During the Fall of 2014, Clara, Blanca, Diana Alvarez and I ditched a week of school to go on a full-blown, planned-to-the-last-millisecond crusade across the east coast with one mission: visiting colleges. The wonderful Santa Catalina Island Foundation (SCIF), a community organization with the sole mission of getting and keeping island kids like me in college, sponsored this escapade. Our adventure started in New York, New York, waffled around the Boston area, dashed back to Providence, Rhode Island, and eventually found us camping on a cold, hardwood floor that supports a few, astronomically lucky humans that now attend Harvard University. You may ask yourself, “Why, Ariella? Why did you play hooky, take public transportation, and risk future-back issues by sleeping on an austere, Harvard ground?” It’s because I believed in a weird, magical thing called love at first vibe.
“Love at first vibe” is a strange phenomenon almost exclusive to my overly-competitive and college-bound generation. I’ve heard it explained to me by teachers, admittance officers, and college students alike. The philosophy goes like this (and, I paraphrase): “When you set foot on a college campus you have to know. You know this is where you’re going to make the most out of the next four years of your life.” I told my dad about this belief, and he thought it was a little silly (apparently, back in his day, you just applied to three or four schools within a ten-mile radius of your home, and went to whichever one had the nicest acceptance stationary). But kids have changed (at least in this regard). It’s about going as far away from home as possible, it’s about getting into the most selective school possible, and it’s about not ever having to face the possibility that you may have been happier somewhere else.
Before my trip, I was completely trapped in this mindset. First, we visited a school I was personally interested in: Columbia University in New York City. We woke up safe and early to visit this particular Ivy League school; we took the subway uptown and killed the extra time by walking around a small urban park, enjoying the city (which is dirty, but with good bagels). When we walked through the school’s gates, I felt my first college vibe. I don’t know if it was intimidation, false hype, or just pure awe, but I became completely overwhelmed by said vibe (for those of you who haven’t been to Columbia University: it looks like Ancient Greece). Once the shock evaporated, I thought that I found my place. I saw so many smart-looking kids running around, I saw a huge library with every book in every language, I saw posters advertising an upcoming lecture by the Dalai Lama. And I said to myself, “OK. This is the best place over.” But then we visited other great schools and I started realizing that it wasn’t Columbia I was in love with: it was the whole philosophy of college.
We saw Barnard across the street, a little, bucolic bubble in the city. We mingled with the plethora of tourists at Harvard, after talking a walk down through the beautiful, red-orange-brown groves of trees surrounding Tufts. We listened to a music student at Brown practice some J.S. Bach on a pipe organ. Upon every new campus we set foot on, I would, like a goldfish, completely forget the previous school and proclaim the new one to be “my #1.” As of now, I have thirteen “#1’s.” And somewhere along the way (maybe it was during our pastoral train ride up the Connecticut coastline, maybe it was in a Providence pizzeria) I realized that I would be happy anywhere and everywhere.
Colleges are wonderful places, and they are very alike. They’re filled with a bunch of smart kids that want to create their own life. Our most inspiring visitations were with SCIF-alumni college students themselves. First, we spent a lovely evening with Alli Martinelli of Columbia University, who cooked us zesty vegan Pad Thai. She told us about school (she’s graduating this year with a degree in Biochemical Engineering), showed us around her suite (she has a view of the entire New York City skyline), and introduced us to her fiance (he’s a very nice boy). If this encounter wasn’t fortuitous enough, I also had the opportunity to spend five days with the freshman Natalie Vega in her natural habitat: Harvard. Her new found enthusiasm and passion for life was enough to make anybody excited about the future. I could only imagine what kind of person four years in college would transform me into (hopefully, a CEO with a lot of money).
Now, it’s early January. I hit submit on my college applications safely before the deadline, so I’m in this lethargic hibernation period that will last until late March, when I get my rejection (and hopefully one or two acceptance) letters back from some of America’s most elite institutions. But while I loaf around, feeling bitterly insecure, I have my memories of the college vibe. I remember our amazing journey, I remember the terrifying joy of the real world, of independence and responsibility, the promise of one day, coming back home with a P.h.D and making the island a better rock to live on.