Some things stick with you for a lifetime. The knots in your stomach on your first day of kindergarten – a feeling that will reappear several times throughout the course of your life. Where you were in the morning hours of September 11, 2001. The lyrics to obscure 1990s one-hit wonders. And, for me, the unforgettable musty aroma of college dorms opened up after a long muggy summer.
This scent-memory is what rushes up every time I recall this very day, 10 years ago – Sunday, September 4th, 2005 – when I moved into the dorms at Carthage College as a freshman and began the next chapter in my life.
I was 18, skinny as a bean pole with my earlobe-length reddish bob in a frizzy rebellion, eager to finally call myself a college student and busy myself on campus, and this thick, stale scent is what greeted me as I stepped into room 100 on the first floor of the long wing in the all-female Tarble Hall – my first home away from home. As mom and I brought in load after load of crisp new polka dot bedding and decorative pin boards and Sterilite containers stuffed to the gills with school supplies and first aid and toiletries, there was that famous musty eau de college life, the only thing left of so many college experiences that had filled these walls before us. I’d like to think some pieces of my own freshman year – the laughter, the tears, the confusion, the hopes and dreams – will be there this Sunday to greet the noses of the new Tarble 1 freshmen. 10 years later.
I remember standing in line that morning in the student center for something, and a vaguely familiar blonde girl behind me asked if I was Hanna. It was my new Tarble 100 roommate, Lauren, who recognized me from my picture on this new emerging internet website for college students called FACEBOOK (oh dear God, I’ve been on Facebook for 10 years now…). I remember sitting in the hot chapel for freshman orientation, and the collective groans and snickers as President Campbell launched into his legendary opener of “look at the person sitting to the right of you, and look at the person sitting to the left of you. One of these people may be the person you end up marrying!” (…Yes. Yes really.)
Other than that, I really don’t remember much of that day. But I do vividly remember that night.
All of us freshies of Tarble 100 were rounded up to attend a mandatory floor meeting. We gathered with our RA on the grass outside of Tarble by the volleyball courts that night and I don’t remember what business items we discussed, but I do remember looking up at the sky and out at the dully roaring night-blackened Lake Michigan and wanting to be anywhere but here. There I was, on my first night of the independent life I had craved for so long, and I had to go to mandatory floor meeting to be lectured about dorm rules like I was a little kid? Laughter and excited chatter from all corners of campus floated through the warm September night air, and I stared up at the window of a room in a neighboring dorm and wished it was the window to my own sleek apartment in the big city that I was about to come home to after a long day at my important job and do whatever I felt like doing, because I was a grown-ass woman with an awesome life.
As I reemerge from memory into the present moment, it strikes me that I now have everything my 18-year-old self wished for on that warm, starry night so many years ago. I have my own apartment. I live in an urban area with a lot of culture. I have a full-time job and a loving partner. I’m independent. And yet, it doesn’t feel like the silver bullet to total happiness and fulfillment that I imagined it would be all those years ago. The life of my dreams feels…ordinary. It feels…no better or worse than it felt ten years ago (okay, I admit, it is definitely a little better than ten years ago). So I wonder: how will all the things I want so badly now feel in 2025? What kind of person will I be in ten years, looking back in fondness at the 20-something writing on her blog about her first day of college?
As I look at that decade-long space between 2005 and today, I marvel at how much of my life has been defined by the things I didn’t wish or plan for 10 years ago. I never could have imagined that after college, instead of getting a typical job I’d have a life-changing experience in AmeriCorps, or that I’d find my calling in non-profit work, or that I’d find a home in a place like Milwaukee, or that I’d be a two-time marathon runner. And I never would have guessed that 28-year-old me would still have so much of that lanky 18-year-old dreamer inside of her.
It’s just too hard to imagine myself as a 38-year-old, so let’s just not even go there.