Essay by Hallie French
I cried the first time I ever went to a professor’s office hours. The two of us sat across a desk from each other in a sun-filled room. I remember looking out her office window and seeing trees and buildings set against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. I don’t remember exactly what she said but I do remember breaking down right there into a flood of unstoppable tears. I wanted nothing more than for a hole to open up in the earth and swallow me.
The professor was the kind of teacher that I’ve always loved; brilliant and slightly terrifying. But in that moment the terror outweighed the brilliance. What I remember most about that day, other than the debilitating embarrassment, is the sound of my professor’s heels as she walked down the hall to bring me tissues.
“Take a deep breath,” she said, then, “You’re crying because this is important.”
She was right. I was crying because it was important. We were talking about a project that I wanted to write about my mom, and it was important, and I missed my mom.
Rewind the tape about ten years.
I was in middle school when I decided definitively that I was going to college, looking back I’m not sure why I made that choice. I was eleven when I decided that I was not only going to college but I was going to study English.
To understand that choice you’ll need some background information. I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina. I grew up in a town so small that to this day does not have a proper stoplight. College was, for a number of reasons, a luxury that wasn’t afforded to my mom and dad, but they always encouraged my budding dreams. They always made it clear that they wanted more for me.
I remember being eleven years old and wanting nothing more than to get out of that town. I always knew that college was the way out. It was with that in mind and my parents’ encouragement that I started telling people what I was going to do when I grew up.
I still remember the first day of my first class at the University of North Carolina. There I sat a junior transfer student, in a classroom of twenty plus students proudly wearing a gray T-shirt with the school’s seal emblazoned across my chest. I remember that class because I remember feeling overwhelmed and hopelessly out of place.
I had never ridden public transportation to and from school, I had never been in a place with that many people, and I had never been so close to everything I had always wanted. I walked to class that morning with the acute sense that I had finally made it. The heartaches and the three years at community college had finally paid off. I was officially in the big leagues.
As I sat in that class that I wasn’t interested in, but was mandatory for my major, I couldn’t help but wonder if I really belonged there, or if by some chance the admissions office had made a mistake by letting me in.
The second day of class got worse when I woke up twenty minutes after my first class of the day started.
I am acutely aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I was lucky enough to get out of that small town. I was lucky enough to have my parents’ support. I was lucky enough to have a community of transfer students and mentors behind me. I was lucky enough to get into a great school.
Unfortunately luck only goes so far. Much of my first, and second, semester at UNC was characterized by tears. I had breakdowns in advisors’ offices. I had breakdowns in my room by myself. I had breakdowns on Skype with my partner. I had drunken breakdowns with my roommate. I even once cried on the bus. All the crying came because, despite the fact that everyone told me otherwise, it still felt like I didn’t belong.
It still felt like my whole life up to that point had been a series of lucky flukes. I cried about assignments. I cried about reading. I cried about papers. I cried because I missed my parents. I blinked back tears walking between classes because in the crisp fall air of Chapel Hill I realized that I had finally made it to where I had always wanted to be, and it would be over too soon. Suffice it to say that I was dehydrated for much of the 2015-2016 school year.
Maybe I’ve emphasized the tears a bit too much. Being a first generation college student hasn’t always been about crying. Though it has at times been a solitary experience it has at other times been one of intense connection with others.
Nothing has connected me more to other people at UNC than to learn that they were also “firsts.” It is in those connections that I have felt the most at home. Knowing that there are other people like me, going through the same experiences has gotten me through some hard days.
In my second semester at UNC I was desperate to find an honors thesis advisor. Thanks to an American Literature class that began with the entire class analyzing Michael Jackson’s iconic Thriller video I found one. It wasn’t until after he signed on to my project that I found out that he was also a first generation college student.
For the first time since my arrival at UNC I had found a professor that felt truly accessible to me, something I hadn’t had since my time at my community college. I remember shaking when I mounted the steps of the English building to ask if he would work with me on my thesis.
I had prepared for that meeting. I rehearsed how I would explain my project. I gathered writing samples. I was prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was his first line of questions.
“How are you?” and “How is your semester going?” and “Tell me more about yourself.”
They were questions that I hadn’t been asked by a professor since I transferred. They were important. We talked about my life. We talked about my time at UNC. We talked about my family and where I was from. We talked about things that mattered more than school.
