When someone asks me where I’m from, I always respond with “Seattle.” It hangs in the air, outing me as an NYC transplant and unsettling numerous unspoken expectations. But it was only recently, after having returned from a summer spent in Bangladesh, where my biological family lives, that I started questioning whether I can really call Seattle a home. In college, I’ve separated myself from home pretty drastically, returning fewer and fewer times over breaks and planning to stay in New York after graduation. I grew closer to my cultural home in Bangladesh and further from the West Coast city where I was born and raised for a number of reasons: It’s boring there; I wanted to connect with my roots; New York is the first city I’ve lived in on my own. And beyond that, there is a level of vulnerability that I have passed through in college by uprooting myself. Settling here has helped me face other more immediate challenges in my life.
I’ve heard it called the “learning edge” by Pam Phayme, director of Barnard’s Office of Diversity Initiatives—that place where you feel like you’re stepping out onto the precipice of your comfort zone. You’re not falling off, completely unmoored from everything you know, but neither are you completely secure in the comforts you’ve enjoyed before. Taken in an academic context, it means that you’re willing to entertain new thoughts and take on new experiences. It’s similar when separating yourself from home: You push your own boundaries to avoid stagnation. This will look different for everyone and isn’t determined by such arbitrary factors as days spent on campus or off.
University in New York City can be an escape from a stressful or unsafe home life or just from the monotony of the suburbs. It can be a place to explore identities that weren’t accepted where you grew up and to befriend people you’d otherwise never have met. It can also be a maze of expectations and anxieties, prompting you to oscillate between feeling like you’re doing too much or not doing enough. The pressures here are unique to your individual experiences, and that can seem like shaky ground to start building a foundation on. I would argue that that’s all in your expectations of what home should really look like.
Home has never been tied to a location for me, but that didn’t stop me from craving the idea of it. I sought out a geographical home desperately as I explored my identity and came up with a lot of half-baked ideas about its necessity. If I just got back to Bangladesh and found my biological family... if I just made peace with my Seattle community and resettled back there... if I just connected that much more with New York at large... In the end, none of these cookie-cutter ideas really fit my needs.
After being on my “learning edge” for the past four years, I’ve figured out that home is more about the chosen family—made up of everyone from blood relatives to friends and partners—that makes a place home. I may not have discovered that if home were closer or safer or less confusing for me. Discovering home on campus, or in NYC at all, was a process of going through the many stages of loneliness and loss before finally settling into a niche where I felt comfortable. But the best thing about our city is that there are so many niches to fill and so many paths to finding them. If you allow yourself to be vulnerable and step forward into new relationships and opportunities, it is possible to create a home right where you are, whether it’s a single dorm room or an apartment downtown. It’s up to you to pursue it.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in English and psychology.