Familiar place, unfamiliar experience

Whenever I tell people that I am originally from Williamstown, a very specific look crosses their face. It is not quite pity, not quite confusion. Nor is it amusement or envy. This look, whatever it is, is one I have gotten quite used to, as well as the follow up question of “why did you go to Williams?” This question, however frequently it comes, is always an extremely tough one to answer.

Growing up, I always thought I would never come to Williams. In fact I was so certain of it that I even looked down on “townies” who then went on to be Williams students. College is a time you are supposed to branch out, explore the world and experience new things. It’s supposed to be the most fun and the most freeing four years of your life, completely separate from your friends, your family and the person you were growing up. It’s a time to redefine yourself. To my younger self, these things seemed incompatible with going to school in my hometown. I wanted more.

The reason it’s so hard to explain why I’m at Williams is because I’m not sure even I really know why I came. Sure, I can qualify it to myself with, “It was for the academics” or “I loved the squash team” or even “You can never get enough of Williamstown!” but none of these answers really rings true for me. Maybe I applied because coming home after three years of boarding school seemed nice to me, or maybe I even applied because I was afraid of the unknown. Whatever the reason may be, when September of last year rolled around, I found myself packing up all of my belongings and making the five-minute trek down the road to Mission Park. While all my classmates were dealing with culture shock, jet lag and trying to figure out what and where Paresky was, I was dealing with an entirely different set of issues. I was trying to convince myself I had made the right choice. I attempted to distract myself with orientation activities and meeting new people, but the question at the back of my mind was always “why am I here?”

Freshman year felt to me more like a senior year. Nothing seemed new, and I felt like I was already ready to leave. I wanted a new chapter in my life, not to revisit an old one. Going away to boarding school forced me to grow in a lot of ways that I think I wouldn’t have if I had just gone to the local high school. I felt like a transformed person. Yet this new version of me was coming back to this tiny town with a different perspective on life, and I just didn’t feel like I fit anymore. I was ready to keep growing, to continue on the trend I had established in high school, but I felt like I was taking a step backward.

Last year was filled with self-doubt and at times, the feeling that I had really messed up. I wanted the typical college experience, not the one where you have to worry that you’ll run into your parents as you cross Main Street on the way to a party at night. As time went on, however, I began to feel slightly more confident in my decision. I still struggle a lot with how to make college feel exciting, but I’m figuring out that it’s not an impossible task. Being happy at Williams, for me, is less about lowering my expectations and more about changing them. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my college experience is going to be very different from that of my peers, but that doesn’t mean it has to be worse. I get to go home to home-cooked meals. I don’t have to do my laundry in Garfield basement. I get to see my puppy anytime I want. But being at Williams now means more than this to me.

What has helped me the most over the past year and a half is trying to separate Williams from Williamstown. Even though I know this town, I get to see it in an entirely new light now. I get to meet new people every day and have my horizons broadened by classes and professors. I have the opportunity to be a part of a community of interesting, quirky, intelligent people, which is an opportunity I never had growing up. Sure, location is important, but the more I stay here the more I realize that it’s the school itself, and the people in it, that are what matters most.

Even though I run into my dad almost every day on Spring Street and even though every sporting event I go to brings me back to my elementary school days when we would all go cheer on our favorite Eph team, Williams College is still unique to me. The town may be a place I am arguably too familiar with, but the experiences I have within the Williams bubble are not. I definitely cannot wait to get out of here and explore the world, live in cities and truly experience something brand new, but for now, it’s enough to take new classes, meet new people and discover new ways to make myself happy in a town I know like the back of my hand.

Hailey Herring-Newbound ’16 is from Williamstown, Mass. She lives in Garfield.