The Lingering “What If”

When I was deciding where to go to college, I had the choice between two schools. One place was my mom and sister’s alma mater; it was a place I had visited multiple times before and it was nearby Boston, a city I had always wanted to live in. The other place was a wildcard: no one in my family had gone there before, and it was in the middle of rural Massachusetts, far from Boston.

Even though I was familiar with Wellesley life and culture and thought I’d be happy going there, I was attracted to the idea of going to school where none of my siblings had attended. As the youngest of three, I’ve always felt like I was in my brother and sister’s shadows—whether in orchestra, school, and sports. So I decided Amherst would be the place where I’d make my own path.

During my first few months at Amherst, though, I wondered if I had made the right decision. In my mind, the close sisterhood and relationships my mom and sister had with their college friends was a unique Wellesley experience, and I wondered if I’d ever experience the same at my co-ed liberal arts school. The feeling wasn’t enough to make me consider transferring, but the “what if” lingered for a bit.

Emily with her older sister and mom, who both graduated from Wellesley

My sister, Wellesley Class of 2011 and my mom, Wellesley Class of 1982 coming to visit for family weekend!

When the time for study abroad applications came around in spring 2018, I hadn’t thought of going away until my mom reminded me of this exchange program with Wellesley—a program she actually told me about before I matriculated into Amherst. I thought it’d be a great opportunity to get away for a semester, still take classes to fulfill my major requirements, explore Boston, and check out the school I might’ve gone to.

Since coming here, I’ve surprisingly grappled a lot with being an exchange student.

When I introduce myself as an exchange student from Amherst, most people are confused because they don’t know domestic exchanges exist, but it’s been pretty cool introducing the idea; one freshman I met told me she might consider doing an exchange at Amherst now that she knows this exists. However, there are some people who react less positively. I think a lot of  students—myself included—perceive going abroad to be a break from rigorous academics and an opportunity to travel far far away for a semester. But going to another liberal arts institution similar in academic rigor only 1.5 hour drive away does not fit this perception—if anything, it might seem like I’m exchanging stress for more stress.

When I first got these reactions, I tried to justify my reasons for coming, as if I needed to convince them my reasons for coming were good, which made me begin to doubt my reasons for coming to Wellesley. After sharing these concerns with my sister and friends, I realized that I was caring too much about what people thought about my decisions and caring too little about what I thought. I may not be taking a “break” from liberal arts institutions, but I’m really enjoying my experience as a Wellesley student so far. I’m taking subjects I’ve wanted to study since before entering college, like Korean and Paradise Lost by John Milton. And I’ve also had the opportunity to try out research in a neuroscience lab and continue playing violin through chamber music ensemble.

I’ve also struggled with the loneliness of being an exchange student. My siblings moved a lot after graduating college and I remember hearing them mention it was hard getting to know people in their new homes. I remember not understanding why it was so difficult because I considered them to be pretty sociable people, but now I get it: even for social butterflies, it’s hard to begin relationships when you’re starting with knowing close to 0 people. At least in freshman year, you have 700 other people in the same boat. I have around 10 people out of 700 in the same boat.

In the first few weeks, I wanted to skip the time it takes getting to know someone. It was almost like I forgot how relationships work—how they take a lot of effort, awkwardness, unfortunately necessary small talk, opportunity, and LOTS of patience. But even the midst of these weeks, I experienced joy and comfort. I used the time I would’ve spent hanging with friends thinking more about my faith and beliefs as a Christian and reading the Bible and praying. I found I felt a lot more grounded and at peace and overall just grateful for my circumstances. And gradually, I started getting to know classmates, whether through struggling to solve physics problems together and making presentations on neurons, grabbing meals with girls I went to church with, or studying together with other exchange students. Now, halfway through the semester, I feel a lot more settled in my classes, social life, and identity as an exchange student.

Emily with her friend and exchange student from Smith, both wearing red shirts with a large W

Wearing the 2020 class color with my friend Eve, an exchange student from Smith

If I had originally decided to go to Wellesley instead of Amherst, I think I would’ve been fine at Wellesley; I would’ve still pursued similar interests and made amazing friends. But given the choice now, I’d still go to Amherst. The people I’ve met—through classes, summer, ACEMS, church—and experiences I’ve had because I went to Amherst have shaped my character and faith and I would not change those things. I’m so blessed to have friends who will drive all the way from campus to Wellesley to visit me, pray for and support me when I’m feeling down, and even drag me to the gym when all I want to do is stay in my blanket burrito.

I’m really grateful to be studying at Wellesley this fall because I get to explore a different academic environment, share experiences with my mom and sister about their alma mater, and finally put to rest the lingering “what if.”

Emily with five Amherst friends who helped her move in to Wellesley

My Amherst friends who helped me move in Day 1 at Wellesley


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