You’re starting your first day at your dream school, just a few years later than most students. But you don’t think that’ll be an issue.
Not until you walk into class on your first day and everybody thinks you’re the TA.
If I summed up my first semester at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in one word, I’d choose doubt. Self-doubt. Sure, I’d expected a hard transition. That doesn’t mean anyone prepared me for the nagging feeling that I didn’t belong which greeted me as soon as I arrived.
Why did all my classmates already know who Chaucer was? Had everyone memorized Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” speech but me? Was there a secret list of English major prerequisites I’d missed on the application? And why did everyone around me look so young?
I spent two years earning my associate degree at a community college. Enough extracurricular activities padded my UNC application to comfortably pad the resumes of a small country if divvied up. Fear of feeling like a fraud? From my naive point of view, that didn’t happen to people who transferred to Chapel Hill with high honors.
Then I arrived on campus and realized my naïveté. While my community college encouraged diversity, four-year universities bred homogeny. So what if I spent years as a working adult before coming here? 18 to 22-year-old valedictorians who spent summers abroad volunteering surrounded me. My background as a 25-year-old undergrad from the small town of Clayton, North Carolina seemed mediocre in comparison.
Before I arrived, I thought I was special. I dreamed UNC would be a utopia where I’d finally find my people. Instead, during my first week the only person I befriended was a 17 year-old who asked me on a date (I turned them down for obvious reasons). Everywhere I went I felt either far too old or far too unlearned. Without anyone around to remind me, I forgot how hard I worked to earn my place at UNC.
I only began to find my stride again by the end of the first semester. Countless trips to the Writing Center and office hours helped me succeed. With my professor’s guidance, I learned that writing a summary of a poem is not the same as analyzing it. I also figured out that though I didn’t study the English canon in high school, my non-traditional background gave me other advantages. Maybe I couldn’t name any William Blake poems, but I loved creative, out-of-the-box analysis. My professors cared more about that about my over-arching knowledge of Romantic poets.
Over time, my social life began to improve, as well. Reaching out to other transfer students, I realized they often felt as out of place as I did. Soon, weekly pizza dates at Mellow Mushroom with friends burrowed into my schedule. I also connected to international students and began planning a semester abroad.
Despite my timidity, I also learned to interact with grad students and professors. Many of them seemed as eager to get to know me as I was to get to know them. They also encouraged me to pursue assignments I was really passionate about.
It took a lot—a lot—of adjusted expectations but I can say, with effort, I’ve started to make UNC feel like home.
Though my transition here has been difficult, looking back if I had a choice to do it all again, I would. Facing my fears has given me self-confidence I never could’ve gained staying back in Clayton. So many opportunities wait here at UNC for students, from studying creative writing with famous authors to experiencing Franklin Street on Halloween. And amazingly, they’re all open to me even if I still don’t fully understand The Canterbury Tales.