In August of 2011, at the end of a long summer, I was technically ready.
My living room had become a loading zone. Curtain rods and comforters and laundry baskets piled up as the summer stretched on and I got ready to head off to make a home in a tiny dorm room. With the help of my patient parents, I took all the necessary steps: we drove to my new school, filled my small side of the room with the obligatory photo collages and Christmas lights and pillow arrangements, went to orientation events and an all-campus dinner.
At the end of a chaotic two days, it was time for my parents to go. We said our goodbyes, and I, tearful and terrified, set out to try and adjust to a new locale.
I hadn’t been this new to anything in a long time. I went to the same, small, close-knit school from kindergarten through twelfth grade and even my summer camp friends were life-long ones. As I stood on campus alone for the first time, the newness became daunting and all the things I knew I’d have to learn to do, adjust to or get better at, piled up.
Of course, when I look back now, I know that the ways I felt at the start weren’t permanent. I know that, at times, it was easier for me to succumb to feeling anxious and overwhelmed and homesick than it was for me to challenge myself to try to push beyond fear.
Part of what set my high school experience apart was the closeness of our small community. Over thirteen years, I built relationships with teachers and staff members who cared about me not only as a student, but also as a whole person. These bonds were, in many ways, helped me get through high school unscathed.
When I arrived at college as an anxious freshman, I lacked those same mentor relationships and it was unsettling. So, I sat down and wrote an email. I emailed to a woman who worked in the College Relations office at my alma mater. I’d met her once or twice through my mom and dad, who were serving on a parent committee she leads. I wrote to her about the fact that I was having a hard time adjusting to being away from home, that things weren’t falling into place as quickly as I’d hoped, that I knew there wasn’t really anything particular that she could do to help — but I asked if there was any way she had a minute or two to chat. I looked at my email one last time, realized it sounded like the frantic ramblings someone would write in a diary, and pushed send anyway. I figured I’d be lucky if she had time to read it, let alone write back.
A few hours later, a reply popped up in my inbox. She was inviting me to stop by her office the next day. This tiny graciousness meant the world to me; I had felt so alone in my own start-of-the-year anxieties, and her reply was like being tossed a little life-raft.
So, off I went to her office after a day of class. I sat on her couch, gushed over pictures of her daughter, told stories about my first few days with my roommate. Along the way, I learned she was an alum of my school and that we shared a major. She listened, she made me laugh, and she made me feel supported — things I had been so missing and longing for. As I walked out of her office, she told me I had a standing invitation to her house if I ever needed to get off-campus for a breather.
I walked back into my dorm that afternoon knowing that someone was in my corner. An adult with a busy job and a family had taken time out of her day to sit with me and listen to me puzzle through my feelings, and it had changed everything for me.
Over time, things got easier. I was engaged in my classes, found a solid group of friends and began to find my footing in this new environment. Every so often, an email would show up in my inbox — “Just checking in,” she’d write.
Sophomore year, when a friend and I decided we wanted to launch our own on-campus organization, it was my dear friend in College Relations we first turned to for guidance. When our organization was approved, she became our advisor.
She was there for me at every turn over my four years at school. When I went abroad, she wrote to ask how things were going and sent photos of her new baby. I found myself back on her office couch when I needed a break, when I was agonizing over a job offer before graduation or when I wanted to ask her opinion on classes to take.
Mentorship has a funny way of happening — at its best, relationships are formed organically. I didn’t set out in search of a “mentor” when I wrote my first email freshman year, I typed a note in hopes of having one good conversation. Thanks to Annie’s deep generosity, her warmth, and her empathy, one good conversation turned into a bond that shaped my entire college experience and has continued to buoy me post-grad.
It would have been so easy for my email to get lost in the shuffle all those years ago. She could have let it go, or sent off a quick reply wishing me well. Instead, she reached out and offered an opportunity for connection. That small decision on both of our parts — my choice to send an honest email and her choice to offer to sit down and talk — was all it took, and I’m so lucky it happened the way it did.