As a college student, I spent most of my summers at home in San Diego, California. Coming from someone who spent their entire education in high-achieving, pressure cooker private schools, this sounds like failure. After all, I only did one summer in New York. But this perspective is one that values traditional measures of success–resume boosters, prestige–over physical, mental and spiritual health. The truth is that if I hadn’t spent those summers at home, I probably wouldn’t have been able to graduate on time with the people I wanted to graduate with.
Princeton wasn’t easy for me, for several reasons that I’ll explain in a later post. Like my middle/high school, Princeton was a pressure cooker, but it challenged me emotionally and mentally in ways that took me by complete surprise. But in spite of all my struggles, I would still choose Princeton if I could do it all over again. There are several reasons, and I am fortunate to have so many, but one is that I discovered dance through Princeton. Dance alone has given me so many things, but the most surprising was that it allowed me to rediscover my hometown in a way that I don’t think many people get to experience.
When I began dancing as a freshman, it was mostly a social activity: I gained a group of friends, a community on campus, and a social identity. It was comforting to have all these things given to me so quickly that I didn’t give it much thought. With this social safety net I felt free to throw myself into the college experience headfirst, saying yes to almost every opportunity to try something new. I jumped from one crazy adventure/disaster to the next, with little to no contemplation about what I was doing, giving myself no time to breathe or come back to center. By the time March rolled around, I was such a physical and mental mess that I was too distracted and basically forgot to apply for the all-important summer internship. I ended up as a coaching intern at a strength & conditioning camp at my old high school–so not prestigious.
But this excuse to come home turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Little did I know, before committing to the gig, that my hometown was also the home of some of the most internationally recognized dance teams and choreographers. When I wasn’t coaching, I was taking dance classes at a dance studio that I must have passed dozens of times on my way to the airport. Google Maps and I became best friends as I found myself getting lost in neighborhoods of San Diego I had never spent much time in. I couldn’t believe that I had never glimpsed this incredibly rich scene that was just minutes from my childhood home.
At first I was a bit overwhelmed and demoralized by all the talent, but with each trip home during break I felt more and more supported by the people I met in classes. These people knew little to nothing about me, but were friendly and helped me love myself a little bit more. We’d hug and have brief catch ups every time we were in class: “What are you up to?” “That’s so exciting!” “How long are you here?” “Safe travels!” Dance introduced me to these lovely, warm people. For many of my high school friends, coming home during break could be a little lonely since we all had completely different academic calendars. I was lucky to find a community of people that was easy to find when I needed them; all I had to do was go to class.
In some ways these new friends know me in ways my high school friends might never be able to. These people watched me work through my emotional issues on the dance floor, growing both as a person and a dancer. When I retell these personal, emotional narratives in words for my high school friends, I find it often lacks the depth or nuances that I am able to express in movement. If there’s an inequality in these friendships, it is an issue of insecurity in labeling my issues or my own inability to articulate my struggles and not their lack of compassion or interest. Ultimately, for me, coming home isn’t tainted with the implications of failure that so many twentysomethings feel when they sleep in their childhood bed in their parents’ house. Coming home is about healing, becoming whole, centering myself.
Besides deepening my relationship with dance, being in San Diego was the best environment for the hot mess I was after freshman year. San Diegans, in general, are a pretty active bunch, spending most of their time either in fitness classes, jogging, or at the beach. I was surrounded by high school athletes trying to get recruited and dancers who spent every free moment in class. These people valued their physical health and took pride in everything their bodies were capable of, something I had forgotten post-“freshman 15.” Being in SD surrounded me with people that reminded me how to respect myself physically and take care of myself emotionally. It’s actually a bit of a running joke that every time I go home for the summer I email all of my friends with updates like “I AM HEALTHIER AND HAPPIER THAN I HAVE EVER BEEN IN MY ENTIRE LIFE.” Although laughable, it’s true.
The city of San Diego has become a very necessary, steadying force in my life, which is why I am nervous to leave it. In committing to this fellowship, I have agreed to live 7,000+ miles from home for nine months, by far the longest time I have ever spent away. I hope that I can take the gifts San Diego has given me and use them to ease the transition from laid-back Southern Californian heaven to international megacity of the future.
Recently, I’ve found myself listening to Ellie Goulding’s Halcyon on repeat. At first, I couldn’t put my figure on why, but it was immediately clear when I looked some interviews with Ellie about the album. For her, this album is a “journey from dark into light from confusion to understanding.” In particular, I’ve been playing the title track on repeat, which is almost too fitting. The word “halcyon” is actually “a bird that basically during the winter, it would lay its eggs by the sea and bring calm to the stormy waters.” Funny how the subconscious can know things about where you are before you are aware of it.