When I first considered writing this blog, I was worried that it wouldn’t resonate with anyone. This week, I scrolled through Facebook and read post after post about how great it was to go home—all hair bows, no tangles. I wondered if others felt torn about going back to small town life like me. Finally, I was encouraged to share my thoughts by the massive popularity of this picture I found on Tumblr the other day.
This town is common. This town sucks to grow up in. This town is Charleston, Illinois.
I always tell people that Baltimore was one of the biggest reasons I chose to come to Johns Hopkins. This sounds like a very simple answer with a very simple narrative: girl chases city. The thing is, that girl is running away from something. I decided to go to a school 730 miles away from my hometown because I did not want to live anywhere near Charleston or like Charleston.
When my peers at Hopkins ask me where I grew up, my canned answer is, “Charleston, Illinois. No, you haven’t heard of it. No, it’s nowhere close to Chicago. Yeah, it’s in Southern IL, think farms and stuff.” I don’t mind telling them that Charleston is in Southern IL even though it is really in Central IL. It’s usually the only way to make them believe me that I really do not live in Chicago.
I don’t live in Chicago. To me, Chicago holds bright promise and something special. To me, Charleston holds neither.
I’ll stop being vague— let me get to the heart of it. The culture of Charleston is not one I will ever endorse in good conscience. Basically, it’s just not a place that inspires growth, inquisitiveness, or aspiration. When I was in high school, I definitely knew this, but only to a certain extent. After spending over 3 months in a place that exists specifically to inspire progression, Charleston’s pathologies screamed out to me the entire week I was home. Everywhere I looked, I found bigger examples of the unsettling small town politics I ran away from months before.
I want to be clear: there are people I absolutely love in Charleston. Going back gave me the meaningful chance to catch up with some of these brilliant people. It was disheartening, though, to hear one of these people admit to themselves that it may not be an option to leave Charleston for college. It hurts to watch people who are so much better than that town stay there. I painfully wonder if they will ever leave. I worry that these talented individuals won’t ever find an emboldening community like I have at Hopkins.
In light of this tension, I felt the need to share a simple but significant sentiment on this platform, the only one I have to speak to prospective college kids. If you live in a Charleston, Illinois, try your hardest to leave. If you hate it in high school, that distaste will only be amplified in college. Find a way out. It’s worth it.
This Thanksgiving break, I was powerfully reminded what I am thankful for.
I am thankful that I had parents who valued education above everything.
I am thankful that my mom became a school board member, a thankless position, in an attempt to repair Charleston’s broken education system.
I am thankful that I have a dad who taught me how to be excited about school.
I am thankful that Hopkins challenges and excites me.
I am thankful for my parents’ sacrifices. The fact is that it would have been free for my brother and I to go to a local university and live at home. My parents would have been able to afford new cars, a better house, and a more luxurious lifestyle in general. Instead, they selflessly gave my brother and I the chance to explore.
I am thankful that I didn’t realize how much Charleston just wasn’t for me until after I left.
I am thankful that Johns Hopkins accepted me into this fabulous community, city, and culture.
I am thankful for Charleston’s reminder of why I must try so hard to make something of myself.
I am thankful for change.