Cover photo of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception taken by Sean Newhouse
Well, I’ve only written the headline and I’m already crying, so that’s how this is going to go.
This article will culminate in a letter that I wrote to my 18-year-old self, but first you need some background.
At the end of my freshman year, I wrote an article titled: “The First Year at ‘Not My Dream College.’” In preparation to write this, I recently read that article from three years ago.
For one of the article’s last sentences, I wrote: “I don’t want to be anywhere other than here for the next three years.” Reading that in my childhood bedroom as I finish up my senior year at the University of Dayton made my heart hurt a little too much.
It’s ironic, in many ways, that I am this emotional right now.
I didn’t want to go to UD.
From a fairly young age, I knew that I wanted to double major in political science and communication (which is what I’m graduating with two weeks from now). If you want to succeed in those fields, you need to attend a well-known college. And I knew that I wanted to go to college in the city or at a small liberal arts school.
It became apparent to me rather quickly that I would have greater issues going to a school that I wanted to attend compared to my high school classmates. I went to the only Catholic high school in my county. My classmates came from families whose names were on law firms, medical practices, and well-known businesses.
My dad was a transportation supervisor for a grocery retailer who usually worked night shifts until he retired last year, and my mom works part-time.
We’re not poor. There are two refrigerators and a chest freezer in my parents’ house. I’ve gone to private school all of my life. When I’m sick, I go to the doctor. But all of this was contingent on my dad having a job, which likely made the 2008 recession more stressful for me than my fifth grade classmates, if they even knew it was happening.
Before junior year of high school, the socioeconomic differences I felt with my classmates were mostly superficial. When I would go to a friend’s house for a playdate, his house was always bigger. I went to Disney World once in third grade while a lot of the kids I went to school with went once a year. By the time I got a PlayStation 2 and Wii, they weren’t cool anymore.
I didn’t get a smartphone until I was a sophomore in high school, and when I’ve told this to some people at UD they’ve literally gawked. Even the kitchen in my house on Kiefaber junior year is bigger than my parents’ kitchen.
If you’re looking for an example of popular media to illustrate my high school experience, Greta Gerwig’s 2018 film “Lady Bird” resonated with me a lot. Even though the titular lead, played by the delightful Saoirse Ronan, is a complete 180º from my personality, the movie’s presentation of class difference and how it affects social dynamics at a Catholic school is spot-on.
The differences I felt with my high school classmates became less superficial and more consequential, however, when we started applying to colleges.
I’d find out where people were applying and think: “they don’t work hard enough to go there.” And most, in fact, did not go “there.” But they went to a school that was maybe a step below.
I didn’t have that option. As stated, I knew that I had to go to a fairly well-known school and I wanted it to be in the city or at a small liberal arts college. Unlike many of the people I graduated with in 2016, however, I had an additional concern: affordability.
The Ivy League (and Ivy League-adjacent) schools weren’t an option because my parents made too much money for me to qualify for their generous financial aid packages, not enough money for me to actually afford it (or bribe my way in), and, quite frankly, my SAT score wasn’t high enough (and I wasn’t about to ask my parents for lessons, like many of classmates did).
I needed to find a college or university that either gave significant financial aid or would give me a sizable scholarship. When I would visit a college’s website, the first thing I looked at was its financial aid page. Personal fit was a secondary concern.
Still, there were a number of fantastic options for me to attend college, including the University of Dayton, that met my needs and were affordable. But UD was my fourth choice.
American University in Washington, D.C. was my first choice. People correctly assumed this was partly due to its location. (I’m a political science and communication double major.) But there was another reason I wanted to go to American, in particular, that I haven’t told many people.
I’m gay. (This is not news. I came out my sophomore year and have been out at UD practically since move-in day.)
But American University is ranked as one of the best colleges for LGBTQ+ students. UD is a Catholic college in the Midwest.
American gave me a scholarship, but UD’s was bigger (paired with financial aid, it effectively covered tuition). American would accept some of my college credit earned in high school; UD accepted all of it.
