Homesick in the Archive
I left Clearwater, Florida for the first time in 2011. After saying "goodbye" to my momma and lil brothers, and trying to dodge the flash of my grandma's camera, I boarded a plane to New Hampshire with my pops. I didn't exactly know what was awaiting me at Dartmouth College, but I was excited as hell to be in Hanover. New environment. New people. New opportunities. I was on the football team my freshman year. And even after a hard day of practice, I used to stay up late and, still in disbelief, just stare at my ceiling. Like, "Man, I really made it out."
It's kinda' wild, though. Clearwater isn't necessarily a "bad" place to live. I mean, hell, if you Google it, you'll see beautiful beaches, palm trees, boats, and everything else. But it's a trip because I know, for a fact, that my Clearwater isn't as picturesque. Too many of my friends have been, and continue to be, failed by the city. So when it was time for me to go off to college, I wanted to get as far away from my hometown as possible. I wanted something different. Needless to say, I got that from New Hampshire.
"When you coming home, Ben?"
"I'm still trying to figure it out, Grandma. But I'll get there as soon as my work is over."
Sure, I got a lil homesick. I was a black Florida boy living in one of the whitest and coldest states in the country. Who wouldn't be? But still, I got through it. I was able to call home when I needed to, and I was able to find community on campus. Plus, all of my friends were away from home, too. (Ain't too many Black people who can say that they were raised in Hanover, NH.) So it helped knowing that I wasn't the only one.
However, by the time I was a senior, I had enough. I was tired of having to catch a 3-hour bus ride to campus after I had already caught a 3-hour flight to Boston. I was tired of not having a barber to go to whenever I was looking beat up. And I was tired of not having the beach at my doorstep. So when I got ready to apply to PhD programs, I knew that my future school needed to be in a city, have Black people, and be close to water. That's why Northwestern was perfect! I could easily travel in and out of Chicago. I would never have to worry about figuring out where I could get a haircut. And whenever it wasn't -15 outside (which isn't too often), I could chill at one of the beaches along Lake Shore Drive. I was sold. What I didn't realize at the time, though, was that it would be much harder for me to find and build community in graduate school.
Unlike college, where there were all kinds of social events specifically for undergraduates, I now had to go out and "create" my social life. And when you're a busy grad student in a completely new city, this task is even more difficult. Unlike college, where I had a number of people that I could turn to (many in the same dorm as me), I now was mostly by myself. And when you're already struggling academically, and feeling as if you don't belong, this loneliness only worsens.
Yeah, as grad students, we can work together and share ideas. But at the end of the day, it's still you and that book, or you and that computer screen. And in my experience, most people are off in their little corners of the library, tucked away in the archive, or sitting behind their office doors. It's hard to build community with that. You really gotta be intentional.
"How's everything going up there?"
"I still have a bunch of work to finish. but It's okay, I guess."
After experiencing a number of L's ("losses") earlier this year, and almost dropping out of grad school entirely, I started reflecting more and more on my time as a PhD student. I recently came to the conclusion that, in order for me to finish my dissertation (the last hurdle before I can get my degree), I need to be home. I need more warmth not only in terms of the weather, but also support.
I've never been the type to want to return home, though. When I left for college, I actually promised myself that I wouldn't go back to Florida unless I was visiting family for holidays. So as you might expect, I was struggling to understand this yearning.....until I saw another PhD student, Breanna, tweet about her experience in grad school:
Homesickness. It's a topic that's rarely talked about when you get to grad school. But over the course of this year, I've been reminded of the costs of pursuing a PhD away from home. I've missed a number of birthdays, many of my lil brothers' sporting events, and quality time with my grandparents. And frankly, I now realize that, for my own health, I need to be around people who understand me, the person, not me, the scholar. I need to be back in Clearwater, Florida because, mentally and spiritually, I'm already there.