Are you Kelsey Misbrener?” And thus began the Kelsey Squared years.
Now, we were going separate ways yet again. And this time, she’d be two hours away from me.
No matter how hard I tried to push it out of my mind, the day of Kent State orientation came in August 2009. I hung out with my Stow friends through the tour, the dinner and the sleepover in the dorm.
It was easy to see that the rest of the soon-to-be freshman didn’t stray from their high school cliques either. Was it true what every one said about KSU? That it was just another four years of cliquey high school? It was a small “commuter school,” people said. No one made new friends like they would at a big, diverse school like OSU.
I enjoyed the rest of summer to the fullest, wringing out every last hangout with my high school friends as our time dwindled and the sun got cooler. Before I knew it, I was loading my pink shower caddy, crisp new notebooks and Target college edition extra long twin mattress sheets into my dad’s Santa Fe and driving to my new home.
Me and the other bundle-of-nerves freshman walked into the side door of Manchester Hall in the Eastway dorm complex. We took a right and pressed the button to the sluggish elevator which seemed to take four hours to descend four floors, then walked out into the fourth floor lobby that smelled like a hotel. I fumbled to look at my paperwork and double check my room number. The sign said room 414 was to the right, so we turned the corner.
I quickly learned this was the girls’ side. Everyone I passed by shared a smile with me, and most everyone’s doors were propped open, ready to meet other people just like I was. My roommate Dana was already setting up her bed when I got there with my mom, dad and sister Kristen.
She was a friend I played volleyball with in high school. I wasn’t at Kent to just hang around Stow people though. I wanted to meet new people. I wanted to make lots of new friends so I could prove all my friends who said Kent is just a glorified high school wrong.
I decided to take a walk down the hall. I’d seen all the college movies where everybody walks around in towels or pops into everyone’s dorm rooms, but I wasn’t sure if that sort of thing actually happened. Turns out, it does. I peeked my head into the room right across the hall where a tan, dark haired girl and a short, brunette girl sat on the floor decorating a large bulletin board. We made introductions and then, when we made sure our parents were out of earshot, agreed to go to a party together that night. I met some of the other girls down the hall, and started to feel really good about this new place.
After the exhausting day of unpacking and meeting and greeting, our parents left and it was time for our first night of college. I saw potential in the new friends I’d made just that day and was eager to be invited to their cool parties.
Then I got a text from Kelsey. “What are we doing tonight,” she asked. OSU didn’t start school until September, so she wanted to get in on the college experience early, even after all the crap she’d talked about my school. I was looking forward to a night of new friends and fresh beginnings, but here were my high school friends inviting themselves out on my first night here. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say: WE aren’t doing anything, I am going out with my dorm friends, but I took the wimpy way and made my uneasiness apparent in my texts back, saying “Umm I think I’m just going out with Dana if you really want to come...” They showed up and I tried to put a smile on, but inside I felt they were being greedy; stealing my glory and preventing me from expanding my friend base.
Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to be friends with them, always. I just needed some space during these crucial first months in my new environment. I knew the friends I’d make at the beginning would be the ones I kept for the next four years. I knew if I failed to make any solid bonds in the beginning, I would be lost and friendless. College is a lot like high school in that respect. My premonitions were right; my freshman year friends are the ones I consider my closest, who I still talk to on a daily basis.
Luckily, I was able to make those friends early on. Lauren Patton and Katelyn Deertz, the girls whose room I’d stuck my head into the first day, were great friends for a long time. My best friend now, Kayla McGarry, I met because she was dating a boy on my floor.
My friends who were supposedly going to such diverse, potential friend-filled schools weren’t as lucky. Kelsey had a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend from Akron to maintain, which meant she was holed up with him during the weekends instead of out making friends. She did hang out with the girls across the hall from her, but her friend group, which she predicted would be diverse and humongous, was the same size as mine.
