If you had told me in the spring of 2019 at my high school graduation that in a year I’d find myself back living in my hometown, I wouldn’t have believed you. This was it; for years I had worked to get out of this town. I had said my goodbyes and I was leaving for Penn, the place I had been dreaming about escaping to since middle school. There was no way I’d ever return to Lynchburg, Virginia; I had outgrown it, the stuck–in–their–ways mentality of the people, the nonexistent sidewalks that force you to drive everywhere, the lack of activity or excitement. Basically, I was a walking Lady Bird quote: “I want to go where culture is.”
Like a lot of Penn students, I’ve spent this semester in my hometown. My childhood bedroom is my dorm room, my living room is my library, my town is my campus. When you've spent all of your childhood dreaming of leaving, it’s strange to suddenly get sent back and live here as a college student. As a first year when campus shut down in March, I was only just beginning to feel like Philadelphia was my home. All at once I was back to a place where I no longer belonged, with no promise of leaving for the foreseeable future.
Anna Siv (C’24) never even got the chance to leave her hometown of Morgantown, Pennsylvania. For Anna, the online semester has meant that her first year of college is like an extension of her senior year of high school. When Penn canceled undergraduate housing in August, having to stay home was “heartbreaking” for Anna. “It felt like I was trapped in my town because for years I’ve been excited to go somewhere else. It felt like I was never going to get to leave this place.”
Rebecca Hennessey (C’23) felt similar disappointment when she ultimately made the decision to stay in her hometown of Smithville, New Jersey for the fall semester, though unlike Anna, she had already gotten a taste of campus during her first year. “It was upsetting—of course I want to be at Penn. That’s where I’m supposed to be.” Current sophomores like Rebecca and me have now spent more time as online Penn students than we have in–person. “I have a new appreciation for the time I spent at Penn so far. If I were a freshman, I wouldn’t know what I was missing out on. But after knowing what the on–campus experience is like and freshman year getting cut short, I’m just dying to go back,” says Rebecca.
Christina Irmen (C’21) has also struggled with the sadness of spending her last fall semester as a Penn student at home in Bentonville, Arkansas. “I thought about getting an apartment, but it just didn’t make sense to go back.” Off–campus apartments are expensive, and even though it meant missing a large part of her senior year, she didn’t feel like she could trust roommates living in close quarters. As a senior, Christina is mourning a Penn community that she might never really feel like she’s a part of again. She studied abroad in the fall of her junior year, then spring was cut short. “If we don’t go back in the spring, half of my Penn experience won’t actually have been at Penn. Something that could have been a large part of my life just isn’t. I’m learning to live with that.”
When you’re living at home, especially in a small town isolated from other Penn students, there’s a certain disconnect between you and your Penn identity. Zoom is isolating; we’re burned out from classes, drained, tired, lonely. Yet from afar, through the filter of Instagram and Facebook, campus still seems to be full of people.
“It’s hard to see people you know on social media or Instagram or whatever and not feel like I’m the only person who stayed home. I know the majority of people probably stayed home, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way,” says Rebecca. Watching the world through a screen, it’s easy to feel left out, or like you never really had a place at Penn to begin with.
“When I left Penn for spring break, I really just left everyone,” says Christina. “Right now, it feels like Penn is just something I turn on, like Netflix. I’m not meeting anyone, I’m not connecting with anyone beyond people I already know. We’re all just names and Zoom squares.”
At the same time, living at home as a student from a school in a different city makes it hard to connect with your home community. Anna had already felt disconnected from her hometown even though she had lived there her entire life. Anna’s parents immigrated to the US in the '70s, her mom from Vietnam and her dad from Cambodia. As an Asian American in her community, she has faced a heightened sense of isolation since so few people share her identity. “My community is not very accepting of people outside of their group—it’s majority white. It’s hard to live in a town where you don’t feel like you fit in.” Penn was a chance for her to escape her conservative community, and now without her high school activities or friends, she’s even more alone. There are times she questions choosing Penn; if she had gone to another school, she would have had the option to be on campus. Anna says, “I don’t know, it’s like we’re ghosts in our own towns. We’re not meant to be here, but we’re kind of just trapped here.”
Zoom feels so normalized at this point in 2020, but as the year comes to a close, we must pause to reflect on how truly strange this semester has been and how uncanny it feels to be so far away from our fellow Penn students. “I’m in a weird liminal space where I’m not a part of Penn, but I’m not a part of my hometown necessarily. I have to be half of each. It’s hard to explain,” says Christina. I nod at her through the screen; I’ve been feeling exactly the same way. It’s weird knowing that you’re the only person for hundreds of miles who is going through life at Penn. As Anna puts it, it feels like “you’re just floating around between two worlds, not really existing in either.”
Feeling pulled between life at Penn and life at home is yet another emotional toll of a semester full of FOMO, loneliness, and existential stress. “When you’re living at home, there are a lot of roles you have to fill. You’re a student, but you’re also actively a daughter and a sister, and it’s weird to set boundaries with the people you live with. I’m here, but I’m not here. I still have to be at Penn in a lot of capacities,” says Christina.
But maybe there are some upsides to being home at such a stressful time. It’s safer, and there’s no need to travel. The safety of staying in our home communities is the reason that Penn decided to depopulate campus in the first place.
As the year draws to a close, it’s nice to be able to reflect on the trauma and chaos of this year in a place that’s safe and comfortable. Despite the loneliness, Anna says she’s glad for the support of her friends and family in her hometown. “All of my relationships here have gotten stronger,” she says. She recounts baking with her mom and working on home projects as a family. Rebecca, too, is optimistic about some of her experiences during her quiet semester at home, “I learned how to cook! That was something I didn’t know how to do before the pandemic.”
Even though she’s missed half of her senior year on campus, Christina has also found joy in her semester in Bentonville: “I really like my hometown. It isn’t well–known or big, but I love my family. There are things I love here, there are restaurants where I can sit outside, this chocolate shop I go to all the time—they even know my order. Oh, and I love the farmer’s market.” She’s been able to see her siblings and spend time with her niece. She even jokes about binge–watching shows with her parents to procrastinate school work. “Even though I’d rather be at Penn, I’ve loved this time.”
In some ways, I, too, have learned to appreciate my hometown in a way I didn’t in high school. New shops and restaurants have emerged since I left for Penn. At my coffee shop job, I have grown to find a certain charm even in the small–town personalities I had once found tiresome. While there may not be city streets to walk, I enjoy strolls in my neighborhood just fine, too. Talking to Christina, Anna, and Rebecca, I felt a sense of community and gained a new appreciation for this semester at home. This semester has been lonely, but for everyone who’s experienced it from their homes instead of Philadelphia, there’s a certain unity in knowing that a piece of campus now lives in all of our hometowns.
Anna, Rebecca, and Christina are all planning to return to campus in January. I, too, couldn’t be more ready to leave my hometown; it’s been a long time coming. I don’t know what the spring semester is going to look like, but the fall semester wasn’t totally lost. It has made me feel like I am caught between two worlds, but it has also reminded me of how much I love Penn and how much I must cherish my hometown. I miss Penn, but part of my Penn experience will always be tied to my home, to the bedroom where I worked tirelessly on my Penn application, the living room where I got the news that I had been accepted, and finally to the town I returned to for my freshman spring and sophomore fall. This will forever be the semester that my hometown became my campus; it hasn’t been perfect, but it has taught me to love the place I come from just as much as the places I still have yet to go.