When I was a senior in high school I did what almost everyone else was doing and I applied to get into college. Three colleges, to be exact. I was smart, involved and had yet to experience any hard slaps-in-the-face from life. I was Miss Absecon 1987 and Holy Spirit’s homecoming queen, for goodness’ sake. So I was in utter disbelief and completely devastated when I received thin envelopes from all three schools telling me no, no and wait. It was April of my senior year and all I could say when asked where I was going in the fall was, “I honestly don’t know.”
I remember going in to see my school guidance counselor in a daze and asking what I was supposed to do at that point. He mentioned a small school on City Line Avenue in Philadelphia called St. Joseph’s University. I had not heard of it before, but my grades and SAT scores were on track to allow me admittance there. I do not recall the administrative details that followed, but I do know that my parents moved me into a college dorm up on Hawk Hill as that summer drew to an end.
But even with my very own spot in the SJU Class of 1992, it turns out that I still was not sure of where I was going. I spent the next two years floundering. I went to parties and bars, but not many classes. I changed my major and therefore my schedule countless times. I made stupid and sometimes dangerous choices. I got my heart broken more than once. Looking back on my freshman and sophomore years at St. Joe’s, I recall a general sense of sadness and isolation, which was made even worse by my belief that I was surrounded by so many people who all seemed to be having the time of their lives.
My parents saw that I was not happy and they finally convinced me to come back home (a fate worse than death at the time!). I would work and take classes at a local college in order to bring up my GPA. Then I could reapply to another school or schools, and eventually earn a degree. That is how I ended up at West Virginia University as a transfer student in the Fall of 1990. I met Sheepdog there after just a few weeks.Short Aside… Yes, WVU was a giant party school back then (and still officially is, according to Princeton Review), but I had thankfully gotten most of it out of my system by the time I moved to Morgantown. Note that I said most, not all. Now that’s a true story.
After years of ruminating (and some good, old-fashioned therapy), I look back on my first years of higher education with a smile. It was the time when I walked on to the varsity cheerleading squad for the basketball team and I got to cheer on national television and travel all over the East Coast to other schools in the Atlantic 10. It was when I learned that accounting was definitely not my thing, but english and eventually journalism were. It was when I learned how I didn’t want to be treated by boys, and therefore what I did eventually want from a partner in life. Most importantly, it was the time when I learned what I did and did not like about myself. It was where I learned that having a rhinestone crown placed on your head doesn’t mean jack, so I needed to buckle down and start working for what I wanted. It was where I made friends for life, because college years can be so intense that bonds are forged deeper and stronger than during any other experience.
This past weekend I traveled back to City Line Avenue for Hawktoberfest 2012 and to celebrate the passage of 20 years since the Class of 1992 had been handed their sheepskins. Originally I booked my plane ticket and hotel room because it was an excuse to spend time with friends who now live scattered all over and I rarely get to see (save for the occasional wedding or funeral or milestone birthday celebration in the Dominican Republic), but it turned out to be so much more than that for me.
I saw people who I hadn’t seen in decades. I listened to the stories of how their lives had played out, as well as their plans for the future. I heard the classic tales again, but I also listened to new ones that I never knew about. One girlfriend teased, saying that I was quite the social butterfly… talking to absolutely everyone, but that was the best part of the experience for me. We went out to dinner and shared so many memories and bottles of wine. We played softball on the incredible new field. We posed for pictures in front of our old dorms. We tailgated (I know, I know… how do you tailgate without a football team?) and gossiped and laughed. I laughed until I was hoarse. It was very, very good.
On Sunday, we roused our sad, over the hill selves out of bed with lots and lots of coffee. After we checked out of the hotel, a few of us who had later flights walked around the campus. It is so much bigger now, with all of the new buildings and dorms and fields, but it is still the same in so many ways. It was awkward but comfortable at the same time. I had to catch my breath several times as I walked through the old Fieldhouse (now Hagan Arena) and down past Finnesy Field. I actually had tears in my eyes as I went from Lafarge to the Chapel and the old Newmann Hall and then crossed the foot bridge to McShane. They fell silently down my cheeks as I walked down the tree-lined Lapsley Lane to the most magnificent view of Barbelin Tower.
The tears were few but they were powerful and cathartic. I felt such peace and comfort in knowing that St. Joe’s was the first of many steps in bringing me to where I am in my life today. It defined me, both good and bad. And it feels so awesome to own that.
I left Hawk Hill feeling light and happy, albeit a little old. I left with renewed friendships and some new Facebook friends. I left with a memory card full of photographs. But mostly I left with a palpable gratitude for the life I have now and the people who are in it. It never ceases to amaze me how life twists and turns, takes us up and down the hills and sometimes even mountains, and lands us where we are right at this moment.
Sometimes we just need to be reminded.
Wish me luck for tomorrow…