I came to college carrying a lot of baggage. I was 16 when I arrived at orientation at the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY-B) in 1976. I brought my insecurities and inchoate self to campus with hopes of emerging confident, connected (to friends, a boyfriend would be good, too) and on my way to a successful career. An ambitious undertaking to say the least!
In the weeks before leaving, I went shopping with Mom for supplies. I got a real winter coat – winters were longer and colder than in Brooklyn (though I had no idea how much worse it would be!). I picked out towels and linens that had mountain scenes on them. I loved my new things. We packed up the car and left Brooklyn early in the morning in the middle of August. Orientation preceded the beginning of the semester, so when we drove out of Canarsie, I didn’t think I was coming back until Thanksgiving. I was excited and anxious.
My parents and I got to campus and were directed to my room, which was difficult to find. I was assigned to College-in-the-Woods, the newest of the dorm complexes on campus and supposedly the most desireable. The buildings were brick-red cinderblock structures with a quirky layout that included large rooms, intended to be triples, where the door to the room was outside the building. Those rooms weren’t part of the rest of the floor. Not only was the room set apart, but in my case, it was located in back of the building. When I opened my door, I saw a small driveway, garbage dumpsters and then the woods. There was also a door to the rest of the dorm across a short walkway. The room was part of the all-male basement floor, called “the Pits,” of Cayuga.
Dad saw the set up that first day and was furious. He thought it wasn’t safe. We sought out the resident director to see if anything could be done to change it. Dad made his case that it was isolated and appeared to be poorly lit. The director assured him that it would be fine.
My Dad, who in my eyes was the strongest person in the world, single-handedly carried my full steamer trunk into the room. Mom helped me unpack and made my bed. Then, they got back in the car and headed home to Canarsie. I had to fight the urge to climb in and go with them.
My two roommates and I represented a microcosm of the campus. Sue was Jewish from Long Island. Sharon was Jewish from a suburb of Rochester. I was Jewish from Brooklyn. Jews were heavily overrepresented on campus, as was downstate. There weren’t many students from the local area, the Southern Tier, or from other parts of upstate New York. Despite the fact that I had traveled four hours from the New York metropolitan area, I was still surrounded by its people.
I hit it off better with Sue that first day. There were a lot of kids from her high school who lived in our dorm complex and she invited me to go meet them. I followed her to another dorm and was introduced to a well-built guy wearing a powder blue jumpsuit, platform shoes, his feathered blond hair styled like a male version of Farrah Fawcett, with impossibly white teeth. He was ready to hit the disco. I was wearing overalls, sneakers and was still fighting with my curly, out-of-control hair. I couldn’t think of a less appealing place to go than the disco. I was so intimidated I don’t think I made sensible conversation. After observing the scene for a while, I made some excuse and retreated to my room. This was going to be even harder than I thought.
Fortunately, there was a dorm-wide meeting where I spotted someone from my high school. Merle was a familiar face and though I didn’t know her well, our circle of friends from Canarsie overlapped. She was in a similar situation – tripled in a room that was outside the dorm. We bonded over our shared sense of feeling lost in our new surroundings; we found a lot to laugh about, too.
At that gathering we connected with two other girls, Alison and Dianne, from Island Park, which was on Long Island, a working-class suburb, more similar to our Brooklyn experience. The four of us became fast friends and spent a lot of time hanging out, listening to music and laughing.
Merle and I came up with a theory. The happier you were at home, the unhappier you were at college. If you came to Binghamton to escape a bad home situation or feeling like you outgrew high school, then college felt great. I made a lot of progress in high school, emerging from the pain of junior high, but I wasn’t close to outgrowing it. Merle’s experience was different in that she had a huge network of friends in Canarsie, some were going to Brooklyn College, some to other schools. Her boyfriend was at Brockport, hours away by car. She wasn’t accustomed to needing to make new friends. For both of us Binghamton proved to be a difficult place to do that. The combination of intense academic competition (so many students were pre-med or pre-law) and a pervasive sense of entitlement (born of their upper middle-class suburban upbringing) made it an unreceptive environment.
I found the campus atmosphere stifling. It felt unreal to me, not only was my room isolated, but the whole campus felt like an island. I couldn’t walk to a store. There was a commercial strip outside of campus, but it wasn’t very accessible on foot (there were no sidewalks) and there weren’t many shops like I had in Brooklyn (not that I had any money to spend anyway). I was used to reading three New York City newspapers every day. I was accustomed to watching the news on television every night. The only television available was in the common lounge and there was no cable, we didn’t get NYC channels. The local Binghamton newscast seemed quaint by comparison. I felt disconnected from the world.
My roommate situation didn’t help. Though I got along fine with Sue, we never moved much beyond that first day. Her social circle was not one I was going to join. Sharon, on the other hand, came to college not knowing how a woman got pregnant. She was naïve beyond belief. Sue offered her her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Though I was totally inexperienced in that regard (I had a lot to learn from Our Bodies, Ourselves, too), I at least knew the facts of life. Sharon was a very odd duck. One of the things that was unique was that she could burp louder than anyone I had ever known. Each time she did, I couldn’t help myself, I would go, “Woah!?!,” a mixture of awe and surprise. I was taught to keep all bodily functions as quiet and private as possible, so Sharon was a revelation. Beyond that habit, we also didn’t have much in common, and she seemed a bit troubled. During midterms, she scratched her own face in a fit of anxiety.
I had my own struggles that first semester. My writing, which was a source of pride in high school, was criticized by my Lit & Comp teaching assistant and my Intro to Poli Sci professor. In fact, I received C’s on the first two papers I submitted. I was reeling.
Perhaps because they knew I was struggling, or maybe because they thought nothing of a four-hour jaunt in the car, Uncle Mike, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara came for a visit. I took them on a tour of campus and then we went to get ice cream. One of the major positives of coming to the Southern Tier was discovering Pat Mitchell’s ice cream. It was a major draw if an on-campus event advertised Pat Mitchell’s – a far more appealing attraction to me than free beer. The store was located in Endicott, a solid 15-minute drive from campus, so it was a rare treat. Their chocolate chip ice cream was heavenly. It should have been called chocolate chunk – large milk chocolate hunks were surrounded by creamy, smooth vanilla creating the perfect spoonful. In a flash of inspiration, we asked them to pack up a quart in dry ice. I hopped in the backseat and we all headed back to Brooklyn to surprise my mother.
With my departure to college, my parents were empty-nesters. I wasn’t the only one enduring a difficult adjustment.
We all trooped into my parent’s house, me bringing up the rear. Mom was so shocked to see me, her jaw dropped. Then she sneezed. She didn’t stop sneezing for the 12 hours that I was home. The sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes actually continued after I left. It was the weirdest thing. We didn’t understand what happened, but Mom developed some kind of allergy that she never had before, and it returned each September for the next several years. We joked that it was somehow connected to the trauma of me, her baby, leaving for college. Or maybe it was that surprise visit that shook up her immune system.
After that little escapade, I returned to campus and went back to work adjusting to my surroundings.