The radio hummed gently in the background as I stared out the window at a blur of trees, cornfields and cow pastures. It was a five-hour drive from my hometown to Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. We left early to beat the traffic. Too early. I wanted to sleep, but all I could do was sit there and think about home.
Where had the first 18 years gone? One day I was playing in my giant turtle sandbox, and the next I was throwing my graduation cap in the air with 400 classmates.
In the back of our van was almost everything I owned. There was my life, behind me, crammed and squeezed into a few cardboard boxes and duffel bags. One thing hadn't been packed away, though. Cradled in my arms was Pepper, my favorite stuffed puppy. With matted fur and an off-centered nose, she would seem ugly and useless to anyone else, but holding her gave me comfort.
I felt torn. I'd wanted to go off to college so badly for such a long time. But not now. I wanted to be back home, surrounded by family and friends.
Arriving on campus
The moment we arrived on campus I felt like the butterflies had taken over my entire stomach. I stared out of the window at the line of cars that snaked throughout the campus, leading to the hill of freshman dorms. We inched our way toward a group of upperclassmen "greeters." They were dancing to loud music pouring from boom boxes. They seemed to be having so much fun.
When we finally pulled up to my dorm, several greeters ran up to our van and threw open the doors. They all were wearing bandanas, matching shirts, and were just a little too cheery. I wanted to stay right where I was. Not possible.
Before I knew what was happening, several students were unloading the van. Then one of them grabbed my hand and pulled me from the comfort of my seat and my stuffed puppy. As a few students grabbed boxes and bags, others applauded and cheered like I was some kind of celebrity. Everything became a blur as they led me inside the dorm. Soon I had my room key and was being ushered up a flight of stairs.
Much to my surprise, I found that all my stuff was already sitting in my room. While I was getting my room key and dorm information, the welcoming crew had unloaded everything and then moved on to help another new student.
With all of the greeters gone, Mom and Dad helped me unpack. I quickly crammed my clothes into drawers and stacked books and pictures on shelves. I could arrange them all later. I just wanted to empty my boxes and bags so I could clear some space on the floor.
Hugs and goodbyes
After everything was unpacked, it was time for Mom and Dad to leave for home.
"I'll be OK," I assured them, sounding more confident than I felt. As we walked across the parking lot to the van, Mom cried. For some reason, I didn't. The tears just wouldn't come.
Mom hugged me tightly for the longest time. She didn't say much, but I knew what she was thinking. She was going home without her little girl. And it hurt. I hurt. When Mom finally let go, I hugged dad, kissed him and, with quivery voice, said, "Goodbye, Daddy." Then they were gone. Just like that.
I was on my own.
Later that evening we had our first dorm meeting and I sat in a room full of strangers.
After introducing herself and after going over some rules, my Resident Assistant said, "You're going to need to rely on each other, because you'll no longer have your parents around. … We need to build each other up in the Lord, and be there in times of both joy and sadness."
As she spoke, I looked around at the other freshmen in the room. Teary eyed. A few biting their fingernails. All looking confused, even fearful. I suddenly felt like I was looking at myself in a mirror.
They were like me, away from home for the first time. They missed their families, too. I suddenly didn't feel quite so alone anymore.