Can you really go back? Alumna dispatches from Wes

This is my panic face.
This is my panic face.

This weekend I went back to Wesleyan for the first time since graduating in May. That probably doesn’t sound dramatic considering the school year literally started two weeks ago. Returning students barely had time to get settled in before I rolled up in my nostalgia wagon, toting a bottle of André and a ton of anxiety. Truth be told I wanted to wait until the official homecoming weekend in October before making the drive to campus; that way I wouldn’t have to worry about sticking out like a pre-frosh at a party in Senior Fauver. But my visit needed to overlap with someone else’s who would only be on campus for a few days, and that required making the leap before I knew I was ready. Feeling a bit like a lame party crasher, I packed my overnight bag and showed up on Saturday afternoon just in time to get rained on.

Thoughts going through my head as I got out of the car: What if I don’t belong here anymore? What if people don’t want me to be here? What if this is weird, or awkward, or painful? Does my outfit make it look like I’m trying too hard? Why the hell didn’t I bring an umbrella?

And most importantly, can you ever really go back?

I think about Wesleyan as my first love. Like any relationship we had our ups and downs, but it is the place where I discovered who I am in all of my arrogant and impulsive glory. It’s where I began to write about sex. It’s where I recognized and dismantled my internalized misogyny, the result of growing up in a conservative suburb. It’s where I actually did fall in love, once with a man who deserved me, once with a man who didn’t, and every single day with myself. Seeing an old lover for the first time since saying goodbye is terrifying. I knew I still loved Wesleyan. Would Wesleyan still love me?

I’m happy to say that yes, you can go back. But campus is no exception to the “everything changes” rule, and neither am I. I went to a poetry slam at Alpha Delt and could count the faces I recognized in the crowd on my hands. Plus I had to pay with cash at Red and Black Café, holding up the line because I didn’t have a WesID. I was overdressed, even if I did receive a couple of compliments about how put together I looked. There was a line in the sand in every interaction I had: alumna, not student. Past. Guest.

Surrogate lil' sis was kind enough to put me up for the night.
Surrogate lil’ sis was kind enough to put me up for the night.

But I was grateful to discover I was still a very honored guest. Current Wes kids were hungry to meet someone on the other side, someone overwhelmed but not lost in the real world. It helped that my nonprofit has name recognition—TED isn’t exactly a small indie startup #humblebrag— and that I’d been a public figure on campus as an undergrad.

More importantly though, I have the kindest friends in the world. One loaned me her single room for the night so I didn’t have to sleep on a couch. Another invited me to her pregame in Junior Village (ah, I’d missed drinking out of Solo cups). And I would be remiss not to mention the best friend who I made the trek for in the first place, because with some people things never really change. His company was my true homecoming.

Being an alumna on campus was also something of a guilty relief. Walking past the forcefully intimidating party at Beta, I didn’t feel the festering anger I would have as a student. As shitty as it sounds, I was glad the out-of-control frat house wasn’t my problem. I have a certain amount of responsibility to the school I love, but I don’t have to be a boots on the ground activist anymore when it comes to campus politics. I don’t have to deal with the shitty parts of Wesleyan if I don’t want to. My relationship with Wes can be a friends-with-benefits arrangement—I get to pick and choose how I want to be involved with the community in ways that suit us both. When it comes to Beta and its members, who stood on the roof screaming sexual slurs at the women walking by the house (which to my knowledge is now empty), I can roll my eyes and write snarky blog posts instead of attend Wesleyan Student Assembly meetings. Although let’s be real, I never went to a single WSA meeting even when I was an undergrad.

I almost but not quite missed dorm rooms.
I almost but not quite missed dorm rooms.

My new relationship with Wesleyan was cemented when I went to WesWings for brunch and the staff welcomed me back by name. It turns out WesWings is my real life version of Cheers. I got my burger on the house, a gesture that put a gigantic grin on my face, and got to see my own tweets still in the twitter stream on the screen mounted behind the counter. I can’t speak for Wesleyan, but there’s nothing like a free meal and social media banter to make me feel loved.

WesWings aside, College is about the people more than it is about the place. I had plans to sit on Foss Hill and stroll through Usdan but I barely left the eastern edge of campus. Seeing the people I cared about was more important than returning to the places where I had met them. As long as I have those people in my life, I have all of Wesleyan I could possibly need.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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