Changes, by Morgan Hill
Everything looks the same, but it feels different this time. It’s morning and it’s warm. Too warm for this time of day. Or maybe it’s just my nerves. Small beads of sweat start to form on my forehead. It’s probably just the sun, I tell myself. I feel like everyone is staring at me. Despite all of this, I continue to put one foot in front of the other, every so often looking down at my blank phone screen to avoid the gaze of others. Music is blaring in my ears. A song, one that I’ve probably heard a million times before, now only serves as a brief distraction from the path before me.
As I move closer to my destination, I look down at my phone, now showing my unfamiliar schedule, to ensure that I know the name of the building: Vasey Hall. Before taking another step, I pause. I cannot help but think about what I am leaving behind. Not in the literal sense, of course, but it seems like my life would now be split up into a time before this moment and a time after.
It is my first day of college, and all I could think about is the past. I thought about my parents and how I wished that they were here with me. But I am on my own, and I have to face this by myself. The comforts of my old life are now miles away, and there is nothing that I could do to change that. For now, I focus on this short trek towards a new, and different, life.
When I was ten, I transitioned from my small, diverse elementary school to St. Paul’s School for Girls, which was located outside of Baltimore, MD. It was a similarly small school, but it was all-girls and, excluding me and a couple of other girls, all white. Despite this new environment, I was excited--giddy even. I guess change did not bother me so much then. I was thrilled at the idea of making new friends and meeting new teachers. Not once did it occur to me that I would soon feel like I was pushed into a corner, forced to adapt to the girls around me or live through that time in my life as an outsider. I could not have anticipated how I would internalize the way in which young, middle school girls called my hair “poofy” and how I would soon grow frustrated with my natural curl pattern. So, I needed straight hair. I could not have anticipated how my high school teachers would chastise me for my short skirt and ignore the similarly short lengths of my white classmates. But, I needed to keep these observations to myself.
I can still see myself, smiling, laughing, unaware that anything could go wrong.
Today, I recognize what I chose not to see back then; I recognize that I, too, played a part in all of this. I see how being surrounded by white girls made me feel as though I had to succumb to their standards of beauty, rather than form my own. I see now how being disproportionately targeted by teachers had more to do with my skin color than with my short skirt. At the time, I did not give these situations enough thought. I simply acquiesced; I was part of the problem. My experiences at SPSG changed me, but not for the better.
I was too agreeable at SPSG. I was too afraid to be myself. I let lots of questionable comments slide, like the time that Bailey Boner said the “n” word in the locker room after P.E. Or the time that Grace Ohara compared her orange-tinted, self-tanned skin to my own and then rejoiced when her tan was darker than my melanin. I was afraid that if I spoke up, I would ostracize myself from my already small class. Most of all, I was afraid of coming off as the “angry Black girl.” It was not until I was selected to speak on behalf of my classmates at Graduation that I began this journey of reflection. It was not until then that I began to connect the dots.
How could I sum up a place that had simultaneously stalled the formation of my own identity and given me lifelong friends and great memories? What was I supposed to say to a group of people that helped me become who I am, even if that meant a white-washed version of myself? As I was writing my speech, I was torn between these two versions of my reality at SPSG. I did not want to convey the idea that all of my experiences at SPSG were bad. That simply was not true. And yet, because I was graduating, part of me wanted to say my piece and forget that this place and those people even existed.
Ultimately, I decided to fill my speech with the niceties that were expected of me.
“Although this moment has been much anticipated, it is hard to confront the idea of leaving a place that has allowed us so much growth and self-discovery.”
It still feels like everyone is staring. Eventually, the crowd thins out, everyone moving on to their own destinations. I find myself alone now, walking slowly up the hill that lined the outer ring of Main Campus. My eyes dart from right to left, quickly taking in my ever-changing surroundings. All of the buildings look the same, covered in gray, white, and brown stones. How would I ever find where I needed to be? My heart begins to race a little faster as I stop to take in my surroundings more fully. I look around once again. In the midst of my short, quick breaths and frenzied thoughts, I spot a short, blue sign hidden behind a parked car. Vasey Hall. My feet start moving again. One after the other.
I find the nearest door, take a deep breath, and pull it open. I travel hesitantly up the stairs and around a corner. At this point, I am simply guessing about where to go, which way to turn, which door to open next. Soon, I spot a dark brown, wooden door with cursive gold lettering halfway down a long hallway. 210. This is where I am supposed to be. I check my watch. 10:00 a.m. I am twenty minutes early. I glance down the hall again and realize that I am alone. I sit down on a wooden bench, finally able to catch my breath. The walls muffle the sounds of professors already teaching in rooms down the hall. I focus on those voices to distract from the voice inside my own head. Both relieved and self-conscious about the fact that I am completely alone, I wait.
Despite my irrational fears leading up to that moment, my first class at Villanova University is like any normal class. As me and my classmates sit down, waiting for the professor to begin, I think about taking the advice of my orientation counselor.
“Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to the person next to you in class,” he had repeated throughout our time together. I glance over at the brunette girl sitting next to me, her AirPods still in her ears. I decide against it.
My Spanish professor soon introduces himself and then invites me and my classmates to do the same. He hands out the syllabus and goes over every aspect of the class. Before I knew it, the clock at the front of the room reads 11:10 a.m. Class is over. That was easy. After packing my bag and leaving the classroom, I check my schedule on my phone once again. My next class does not start until 12:30 p.m.
What am I supposed to do in the meantime? Where am I supposed to go? Where is everyone else going?
I push open the back door of Vasey Hall and enter the sunny, paved walkway of Main Campus. I look around. Everyone is hurrying off to their next class or catching up with friends after a summer break that was too long. Not me, though. I am alone with nothing to do for the next hour or so.
I decide to walk the short distance to the Connelly Center, remembering from my tour of Villanova’s campus that I could sit down and grab a bite there. Lunch. That felt like a good idea. I need to keep busy, to look like I am doing something, to look like I belong here. I walk into Connelly, grab some lunch, and begin to search Belle Aire Terrace, a small café, for a place to sit. I find a small table on the very top floor of Belle Air and settle in there. As I pick over my chicken tenders and fries, I peer down at the rest of Belle Air below me. Even though it is early, almost all of the tables are full. Sounds of “I missed you” and “How’ve you been?” fill the air.
It was nice for a moment, to glance at others and hear their conversations. It helped to focus on something other than myself for a little while. But I soon realized that everyone there had someone. Someone to talk to, someone to sit with, someone to catch up with.
I had never felt lonelier than in that moment.
During those first days on campus, every day was the same. I walked to class by myself. I ate lunch by myself. I went to the library by myself. The only thing that felt comfortable was my routine. During this long first week of classes, I called my parents every night, fighting back tears, asking them: What was I doing wrong? Why was I struggling? How could I make friends? Unsure of myself, I retreated inward. I knew that there was no way I was going to make friends if I did not put myself out there, but I could not bring myself to do it, at least not during that first week. That first week, I cringed at the idea of even introducing myself to the person next to me in class. I wanted so badly to be social, but at the same time, I could not bring myself out the awkwardness of introducing myself to a total stranger. I knew that this was not normal.
I had another, almost more important, concern. After coming to terms with the fact that I compromised parts of myself to fit in at my predominantly white high school, I swore to myself that college would be different. So, I came to Villanova with a singular goal in mind: I wanted to make more Black friends. This is not to say that I did not have, or love, my Black friends from high school; we were a small and close group. But we were all compromised, in our own ways. We were not unapologetically ourselves. Instead, we kept our heads down and succumbed to the social pressures that inherently come with being an “other” in high school. We tried our best to fit in with them, with our clothes, our hair, our “interests,” and even our language. At the same time, we struggled to hold on to a sliver of our true selves.
I wanted college to be different. I needed college to be different.
Once I learned that some Villanova students went home for Labor Day Weekend and my parents offered to come pick me up, I seized the opportunity. Seeing my father’s familiar truck approaching elicited the first real breath that I had taken all week.
“Hey sweetheart,” my dad greeted me as I hopped in the backseat.
My parents and I went through the regular pleasantries. How I was, how school was going, how my roommate was doing. But, as we turned onto 476 to begin the ride home, the conversation quickly turned serious.
“I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong,” I began. “It seems like everyone else already has friends there, and I’m the only one that doesn’t.”
“You know that’s not true,” my mother said, her sweet tone attempting to talk me off the edge.
“I guess, but you guys know that I’m not outgoing. I don’t really know how to make friends. I haven’t had to for a really long time.”
“You’ve got to give it time. You’ve only been there for a week,” my dad said, his gray-green eyes looking up at me through the rearview mirror.
My mom took it from there: “Genuine friendships don’t happen overnight and that’s what you’re looking for, right?”
“Then you have to just take each day as it comes. You and your friends will find each other,” she said.
“My Black friends,” I retorted, trying to lighten the mood. That was the first time that I had laughed all week.
I was expecting too much of myself. The ride back home was a reset. I realized that making friends was not going to be quick and easy. And despite what I had told myself, others were in the same position as me. That weekend at home provided me with a small ounce of confidence; it was just enough to return to campus and keep pushing forward. The next week would ultimately prove to be a new beginning for my freshman year and for my college experience as a whole.
Labor Day weekend came and went. Now, it was early evening in Villanova and my heart was leaping out of my chest once again. But this time, in a good way. I gave myself a once over in the full-size mirror attached to the back of my dorm room door. I grabbed my phone, mustered up some courage, and descended the stairs of Stanford Hall out into the cool summer evening.
The night before, I went out on a limb and texted a girl that I had met, virtually, over the summer. We chatted on and off during that time, so I figured: why not? It had not occurred to me that I already had one friend on campus until my mom suggested, over Labor Day weekend, that I reach out to her. So, I asked if we could meet for dinner one night at the Spit.
ME: hey, would you want to meet up for dinner sometime this week?
