Neither here nor there: that sums up my feelings about returning to Stanford after studying abroad. I had been eager to return to campus, and my fall quarter had been dotted with wistful visions of sun and palm trees even as I enjoyed traipsing across Europe. But once I got my first glimpse of Campus Drive in months, unsettling feelings of disjunction crept in. It was a question I’d thought I’d settled during my freshman year, but now it arose in new ways: was Stanford really the place for me?
Now, from my perspective, this experience was not altogether unexpected. Nor, really, does it seem unusual. Several of my friends expressed similar feelings of disconnect after their abroad experiences last year, and probably expressed it best by saying they felt troubled at how well Stanford had carried on without them. Once, they might have been dependent on their campus-oriented world, their structure of friends, classes and activities, but that world did not return the favor. It was perfectly capable of continuing on its own, thank you.
It strikes me that the feeling of returning to a familiar, yet changed place is one of physically encountering our memories. Old convictions and emotions greet us along the way, remnants from the people we were then, and we find ourselves at an ambiguous crossroads. We can either embrace our different, present selves, or allow that bygone world to envelop us again. In the end, it seems like we actually do neither. We are always renegotiating the ground on which we stand. And that stark impression of renegotiation, of uncertainty, rather than the illusion of continuity that extended time in the same place gives us, seems to be what underlies my feelings of removal. “Tell me all about Oxford!” my friends exclaim, as I insist to know the same about their fall. But how much of what we say to each other is just a reinterpretation, taken from our present lens of self? In the end, I walk away realizing how far five thousand miles really is. Realizing how much I missed, and how little.
Those memories we encounter sometimes surface as ghosts, more vivid than ever because of the intervening time of change. Lately, I have been feeling the ghosts of my first two years on campus: places I used to live, people I used to see. At the same time, I have felt the ghosts of my time abroad, which surface in the form of sensory details or moments of longing: sitting in a class and suddenly remembering that day, that building, that slant of light that doesn’t exist in sunny California. Or thinking, wait, now I’m in America. This place is just one possibility out of millions.
It seems to me that discovering the multiple possibilities that exist outside of Stanford is what the abroad experience is all about. Meeting new friends and learning about a foreign country are part of the journey, but we return to the Farm understanding that we are less dependent on our immediate surroundings than we might have believed. We have a center of self that can adapt to new circumstances better than we might have expected. We find that we have the strength to change and to discover new possibilities. At its core, this realization can be as simple as: Hey, I survived. What’s next?
Realigning my perspective this way, I feel more optimistic, less disjointed, less concerned about the future and the shadows that lurk there. During my first month back on campus, I’ve realized that Stanford might not be the place for me, for no such place exists. Rather, Stanford is a place, a possibility for me to shape after my expanding vision of the world. Clinging to this interpretation, I feel liberated.
Even while living in the campus bubble rather than the “real world,” there is no saying that we can’t embrace new possibilities and make the same mundane situations feel radically different. For me, it took going to Oxford to realize how dynamic my identity is, and how much I can alter in my everyday world. I can transport myself to new surroundings, but to achieve real satisfaction I need to give part of myself back to those places, wherever they might be.
At the beginning of this quarter, I was afraid I was returning to the same old Stanford. But I’m not. I don’t have to, and neither do any of us.
Rachel wants to know if you’ve seen a slant of light that doesn’t exist in California. Email her at [email protected].