The last time I stood in a cap and gown, I felt invincible. The social confines of attending school with the same people for a decade were loosening. The virtual shackles of living under the curfews and lectures of my parents were coming undone. I did my time, and as I snatched my diploma, it felt like I was given something more profound than just a fancy piece of paper. It was a ticket to my freedom; the key to a future filled with new city skylines and a sense of a world so much larger than my past.
My childhood was a mere shadow of my mother’s childhood. We walked the same school hallways, shared teachers and most importantly grew up in the same house. Everything in my life was based on the tradition and familiarity of knowing that yesterday was exactly how tomorrow would be. Once I hit my teens, the idea of living in my mother’s footsteps finally got to me.
I spent countless hours trying to get rid of an accent that made me pronounce “water” like “wood-er.” I tuned out the stories of my South Philly Italian ancestry, and pushed away my grandmother’s cooking because I just couldn’t fathom one more night of pasta. Rejecting fundamental parts of myself made me a wild card in the eyes of my family, and when it came time for college, I made good on my brand new reputation. Instead of cashing in on my years as an overachieving honors student and taking the expected Penn route like my aunt, or even becoming an International Relations major at Drexel, I did the unimaginable: I decided to drop it all and go to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. It was the glossy magazine that arrived after a lifetime spent poring over leather-bound books. I wanted to indulge this shallow part of myself, and for once, just look at beautiful pictures instead of serious words. Most importantly, the choice felt so taboo that I knew it couldn’t possibly be anyone else’s but my own.
I lived fast for a good eight weeks in New York City. All of the money in my checking account was blown in record speed through a lack of willpower to resist H&M and trendy cafes. I bleached my naturally-dark hair, and found myself at clubs until obscene hours of the morning, dancing to music I didn’t even like.
One night as I stood alone in the dormitory bathroom washing off caked-on makeup, I was struck by my reflection. The girl that was staring at me was the embodiment of reckless decisions and irresponsibility. She was platinum blonde and not only in denial about her bank account statements, but also about who she actually was. I wasn’t the person in the mirror. I was brunette, inherently responsible and completely devoted to the comforts of my hometown one hundred miles away. I knew in that moment that the glow of my imagined glamorous life was wearing off, and all that was left was the cold fluorescence of a very real place where I no longer felt welcome.
I remember telling my parents that it was time to re-trace my steps. I no longer craved the exploration of new landscapes and cultures without my family there by my side; I wanted to discover the local path that preceded me. That ride home was as quiet as the one we made only three and a half months beforehand. No one spoke, but the air between my parents screamed, “We told you so.”
Living where you belong is a lot like being in an amazing relationship—there are sometimes huge struggles to get through, but then there are those moments where you feel like you couldn’t possibly want more than what you already have. New York was my frivolous rebound-only fun for a fleeting second relationship. When it was time to be serious, Temple became the glue that held my decision together. A 30-minute train ride was the only thing that separated my front steps from the heart of campus, but being at the school felt effortless and familiar from the start. It gave me the love of a home, and if my grades didn’t suggest Drexel or Penn as the only options, I knew I wouldn’t have left Philadelphia in the first place.
The value of my choice to return can’t really be measured. I love that I don’t feel anxious or overwhelmed wandering around the heart of the city alone. I find comfort when my parents point out all of their old hangouts as a young couple on the rides back to campus. I feel grateful when I happen upon the new destinations that will be the setting of my own, most vivid memories.
Now, I’m at the end of my college career and am once again standing at a crossroads. There are a ton of differences between being eighteen and being twenty-one, but the biggest is my concept of freedom. It doesn’t involve running like I once thought; it involves standing still and looking around. If you do it and can honestly say that you’re happy, then you’ve found your freedom. This can happen anywhere across the globe, but in some instances, it takes place right in your backyard.