ONLINE FRIEND: of course, we can finally meet in person! Do you have a day in mind??
ME: how about Tuesday night?
ONLINE FRIEND: that works for me!
Mind if I bring some friends along? We could all eat together
ONLINE FRIEND: great, I’ll see you then!
This was going to be a good way to meet people. You can do this.
That Tuesday, I swiped my Wildcard and entered the Spit. There was no turning back. The dining hall was bustling with other students meeting friends, grabbing food, and recapping their days. I took a quick look around and didn’t see the girl from Facebook. I decided to get my food first, figuring that I could waste some time until we found each other. I entered the long pasta line, a cacophony of voices floating in the air around me. I noticed others standing in front of me, laughing and chatting away. I immediately pulled my phone out of my pocket, trying to look busy to play off the fact that I was alone.
The line inched forward.
“Morgan!” An unfamiliar voice called my name.
I looked up and there she was, my virtual friend, waving at me excitedly. It was just my luck; she was in the pasta line, too. I smiled, a look of relief probably obvious on my face. My nerves did not disappear; she was still a stranger in this strange place. But it was nice to experience just a moment of relief.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” she said, smiling. “Me and a couple of friends put our stuff down at a table over there.”
As she pointed out into the distance at her table, I took a deep breath as I took in its crowd. No turning back.
It was one of the longer tables, located in the middle section of the Spit. And it was filled with people. Black people. I was so excited to see people that looked like me that I was not daunted by the fact that they were all laughing, a clear signal that they knew each other already. My eyes quickly glanced up and down before I spotted a seat. I approached the seat, my heart racing with anticipation. I quickly questioned whether these would be the girls that I would finally connect with. Would these girls soon become my friends? I let myself go there only for a moment before pulling myself together again, focusing just on the present moment. I put on a small smile before sitting down at the very end of the long table, across from two other girls.
A brief moment of silence ensued. I took a chance.
“Hi, I’m Morgan,” I said, quietly introducing myself to the two girls across from me.
They each introduced themselves. I quickly tried to associate their names with their faces, so as not to forget.
I do not remember how the conversation progressed past this moment. All I remember was the relief that a conversation had simply begun.
We talked for most of the night. We talked about our hair, our high schools, our classes. We shared stories about our first day. I even told them how I got lost on the way to one of my classes, unable to find the building entrance amidst the campus construction. This was the longest conversation I’d had since I arrived at Villanova. And, finally, something about this place felt good.
At some point later in the night, we exchanged numbers. I left the Spit not only feeling a renewed sense of faith that everything was going to be okay, but also that I had maybe just made some new friends.
It felt like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. And I went to bed that night ready to begin again the next day.
I would be lying if I said that my freshman year was great after that dinner. But it did turn a corner that night. I became more comfortable with the uncertainties of being in a new environment. I also became more confident because I knew that I would not undermine my own identity in order to make friends or to fit in. I was not going to let racist comments slide or allow others to make me feel like I had to change. I had done that once before and that was not going to be my reality again.
Now during my junior year, I look back on this moment and I cannot help but wonder why it was so difficult for me to come to terms with how badly I wanted to feel a sense of belonging at Villanova. I was insecure about making friends and unsure if I ever would. And, because of that, I spoke to no one, except for my parents, about what I was going through.
It has only come to me now that parts of my anxiety were my own fault. I came to Villanova with unrealistic expectations. When I arrived, my first instinct was to chase a sense of belonging. But it was impossible to find that sense of belonging in a place where I naturally stood out. I should have known better.
This is not to say that I am isolated or alone here on campus. After that breakthrough night at the beginning of my freshman year, I made a group of friends that shared my same feelings of alienation in a place like this. I had found a group of girls that refused to change themselves for others and I knew that they would help me achieve that goal for myself. Together, we found a sense of belonging within the context of each other, rather than the university community at large. We decided to create our own village, our own unique sense of belonging. It is a different belonging, knowing that you do not fit in an environment, yet also knowing that some people want and need you there. Why worry about the rest of the campus when we knew that we had each other? We formed an effortless understanding: that we were tiny specks of color on a largely white surface. And that we had to stick together. That feeling simply took a little longer than I first anticipated.
Isolation doesn’t end, it merely changes forms. I remain isolated from certain aspects of this campus. And even though it took me a long time to accept that, I have. I am okay with that now.
But some of us still suffer in silence. In his groundbreaking novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison writes: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me, they see only surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
I worry about the Black freshman that still walks to class alone and eats alone. She longs for the things that I once did: for a place on this campus, to be accepted and welcomed into this community as she is. She wants more than just a small corner of this campus to call her own. Although I abandoned these dreams of total belonging at Villanova, others should not have to.
What does this say about Villanova?
Morgan Hill is a junior Political Science major and English minor from Randallstown, MD. Morgan is passionate about American politics and is eager to work for those marginalized within our society in her professional career. In her free time, Morgan loves to watch sports, hang out with friends and family, and write. Morgan’s love of writing began with journaling and has since blossomed into non-fiction prose pieces."