When I got into Brown, I was sitting criss-cross on my high school’s hallway floor, next to my best friend. I’d stepped away from the classroom with her to check my admission status. When I opened the page and saw I’d gotten in, my shellshocked scream was almost as much about my excitement to leave Kansas as it was my acceptance to Brown itself.
I was never someone who dreamed of moving to a big city; I remember visiting New York City when I was a kid and hating it. But my excitement to move to Brown stemmed, in large part, from a belief I hadn’t even been conscious of holding: that step one in ‘making it’ was leaving home, and the Midwest, behind. As graduation crept up on me this year, I realized step two of my subconscious success narrative looked like a post-graduate move to a city — a big one, probably far from home.
I realize that much of this internalized aspiration comes from personal experience and reflects my socioeconomic status. In high school, my parents took me to see colleges in the Northeast and Northwest. My journalism teacher told stories about former students who had moved to work in Los Angeles and New York. I watched the older students I looked up to in high school go away for college and move to new cities — Orlando, Atlanta, Anchorage — to pursue their careers. So to me, it seemed that moving away was the way to be who I wanted to be — the way to make something of myself.
As graduation crept up on me this year, I realized step two of my subconscious success narrative looked like a post-graduate move to a city — a big one, probably far from home.
But I also see this premise — equating leaving home with success — imbued in structural, societal and cultural norms. Frequently, one must leave home to get the job they want or the environment they need. As a journalist, the job opportunities in New York, D.C. or L.A. outnumber those in my home state. What's more, this premise is inherently threaded into the American dream via the tenet that one’s children should lead a better life than their parents. Home often seems like the place one ultimately grows out of and leaves.
It’s in the media I consumed growing up, too. Jo March, fleeing domesticity to pursue her writing career in New York City. Harry Potter, escaping his misfit identity to discover his true identity at boarding school. Left and right, characters struck out on their own to explore unfamiliar territory and make a new home for themselves.
I would argue it’s even embedded in the structure of Brown and most elite universities. Unlike a state school or community college, this school is not built to foster education and opportunities for the people who call Rhode Island home (if it were here to serve the community, maybe they would pay property taxes). In the Fall of 2020, only 7 percent of undergraduates even came from Rhode Island. Instead, Brown, and this premise, beckon most of us to leave our home hours away — in Fall 2019, 76 percent of undergraduates came from outside of New England — in pursuit of a priceless college experience that costs over $60,000 a year.
It certainly beckoned me. This metric of success — leaving one’s home, often to move to a new, urban place — brought me to Brown, led me to study abroad and weighed heavily on me in the job search. It is a metric that values one’s ability to adjust to new environments, to make new friendships, to be okay with being alone and unfamiliar. It values one’s penchant for exploration and curiosity, and the joy that comes from being able to build your own community.
But in writing this column, I realized that my desire to move away was, also, to a degree, a desire for what I saw as prestige. Moving on meant moving up.
But in writing this column, I realized that my desire to move away was, also, to a degree, a desire for what I saw as prestige. Moving on meant moving up. And in all my focus on the success that comes with leaving one’s hometown for the big city, I failed to recognize the efforts of people who work tirelessly over the long term to improve our communities and to ensure they function. The people who stay in one place, one community, ensure that community’s survival.
I’m coming to terms with the fact that staying — or returning — home is a metric for success, too. It is a metric that values commitment to and investment in one’s community. It values the ability to maintain and deepen relationships. Returning, in particular, values seeing one’s community both for what it is and what it can be.
I’m coming to terms with the fact that staying — or returning — home is a metric for success, too.
Come June 1, I’ll be moving to Wichita, Kansas, about three hours from my hometown, to report for a local newspaper. It’s a move I didn’t expect to make when I left four years ago. But this is the new metric of success I am giving more weight to as I look toward my own future.