It took until junior year for the competition between us to end. The phone calls detailing all the keg-standing parties and funny, cool friends dwindled down once we started to get mature and realize if we were both happy, there was no need for bragging. Back then, I didn’t even want Kelsey to visit because I felt I had to impress her and take her to the craziest parties, but now I have a blast when she visits.
I was happy with the people I’d met, but I still kind of felt like a stranger at the campus. I didn’t have the chance to make my footprint at Kent until my second semester here. I got an email inviting students interested in journalism to work for the Daily Kent Stater next semester. My major was communications at the time, which I had no interest in. This journalism thing sounded fun. I sent in my application, not too sure if I’d be chosen, but definitely sure my parents would be impressed.
A week later, I walked into Franklin Hall for the first time to try and find my name on the list of selected Kent Stater writers taped onto the newsroom door. My finger traced the paper to the M’s and landed on my name. I made it.
I called my mom and I could already hear the tears in her voice. She was proud I was making decisions on my own and finding my interests, and I was proud too.
School ended and summer began. I reunited with my high school friends, but really couldn’t wait until campus was buzzing with frisbees flying again. I wouldn’t be living in the dorms this time; I would live in Holly Park apartments with Kayla and Becca. I was ecstatic.
Near the end of summer, I went to Daily Kent Stater training, where I met my new editor, Courtney, and the rest of the features team. We had our first story brainstorming session, and I offered up one of my own. Since it would be the first newspaper back after the summer, I wanted to write about a place to visit while it was still nice out; Virginia Kendall park.
I drove to the park by myself with my note pad and tennis shoes. I knew nothing about journalism except for the few articles I read in the Akron Beacon Journal on my parent’s kitchen table. I decided to detail what I saw, heard and felt: full, green trees, silent air except for a few birds tweeting and branches breaking under my feet, and the warm air on my body. I even did my first interview; with a lone hiker I encountered on the trail. She told me she loves Virginia Kendall because she can be alone with her thoughts.
I left the ledges happy with my amateur reporting abilities, and then went home and wrote the 400-ish word story about my trip. I e-mailed it to Courtney, and we sat down and edited it the next day.
The first day back to school, I woke up so excited to get my hands on the paper and see my name right there, for all of campus to see. I grabbed one off of a campus newsstand and flipped to the back, because that’s where the features section always was. The section was there, but my article wasn’t. Why hadn’t Courtney told me she’d cut it? Dismayed, I turned the paper back to the front, ready to dispose of it in a nearby blue recycle bin.
Then I saw it. My story. On the middle of the front page next to a beautiful photograph of a cliff at Virginia Kendall. A glorious pride washed over me and the wide grin that spread across my mouth stayed stuck there all day. I’d never felt so important, so smart, so famous in my entire life. Realizing that many other Kent State students had also seen and read my article added to my joy too. Now, I wasn’t just another student at Kent State going through the motions. I was a writer for the Kent Stater. I had a place here. I had a purpose: to tell stories that entertain and inform the Kent State community. I loved it.
Now, my OSU friend only had one more argument against my school.
“Kent is so small. OSU is huge and has so many bars and parks and paths.”
Indeed, OSU was about 20 times bigger than Kent. Columbus is the state capital. Kent is a small hippie town. But it took another year for me to realize that was by no means a bad thing.
Standing on the hill by Taylor Hall on May 4th, 2011, I realized that what makes Kent great is its community that deeply loves its town and culture. Most of the people who came to the May 4th memorial that year probably hadn’t even been born in 1970, but they were all there because of the love they shared for Kent and its history. Glancing around me at the reverent people on the hill, some standing, some sitting, some laying on blankets, my heart sped up. I realized that I was a part of this city now. I knew I’d take it with me wherever I ended up in life.
Now, I think back to my trivial worries about going to college in small-town Kent, Ohio and I’m ashamed of myself. This place has unearthed my passion for writing, helped me figure out I want to be a journalist for a living, introduced me to some lifelong friends and built me a community I can always come back to.