When it was my turn to ask questions I tried to remember what I had rehearsed. I had read his resume the night before. All seven pages of it. I didn’t even finish my performance before he said yes.
“Are you sure?”
Since then he’s filled in a gap during my time at UNC. He’s helped me navigate everything from my thesis to grad school and everything in between. My finding him has been another piece of my luck.
Finding him meant everything to my time at UNC, because I never thought that I would find another mentor like the one I had at my community college. I missed her all the time. She had been, and still is, a rock of support that I just couldn’t find elsewhere. She’s the person who taught me that my successes were not fluke.
“You earned this.” She would say over and over again, about everything from good grades on papers to academic awards. Somewhere along the way I started to believe her.
During my first semester at UNC I got the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico over fall break. I was almost 1,500 miles away from everything I had ever known. What I remember most from my time there is not the beaches or the food, though it was delicious. Rather, what I remember the most is one of the lecturers with whom my group spent a lot of time.
He had spent extensive time on the coast of North Carolina, near where I’m from, and every time he would talk about Puerto Rico’s history or ecology he would tell us, “It’s just like North Carolina.” Over and over he would tell us that phrase, and he was right in so many ways. That’s the message that I carried with me while I was there and every day since. Even though I was farther away from home than I had ever been it really wasn’t that different from everything I’d ever known.
The cold, dry air of a North Carolina October nipped at my skin when I stepped off that plane. That plane didn’t just bring me back, it brought me home. From that moment forward Chapel Hill wasn’t just a piece of my heart, it was my home.
I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die I’m a Tar Heel dead. These are the words that begin the most exciting part of Carolina’s alma mater. This is the part where students start clapping and jumping and getting excited, all leading up to shouting obscenities at our favorite rival.
Ever since I arrived at UNC it’s been a bit of a sore spot to shout those words, because I’m not a Tar Heel born or bred. I cannot relate to the feelings of a classmate that I overheard lamenting that his brother had chosen to go to another school despite the fact that every man in their family had walked the hallowed brick paths of UNC for the past five generations.
I will never truly be able to say that I am a Tar Heel born or bred, but at this point I will be a Tar Heel dead. Learning to belong at UNC has meant learning to claim that identity in a sea of people that claim another one. I will always be proud to say that when I die I’ll be a Tar Heel dead.
And you can bet on it when I say that when I graduate on Mother’s Day of 2017, that one will be for my mom. And it will be for my dad. It will be for them for giving me an opportunity that they themselves were not so lucky to get. On that day I won’t be the only one who will be a Tar Heel.
During my second semester at Carolina I picked up last minute student tickets to a show at UNC’s historic playhouse. Lucy Alibar, a screenwriter and playwright, was set to give a reading from portions of her work-in-progress novel. I was attending the show for a class. I was expecting it to be like any other show, but I was wrong.
Alibar’s work focused on her childhood in the rural South, primarily in relationship with her close ties to her parents. That show was a transformative moment. I laughed and I cried during that show. In her childhood stories I heard the echoes of my own. For the first time since I had been at UNC I saw someone important telling stories about a life that didn’t sound that different from my own.
In those few hours I was reminded that I wasn’t alone. I wish I could tell Lucy Alibar how much that night has helped me through the hard times since then and how much it inspired me to be unapologetic.
I’m a senior now, so close to graduating in a pale blue cap and gown. I still wear that gray T-shirt from that first day of class, but now I wear a class ring too. I found a journal the other day that I kept when I first got here. I was trying my best to document everything. In the third week of my first semester of classes I wrote to myself in a journal, without context, “Today I learned that there will be bad days, and that is okay. I learned that I’m too hard on myself.”
Though I told myself that I learned that lesson on September 2, 2015, it turns out that I am still learning that lesson. There are still days where I feel like I don’t belong, there are still days when I want to give up, there are still days when I feel unequipped, and there are still days when I feel like I’m not as smart as I know I am.
Seven days after the first entry I wrote to myself, again without context, “Today I learned that sometimes bad days are followed by really good days, days so good that they will give you chills.” This lesson is the one that I have learned to carry with me, locked away in my sometimes aching heart; this too shall pass and when it does, oh man, will it be spectacular.
Hallie is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she studies English with a minor in Literature, Medicine and Culture. We are so excited to include her story in our series on self acceptance.