Colorado State University lives inside the small city of Fort Collins, snugged up against the arid foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The city itself holds 168,080 souls, who rarely think about the growing number of CSU students who share their town. When school is in session, the number of drivers on the roads of Fort Collins burgeons and the townsfolk take notice, but most of the time residents and students go about their lives rather separately. In fact, after I earned a teaching license at CSU in my young twenties, I didn’t venture onto campus more than a time or two for several decades even though I lived in town. I had finished my work there, and no longer belonged to that world.
But after I’d raised a family and taught more than a few hundred middle schoolers, I found myself once again searching for parking, trying to find a place, as I made my way to Morgan Library and back to CSU. So much had changed, but not these things: parking was still difficult and Morgan Library was right where I’d left it.
It’s a bit of an out-of-body experience to come back to school as a person who looks more like a retiring professor than a bright-eyed twenty year old. I see myself three years ago, making my way across Center Avenue Mall. I adjust my backpack, light on my shoulders with nothing more than a spiral notebook, a course syllabus, and a few pens inside. I feel twenty, until I notice myself in a window. I feel old and young in the same breath.
I gaze in wonder at the many new stone buildings and the unfamiliar sites on campus: the BSB, the Computer Science building, the renovated Eddy building, plazas and paths and patios. I dodge bicyclists around the Newton Memorial roundabout and read the inscription carved in stone “On the Shoulders of Giants.” Yes. Yes, indeed.
I wander around, then buy my semester books in the LSC bookstore. After class, I rush back to my parking spot before the meter police notice me–expired, or almost.
That first day of graduate school, accomplishment and wonderful uneasiness jockeyed for top position in my brain as I drove home. But not every day over the past three years was exhilarating. There were those dreary, drizzly, late March days when I circled and circled–searching for a parking spot in time for class. Windy days, tiptoeing over icy patches or through muddy puddles; scorched days, winding through construction sites hoping to avoid stepping on nails or being crushed by a wayward beam swaying overhead, finding its place in some new building or other.
There were evenings when I felt underprepared for class, or moments I might say absolutely the wrong thing at the wrong time and the room might go quiet. There were mornings that came much too soon on the heels of late late coffee-charged nights spent fussing over procrastinated papers, tapping away on my computer, wallowing in listless isolation.
One evening, I sat at a clammy desk in an old classroom lit with blaring fluorescent lights, an icepack held against my cheek to numb the pain from a bout with shingles. Another night, I hurried home to my husband, recovering from hip surgery, and then later to my old dog, recovering from chemotherapy. Old problems that made me feel old in contrast to the bloom around me on campus.
Such has been my split-screen life: half a night spent in Form and Tech class discussing what is real versus what is true, and the other half spent laughing with my family over dinner.
Sometimes lively, sometimes lonely. I’ve complained and worried and churned and even let a few tears slip during these three years. So while Colorado State University itself stood solid and shining one bright day after another, I sometimes floundered.
And then again, sometimes I didn’t.
Sometimes, I wrote a brilliant piece for Workshop and people stopped to wonder if there might be more to me, after all. Sometimes, classmates paused to hear my perspective, offering me a fellow writer’s respect. Sometimes, I met with my advisor and agonized over my thesis and she told me it was good. It was really good. And I went home and could hardly breathe from relief and joy.
One night, I received an email from a professor who told me I was on the right track, and right there next to my little dog out on a cold walk, I burst into tears.
It was such a validation: I was on the right track.
I won a Graduate Teaching Assistantship and later an award and earned a lot of A’s. But all those things were nothing compared to the feeling of belonging. Belonging on the campus of Colorado State University. Belonging to the English Department. Belonging in the Eddy building, the computer lab, Morgan Library, Lory Student Center, the beloved Oval.
I’ve attended events and readings and rallies and even a solar eclipse on the CSU campus. I’ve had the privilege of trying to “find my potential.” I’ve even sometimes been capable and witty and accomplished and wise.
But in these three years, nothing has felt better than pausing on the pedestrian path behind Eddy to watch a blackbird dip and soar across a turquoise summer sky, or to see the sun through a translucent fall leaf, to stare open-mouthed as fat snowflakes drift and swirl in the windy streetlight after a late class, or to catch a quick glimpse of a tiny spring plant struggling through the warm concrete bike path, reaching for sunlight. Reaching. Trying. Yearning for its place. Nothing has been better than knowing that I have, for three incredible years, belonged. Right here at CSU.
Melissa Merritt is a graduating MFA candidate in creative nonfiction. | firstname.lastname@example.org