California Dreamin’

After a remote freshman year, I am moving in today and at last and can independently confirm that my college campus exists.

Having planned most of the day out months in advance, it did not take a long time to locate the check-in site for my dormitory when I moved into college this morning. I’d picked the easiest slot to get my key. There wasn’t much luggage for me to bring—only my carry-on from the plane ride (which looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa), my backpack, and a few purchases we’d grabbed from a local Target. “What do you think of this room?” my mother asked when we arrived. “It will do,” I said. Indeed, it will. Frankly, any space of my own that’s large enough for some jumping jacks is enough for me.

Not more than half an hour had passed when I started to walk my parents back to the parking lot. I had the basics to survive the first day, and told them if there was anything else, I’d cross that bridge when necessary. Before they could get in the car to leave, we took numerous photos by the front door and hugged. Well, it wouldn’t be them, however, if they didn’t impart a little more mother-isms and father-isms on their way out. “Remember to look both ways when crossing the street!” Yeah, got it. “Don’t ride a bike—it’s not safe!” I’ll just get a helmet. “Where’s your student ID?” They’re still printing it. I’ll pick it up from Campus Services tomorrow. “Lock your door at night!” Yeah, I’ll take it from here. Thanks.

Back inside the dorm, I could let out a breath. Some of my peers have described this moment as an overwhelming sense of “what next?”-ness, but I had been playing out this moment in my head for so many years. Everything with which I needed to set up my dorm was either en route or waiting for me at the package center. I decided to walk outside and breathe in the fresh air. Sunny California, baby. It’s about time.

The campus of Stanford University is a behemoth. I always had known that, but when you throw in the sweltering heat and the stress that comes when something is at stake regarding whether you can navigate the place or not, it seems even larger. It really is like the twilight zone or a “bubble.” You keep getting more of it the more you travel around the place. Is it recursion? Hotel California: “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.” But I digress. Maybe everyone that I saw strolling around seemed kind from a distance, but I struggled profusely to summon the courage to speak to a single soul. Thankfully, I got to Tresidder Memorial Union on my own. Unfortunately, that complex seems to be a labyrinth with a ton of misleading and ill-named signs that only negatively influenced my efforts. See, I didn’t end up at the package center. I found myself at the Student Card ID Office. Go figure. After lots of internal deliberation, I arrested the attention of a gentleman who worked there and was willing to look up my information and hand me my student ID. (Most of us had sent in a photo ahead of time; I think in the records it said that I submitted mine back in June 2020.) It was a normal piece of plastic like any other, but I did feel a vague sense of surreal pride looking at it. I took a few steps away from the office and then found a seat under the shade. Again, I became afflicted with a cognitive dissonance or paralysis of some kind. Why couldn’t I ask anyone for some help locating the package center? How terrifying it was.

Oh, screw it, I thought at last, and I walked up to a blonde young woman who had since joined the line to enter the Student Card ID Office. “Hey, I’m looking for the package center, and you look like you have a better idea of what you’re doing than I—” She almost laughed but didn’t quite. “Actually, not really,” she said. “I got here, like, 20 minutes ago.” I casually stared off into the distance and tried to hide the severity of the embarrassment that such a hideously inept misread had brought upon me. Then I looked back. Like me, she was wearing a blue three-ply disposable mask, so I struggled to get a good idea of her facial features or common expressions. If my memory serves me well, I can at least say she was probably wearing a dark grey T-shirt, mesh running shoes, and leggings that could only be described as patently periwinkle. “Oh, I see,” I said finally, to which she said, “Actually, I’m trying to go there, too. We can go on an adventure together if you’re not in a rush or anything. Was just gonna get my ID first.” So then I said, “Sure, that sounds great! I’m not in a rush at all.” I took a seat again and waited. Naturally, my ear had become more attuned to the sound of her voice, and when she was up in line, I heard her mention that her name was Helen. “With one L,” she said to the employee. What kind of Helen spells it with two? I thought. Anyway, she eventually returned from the office. They still needed a moment to print the ID and would try to get it done before the lunch break in nine minutes. In that intervening time, we traversed the labyrinth that is Tresidder and successfully located the package center, pretty much by searching for people who were carrying packages and then following them to retrace their steps. On the way, we learned that we’re both sophomores and spent the whole first year enduring the lackluster, grueling remote college “experience.” She asked where I’m from, and I asked her the same. “Chicago?” she said. “That sounds so nice.” I chuckled. “Uh-huh. It’s not as nice as it sounds, but yeah.” And it turns out that she’s from Conway, New Hampshire. “Yeah, not sure I’ve ever been there,” I said. “You’re not missing out on much,” she replied. “You have a Snap or a phone number? Just trying to actually meet people and stuff.” Reflexively, I reached for my phone, as if I needed to consult it for something. I put it back in my pocket. “Yep, I think I know that feeling,” I said. “No Snapchat account, but I do have a number.”

Helen wasn’t able to wait in line for that long (the lunch break was getting closer), so she and I parted ways at that moment. I have not reached out to her yet but look forward to doing so. On my way back to the dorm, I raged against the heat of the Underworld and carried several packages on a rolling cart with one hand and another package in the other hand. My backpack was still on as well. Oh, and I suppose you could say I followed two students for a block or two to listen in on their conversation about quantum mechanics, but otherwise I took a direct path. (Sifting through the jargon, I gathered that one of them was positing that consciousness is a quantized physical entity, supposedly wherefore the mind cannot be predicted in its entirety.)

Of course, I thought I was almost home free, but when I got close to the dorm, I remembered that there’s a brutal hill that you have to climb first. Yeah, no one’s gonna visit me here, I thought, and I pressed forward. At the entrance, my roommate Harry was kind enough to keep the door open so I could get everything inside. Then, I wiped a few beads of sweat off my forehead, lest anyone else see them, and set down the packages once I got to my room. “You know, they’re serving lunch downstairs,” Harry said. “Oh, they are?” I said, still wiping the sweat that somehow was still running down from my face. I scurried to the kitchen and found my way to some plates. I grabbed one and took some grilled chicken and salmon, along with some asparagus. Turns out a chef named Alex had prepared the meal for us, and he’s been here since 2005, from what I heard. His cooking is not too shabby! Before I made it too far through the kitchen, however, a student named Karthik showed me where to get a glass of water and invited me to sit with him and some other students. We had a great time, introducing ourselves and telling funny stories.

That’s a window into how this first day of move-in has gone. Now it’s time to handle 250 unread emails before the sky comes falling down. The liveliness here can also be thought of as chaos in a sense, but what I appreciate about it, whatever it’s termed, is that it makes it much easier to compartmentalize. I’m more or less adjusted to this place after one day, to be honest, but my mind can wander endlessly until I’m stung by some alarming revelation or the reminder of some gnawing personal conflict that still needs time to be resolved. The palm trees, sandals, and taco stands aren’t a panacea, but I am already far better positioned to resolve that which ails or challenges me. One step at a time. This is the first day that I’ve believed it and felt it when I say to myself that I’m a college student, and I have a greater sense of liberty and personal autonomy than perhaps any other point in my life. Consequently, I won’t begin to speculate on what tomorrow will bring, but I certainly look forward to it.