On paper, American offered more experiential opportunities (study abroad, internships, etc.) but expected students to front the cost. Most of UD’s programs either were heavily subsidized or came with a generous stipend.
One thing I didn’t like about the movie “Lady Bird” was that, at the end, the protagonist chooses to attend college in New York (she’s from Sacramento, Calif.) to pursue a vague dream, causing her family financial and emotional stress.
I could’ve decided to go to American. Its financial aid package was generous enough. Unlike Lady Bird, I had a clear career goal. And my sexual orientation gave me a personal incentive to go there over UD. But I didn’t. Rather unenthusiastically, I chose UD.
In the end, I was accepted at UD for who I am besides the usual (ranging from hearing faggot used too much in casual conversations on campus to being told more than once that I’m the “most level-headed” gay man someone has ever met).
But, if I had a boyfriend, I would not feel comfortable walking down Lowes holding his hand or kissing him on someone’s porch. In my experience, most of the gay men at UD are closeted.
Too often, I think conversations around diversity and inclusivity at UD are framed only around what university officials should do. And there are probably things they should be doing. But in the future, I believe students need to do a better job at holding other students accountable for ensuring that we all experience the community that is talked about so much at UD.
Stepping off of my soapbox, when I told my high school classmates that I was going to UD and not American, they looked puzzled. They probably figured that if anyone was going to their dream school, it would be me.
I never complained about going to UD and felt guilty even being disappointed. I could practically see my ancestors – an assortment of immigrants, veterans, and low-wage workers – rolling their eyes at me.
Looking through my journal from this time, my 18-year-old self needed reassurance. On May 8, 2016, I wrote: “I think everything will work out. I’m just afraid about making friends at UD. Actually, I’m scared about a lot of things.”
If I could go back in time, this is what I would tell my 18-year-old self. And by sharing it with the world, I hope that someone out there can gain some sense of assurance in this uncertain future.
I’m writing this to you from your high school bedroom. During your senior year of college, this thing called the coronavirus, or COVID-19, is going to emerge in China. It will cause a global pandemic and, like many students around the world, you will finish college from home.
According to a tracker website, more than 200,000 people around the world have died so far. It seems that most of the victims were the elderly or those with preexisting conditions, so you’re probably safe. Coronavirus is like the flu but much, much worse.
Some incredibly brave Chinese citizens tried to tell the world about the coronavirus, but, at least initially, they were silenced. By the time the Chinese government started taking the virus seriously, it was too late.
There will probably be an investigation into the U.S. response to the coronavirus, but I guarantee that the sentence “There were a series of errors made by the U.S. government” will be in the final report. Trump is president, by the way.
But you’re not concerned about the coronavirus right now, you’re disappointed that you’ll be attending the University of Dayton in the fall. And I know you’re upset because you busted your ass in high school because you wanted to go to a college that you were excited to attend.
You’re not complaining because it’s not in your nature. You always look on the bright side, and that quality is going to get you through a lot.
I’m here to tell you that college is going to be everything that you want it to be but nothing that you expect.
You’re going to officially come out your sophomore year in a four-part video series (parts two through four were unnecessary). You’re not going to have a boyfriend but you are going to go on a lot of bad dates.
You’re going to make the best friends you’ve ever had. And if you had one wish, you’d selfishly ask to have the last two months of college on campus that you expected so that you could have spent more time with them.
Right now, you have an inkling to join the campus newspaper because you’re watching “Gilmore Girls” and Rory works on Yale’s student newspaper. You will join the student paper, and it will unleash a passion unlike anything you’ve ever felt before.
And I don’t want to spoil too much but you’re going to get really good at using chopsticks, navigating the Tube, and getting lost on Capitol Hill.
All of these things were made possible because you chose to go to college at UD. Also, you have a Roth IRA and your credit score is higher than the average score for someone who is 65 and older, so your decision, quite literally, paid off.
Lastly, I know that you think you’re weak because people have been telling you that your entire life. You are strong. You always have been. You just needed to be in a place that recognized your strengths, and you will find that at the University of Dayton, a Catholic school in the Midwest.