Last week I visited my alma mater. I hadn’t been to Penn State in over ten years. I’d kept wanting to go, but never having a reason. On a whim, I took two days off, booked a room at the Atherton Hotel, and headed out on my solo road trip.
As I drove down Atherton Street and the campus came into view, I remembered the first time I arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1999: equal parts excitement and terror. All summer I’d looked forward to starting the next phase of my life—as an independent college girl.
Except when my parents drove away, I crawled under the covers of my new bed and cried.
After I checked into my hotel, I took a walk around campus. There was Mifflin Hall, my freshman dorm, where I met great friends once I’d found my way out from under the covers.
My breath caught when I saw Osmond Lab—I was there attending a logistics class on 9/11. Across the street was the student center, called the HUB. The giant TV screen where I watched a replay of two planes hitting the Twin Towers was still there. When I walked in it this weekend, CNN was reporting on a school shooting in Texas.
Things had changed, of course, but mostly just the things that had changed everywhere. Summer students walked around with headphones in, staring at screens. Mike’s VHS Rentals is gone. The Daily Collegian has an online version. You can rent textbooks now. Beaver Stadium is even bigger. There were more buildings.
I wasn’t surprised things had changed. I was surprised how much had stayed the same.
Café 210 is still the best and busiest happy hour in town. The Green Bowl is still serving up all-you-can-eat stir fry. The squirrels will still come right up to you and demand your pizza crust. The Family Clothesline is still the best spot to buy cheap PSU gear.
Eventually, I packed up my laptop and trekked to Pattee and Paterno Library, a place I hadn’t been since I graduated in 2003. I went to the Paterno business wing, took the elevator to the third floor and found the row of carrels where I’d once spend many hours studying.
Not just studying, but writing. I unpacked my laptop and opened the file that contains the half-written novel I despair of ever finishing. I sat down in the place where I’d written my first novel, and remembered what a labor of love it had been.
I wrote for hours like I had when I was a college student—unencumbered by the desire to check social media, or worry about my day job, or wonder if I should be cleaning the house. Instead I was surrounded by the buzz of young people in the process of discovering who and what they’re going to be.
Remembering that same buzz in myself—the hope, the anticipation, the certainty I would live up to my potential—that was why I’d come.
Well, that and the Creamery ice cream.