Welcome back to Note to Self. As a special treat, we were able to recruit a guest blogger still in her first year of the Honors Program to share her experience with you all. Alex Chasteen, an Orange County Native, majoring in English & Creative Writing, wrote a wonderful creative piece about her first week of classes, college life, and her experiences with Honors Primetime. Though I am biased to LOVE her story because of our common denominator of being “humanities ladies in a field of STEMs,” (and I’m pretty sure we took the exact same Primetime course…) Alex shares real wisdom when it comes from knowing where you come from and how to adapt to the uproot and transplant process in Iowa City. Enjoy!
Moving to College: The Kum and Go
The weirdest thing about coming to Iowa is how many blond people there are. The blond people, and how small their hometowns can be. To be totally honest, living on my own isn’t all that scary in practice. I haven’t met many other military brats here but I imagine they’re having a similar experience – after moving thirteen times it’s hard to get scared by, like, buying your own toilet paper. Adulthood has been alright, college has been fine, but Iowa is a little scary. See: oceans of blond people. Other exhibits include the proximity of cornfields and the choice to name a gas station company “Kum and Go.”
The difference is probably best explained numerically. When I was all moved in and came in the first day to Honors Primetime, a seminar called, I believe, Writing for the Self, Writing for Your Learning. I arrived to the honors center three hours early, because I lost my schedule, the only place the classroom number was written down, and went in to ask someone to look it up for me, and spent the next few hours reading an Annie Proulx short story from a Paris Review in the third-floor Student Center‘s take-a-book-leave-a-book library, wondering what to expect.
With my mind still meandering through Proulx’s depressing small Midwestern town, I headed into a clean, well-lit classroom where the professor introduced himself and had us go around the room, saying our names, majors, the size of our hometown, and what we thought the cap was for a “small town.” I was the first one to go around the circle and just knew any population size I gave would be laughably high to everyone else so I gave a small laugh and said, “I’m Alex, English and Creative Writing major, and I have no idea what’s considered a small town. I’m from Orange County, which has about 3 million people.” (No one ever knows the city I’m from or the city where I went to high school so I don’t bother anymore.) People gasped. Out loud. I sat silently in my seat, drinking a lot of water to hide my face, as everyone rattled off their hometowns – 3,000, 10,000, 20,000, I think one person came from a town of 500. I did my best not to be horrified. I knew Los Angeles high schools with more students than half of these hometowns. My idea of a small town was that you can’t go to the grocery store without running into one person you know. Some of these people probably couldn’t go to the grocery store and run into someone they didn’t know. Objectively there’s nothing wrong with it. It just deeply disturbed me. It turned out the professor came from Indianapolis and was similarly horrified when he came to Iowa. So I wasn’t alone.
I signed up for ‘writing,’ and the class I found myself in was focused on writing for the self, which meant free writing. Hours of free writing, with prompts of increasing specificity and time length. Twenty minutes writing anything that came into your head, then sharing aloud with a random partner, then discussing highlights as a class, rinse and repeat. Except that professor kept counting us off, which meant nearly every single time I was paired with a pre-med neurobiology major from Nowhere, Iowa, with whom I had absolutely nothing in common with, to the point where we struggled to make conversation. (We almost connected over Hemingway, but he only knew his novels and I only knew the short stories.)
This was Monday, and the end of Monday was the first night I actually slept in my dorm. My parents took me out to dinner and dropped me off at a very empty Mayflower where I sat in a very empty suite, wondering what my roommates would be like (I never managed to contact any of them) or what my actual classes would be like or what we would do Tuesday in Primetime. We’d had to buy almost everything in my dorm at Target upon arriving, since getting things from California to Iowa is not cheap, so everything had the thrill of new and strange, and I fell asleep feeling both present and distant, aware that this was all happening but not really aware it was college.
On Tuesday, as it turned out, we free-wrote until our shoulders and hands ached. More things occurred to me walking around outside: the reason the sky looked so different was the clouds, huge and cumulonimbus. The too-bright look was from all the green. At lunch, I ran into a girl I met in Orientation and her friend from Primetime, who had the exact same voice as someone from my high school, which still unsettles me. If I look away when she speaks I can’t tell the difference, and it’s been months since we met. I figured out that a good way to mask anxiety in the classroom was to drink water, as it kept me hydrated and hid my face and gave me a reason to go to the bathroom a lot.
Tuesday night, my parents said goodbye. Their flight left early Wednesday morning. They came up to my dorm and helped put a few last things in place. My mother tried to put up some banners before she realized what she was doing and put them down again. None of us cried; we’d been in Iowa City since Saturday and it felt like the last step in almost a week of letting go. I stood in the visitor parking lot in flip flops in the dark, waving goodbye as the rental car drove down Dubuque off into the horizon. I felt that something huge was happening and that even as I stood there I was missing it somehow. I was watching myself wave at the rental car and I knew it wasn’t coming back and I accepted it, and I thought to myself that I shouldn’t just accept it, but I stood there and accepted it. Then I headed upstairs, because I had homework.
I went to class, went to lunch, went to class, went to dinner. I met the first few people to move into my hall. I didn’t meet anyone else in my session I particularly connected with but I drank excessive amounts of water and got through it. The class wasn’t bad and it wasn’t good – it was mostly just a reflection of what was inside my mind for the hour, which was a little tired and a little overloaded and very mundane. On the day of the symposium, we broke into groups for the final activity, and I made the people in my group laugh. Some people made great friends in their sessions. Some people still shout inside jokes to their Primetime buddies from across the walkway. I said to myself, I made those three people laugh. It was a good day. My jokes didn’t land at the actual symposium, and the morning of getting dressed I didn’t think about the symposium and wore jogger pants – but I made those three people laugh. They’re going to forget everything else, I told myself. No one would ever remember how anxious I was to try to guess how big a small town is or how I drank way more water than a human should or how my partner and I sat in silence. But they might think about the last day of Primetime and think, that one girl really made us laugh. Sometimes, you have to accept that as it is and head home, because you have things to get done.
If you have a story to share with us, please feel free to reach out! We’d love to share more experiences like Alex’s (and I challenge you all to top her photo with such a rad yellow jacket.) Any proposals for Honors Blog material may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: Alex Chasteen, Freshman, English & Creative Writing
Edited by: Katie Kiesewetter, Blog Manager