76: My Mistakes

76: My Mistakes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

My Mistakes

The most successful people are those who are good at plan B.

~James Yorke

I sat in my seat, squinting as the sun rose over the top of the clouds, searing my exhausted eyes. God I was tired. I had a love-hate relationship with planes — part of me was always desperate to get on, partly to relax my aching shoulder from carrying all my stuff, partly to not worry about anything being stolen, but mostly the feeling. Walking down the unheated ramp that led to the airplane door, I felt such a twisty thrill in my stomach.

This time had been no different. All the ads on the gangway might as well have said, “New life ahead,”

“Excitement, This Way,” or, “For the Change You Need, Choose 37A.” It was all the same. This particular plane, this particular journey, signaled a new and thrilling time in my life. I couldn’t even begin to understand the profound changes it would make in my life.

So I boarded my plane of dreams and I sat in 37A and I hunkered down for the long flight. I was not prepared. It had been four years since I last took a transatlantic flight, and I forgot one crucial detail: I don’t sleep on planes. Ever.

I had stayed up all night packing before boarding, thinking I’d zonk right out. I brought a book, but nothing to distract me, like puzzles. I didn’t bring enough water to support eight hours of being awake and bored, nor enough munchies. And I forgot that I hated plane food. And I forgot that, unlike most people who got very cold on planes, I got wicked hot. The sweatshirt wasn’t a good idea.

So it was that the sun found me, sweaty, grumpy, bored, and so exhausted my eyeballs felt like it would be a relief to bleed. I stumbled off one plane and onto my connection without really thinking, rolled off that connection and managed to find the school-sponsored bus. I wasn’t sure which dorm I was actually going to, so I had to perk up a bit to find the info.

Once dropped off at my dorm, I threw my stuff in the room and locked the door; flying transatlantic, anything cheap and easily replaceable was not included, so toiletries were left at home. I cornered an RA and asked how to get into town, and I began to haul my butt up a huge hill that stretched behind my dorm.

At the top of the hill, I paused — more from necessity than I’d like to admit — and in so doing, I looked out.

The countryside unrolled before me, one natural golf course of lustrous green after another, lined on one side by the tumultuous North Sea. Everything was touched by the golden light of the midday sun, and it took my breath away. I made it. I was there, in St Andrews, Scotland, about to start my year abroad. Though I didn’t know it then, I was about to start my whole life. And I couldn’t believe how I got there.

You have to know something about my high school. Like any high school, there was a social struggle of cool being waged between all the students—but unlike most high schools, the battlefield was filled with only women, and rather than looks and boys, it was grades and confidence that mattered most.

I really wanted to go to Georgetown. I was a legacy—I should have been a sure bet. But when it came down to it, my grades weren’t all that great and my potential, at that point, was difficult to see on paper. But it didn’t make it any easier when I got a pretty snooty rejection letter, that basically implied that they really wanted to accept me, based on the legacy thing, but I just sucked that badly.

Girls posted their rejection letters on the wall in our locker room as a private rebellion, but I couldn’t even do that. I got into Goucher College in Maryland—it was nice and I met some nice people visiting there, and within minutes I convinced myself it was the only place I would go if Georgetown didn’t want me.

So I wore my Goucher sweatshirt to school and I told everyone how thrilled I was — until the second campus visit. My dad took me this time, and I was staying the weekend. He doesn’t like to walk much, so we drove around the campus together.

And it took barely a minute.

“This... this is it?” I asked him. “I could have sworn it was bigger before.”

He shrugged, beginning to offer some consolation, but I didn’t listen. Instead I opened my quick fact sheet from admissions and made a startling discovery—the school was about the same size as my high school.

“Dad,” I said softly. “I made a big mistake.”

“What do you mean?”

I showed him the numbers. I hated my high school’s size, because it prevented it from offering as much as the local public school. Fewer AP classes with limited class size, fewer languages offered, fewer programs. I couldn’t do the same for college. “I can’t go here.”

He stopped the car and sighed. “Well, did you get in anywhere else?”

I nodded. “Mount Holyoke. But do I really want to do another all girl school?”

“It’s your choice,” he told me.

I chose Mount Holyoke, especially after being reluctantly dazzled by their community-enriching traditions, like everyone gathering at night for milk and cookies (hello freshman fifteen), the dorms that looked more like beautiful homes, and the breathtakingly gorgeous campus with little quirks like a stone amphitheater and a Japanese tea house—but most of all, I was enraptured by the huge percentage of their junior class that went abroad.

For a year, I loved it helplessly, but I felt a little out of place. I loved the variety of friends I had, but I didn’t really like the environment. The fierce competition that drives women had melted down

into a campus wide catfight; instead of support and community, I felt animosity and jealousy, everyone fighting everyone else instead of creating a strong female network.

Junior year came none too soon. I was off; I was carefree, I was on a cultural learning experience, a flight of fancy for one year.

Only, I never went back.

I ended up transferring to The University of St Andrews in Scotland, and I ended up doing another degree, staying three years in total. When I got there, when I climbed that first hill and took my first walk into the historic town, little fireworks went off. I felt the magic, the thrill of being well and truly home. As I write this, I have a ticket beside me—in a few months, I’m moving to Scotland for as long as I can swing it.

The thing with college is that it’s like life, and sometimes, your first decision isn’t your best one. You make it for all the right reasons, but sometimes it just doesn’t fit. And you might not know it for a year or even two — or you might even know the second you set foot on campus. For me, it happened both ways, first with Goucher, then with Mount Holyoke. But in the end, college, like life, is all about the journey I took, the false starts and the magical endings. Don’t be afraid to mess it up.

~AC Gaughen

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