Going to College in Your Hometown When Your Hometown is New York

"Wow, you’re like from here,” was something more than one person said to me incredulously when they learned I grew up in New York City. “That’s crazy” was often the follow-up. I imagine hearing I’m from New York is probably like how I feel when I hear somebody is from Vegas, in that I honestly didn’t really think people actually lived there. A place can feel more like a concept than a real, lived experience. But no. I grew up in New York City, and it’s definitely real to me.

I chose to go to school at Eugene Lang College, in the downtown heart of the place I grew up in. When I came to Lang, almost everyone around me was overwhelmed by the mythos of the big city, when to me it was utterly familiar. For a lot of people, going to school in New York was their dream and often part of a desire to escape. For me, it was a calculated choice to stay. I applied to schools like the University of Washington and Reed College, which would have meant moving across the country, something I dreamed about a lot when I was in high school. But what I eventually came to realize as I got older was that that idea of starting over was a fantasy. If I wasn’t happy with myself, I wouldn’t be any happier if I was in Seattle because I was still going to have to live with myself. 

Washington Heights, Manhattan, where I grew up. Zip code 10034. I attended the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, Bronx, and my dad grew up in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, only twenty minutes away from Washington Heights. 

If we’re being real, staying in New York had a lot to do with my high school boyfriend, who was going to school in central Jersey. I could go into a diatribe about how in hindsight that probably wasn’t the right reason to choose to stay in my hometown and potentially sacrifice new experiences, but after that relationship fell apart I really had to reckon with why I had stayed and I don’t think it would be useful to turn this into a cautionary tale. I’m not going to try and argue that I wasn’t afraid of change on some level. I don’t think I realized how much your life can change when you’re in college. When I was graduating high school, I seriously thought I had a lot of life figured out, that I was mature and college was just a stepping stone to living in Newark with my first love and mortgaging a house. I wasn’t conscious of the fact that you have to maintain the small things along the way in order to get to the bigger things. With my first love, I always assumed that we would make a life together, but what I didn’t realize was that I was that that assumption was more about my desire for stability than it was about a real relationship – I was afraid of making the small steps with him, so in my mind I just cut to the big ones. 

I wouldn’t have come to any of these conclusions about myself, or at least I think it would have taken a lot longer if I had just ended that relationship to go to school in Seattle or Portland or Canada. I made the choice that seemed right at the time, despite a lot of people advising me against it, and though I wouldn’t necessarily advise other people to do the same thing as me, I would say that if you think a choice is right, it’s tough to talk yourself out of it. In a way, staying in New York was a way of sitting with myself and really analyzing my own life and the patterns that made me who I am. By staying in New York, I couldn’t run away. I was forced to walk through places with loaded memories and confront how I felt going through my head, to really build a relationship with my family that had healthy boundaries because of how physically close we were, and to create a new home for myself as an adult in a place I’d been in since I was born.

The distance from my childhood home to Eugene Lang College, as told by Google Maps.

Growing up in New York made me tenacious and independent. It gave me a love of exploration and a gratitude for having the world at my fingertips through the subway lines and commuter trains. Being a New Yorker gave me a tolerance and respect for other people, and an impulse both to mind my own business and to help others without question. It was a life-shaping experience, the same way growing up in suburbia is a life-shaping experience.  By staying in New York I admitted that I’m still learning to become a person and I don’t have it all figured out. A lyric that always resonated with me is from Mitski’s “First Love / Late Spring,” where she sings “I was so young when I behaved twenty-five, and now I feel I’ve grown into a tall child.” I’m still growing, I don’t know everything, and even in my hometown I have new things to learn.  It took me a long time to be able to say that. For an angsty, neurotic prep school kid I needed what tourists call the greatest city on earth - and my own home - to put me in my place.