Cross Country College Culture Shock

Coming to terms with any issue of identity can be challenging, and I’m still trying to sort through my feelings about being Alaskan. I had never reflected on this aspect of my identity before leaving for college, and I was wholly unprepared to do so in this new environment 4,000 miles away from everything familiar and comfortable. A fair amount of people attend college in a new state or even a different country, and this post examines my feelings on the experience. I loved my college experience but I also struggled in unexpected ways to adjust to the new environment.

Alaskan Identity

I am from Anchorage, Alaska. I attended a small liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This fact was a topic of frequent and lengthy conversation with almost everyone I met my freshman year and beyond. As any Alaskan traveling out state knows, amazement and misconceptions abound. Before I left, I had no idea living in Alaska was so interesting to most Americans. I realized this quite thoroughly during my first week of college. Most conversations with new people started with a degree of intense excitement:

Person: “You’re from ALASKA??? Wow, that’s so cool!!”’

Me: “Yeah, it’s pretty cool!”

Person: “Wow, what’s that like??”

Me: “Um, it’s good, fairly normal. I live in a city so I have a pretty typical American life. I don’t live a subsistence lifestyle in a rural area like the popular survival TV shows depict.”

Person: “Alaska has cities?”

Me: “Yeah! Anchorage is the largest city and has about 300,000 people.”

Person: “Wow I had no idea!! You’re the first person I’ve ever met from Alaska!”

After this statement (to which I still don’t have the perfect witty reply) we usually wrapped up the conversation by clarifying any wild misconceptions people have – usually that there’s always snow on the ground, it’s always freezing cold, or any other random belief, especially about wildlife encounters.

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Perceptions of Alaskan wildlife encounters are perhaps not entirely unfounded….The author participated in downtown Anchorage’s annual Running of the Reindeer featuring twelve fleet-footed reindeer. Fun fact: reindeer are domesticated caribous, not a separate species.

I have had some version of that conversation with everyone I met in Pennsylvania at some point in our acquaintance, whether immediately or some time along the road, years into knowing them. I love Alaska and I love sharing fun facts about the state (as indicated in the above photo caption). During my freshman year, I was quite excited and willing to talk to everyone about anything related to Alaska. I happily demystified the ‘frozen wasteland’ that people associated with the state.

However, there are only so many times I could have that same conversation before I began to dread it. By my junior year I had began to deflect when people asked me where I was from, either by avoiding the question or by saying I lived on West Coast. This in turn caused my good friends to jump into the conversation with, “Actually she’s from Alaska!” By senior year, I had begun to ask my friends to stop introducing me as “Monica the Alaskan” so we could skip over the ensuing astonishment.

I had never identified myself or had someone identify me so strongly as Alaskan before college. I had never thought of myself as Alaskan because ‘true’ Alaskans are outdoorsy, adventure seeking, and fiercely independent. I was none of those things, nor did I desire to be. There’s an old saying about being a true Alaskan – “Some people get off the plane and are Alaskan, some people are born here and aren’t Alaskan.” Before college, I fell firmly in the latter category, not really living an Alaskan-specific lifestyle. In high school, I felt out of place in this extremely active and adventurous state. I attended college across the country because I wanted to escape Alaska, escape the cold and the lack of options. And yet it was all acquaintances could talk to me about. I went from feeling very un-Alaskan during high school to suddenly being a bona fide Alaskan expert. It was startling, to say the least.

So much of my college identity was wrapped up in how interesting Alaska is, how unique my life was perceived to be. Of course this was never an issue with my good friends because we worked our way through any Alaskan questions, so with them I was allowed to be myself, my own person. But whenever I had to introduce myself, my hometown invariably invaded. My requisite fun fact during the first day of classes was usually about Alaska, mostly because my introduction included my hometown and students interrupted before I could say any other identifying information about myself. Even in my day-to-day life I constantly fielded questions about available amenities, entertainment options, the existence of sidewalks in Anchorage (I have no idea what inspired this question), and bear sightings.

This is not to say I had a miserable time being Alaskan at F&M, because truly I do love talking about my hometown. It’s actually not a frozen wasteland and most people don’t use dog sleds to travel around. I loved exploring the differences between Alaska and other states and I loved hearing how my friends grew up, having both comparable and dissimilar experiences. But it was, at times, lonely and draining. I cannot even imagine what it was like for students from different countries. They were probably more prepared for the outlandish assumptions and questions, but it must have been even more exhausting.

Cultural Adjustment

The most jarring thing about attending college across the country was the culture shock. Culture shock is probably too strong of a word for what I experienced, perhaps cultural adjustment would be better. When I studied abroad in Costa Rica at a remote field station in a jungle for a month, I knew going into the experience that almost everything would be different so I was prepared and excited for all of the changes. In Pennsylvania, I was not prepared in the slightest. I had traveled out of state before, so I especially didn’t think I would have a problem adjusting.

Ostensibly, everything was the same. Everyone spoke English, we had similar cultural values and traditions, and our society was organized along the same lines. I wasn’t shocked by the differences in lifestyle; nothing was radically different. Instead, it was a series of small fissures that slowly broadened and cracked open to reveal my gaps of knowledge about seemingly commonplace events and things. As I adjusted to the perpetual influx of knowledge for my first two years of college, I felt disoriented and out of place.

There was no big incident that caused me to feel out of place with my peers, no dramatic experience that made me feel isolated. Every day there was some new piece of knowledge I learned that eroded my confidence that I was an intelligent person that knew things. It was a series of small disbeliefs – I frequently heard, “I can’t believe you’ve never heard/seen/tried/done ____!!!” These exclamations covered everything from my lack of knowledge of store brands (including clothing, restaurants, banks, etc.), to mundane activities like driving on an interstate highway or going to the beach.

The root of my problem was that I felt like I didn’t know what other people knew. My friends and I had different cultural capital. As the only Alaskan at an East Coast dominated college, my cultural capital was significantly different. At first I couldn’t help but think my cultural capital was not valuable because it wasn’t relevant or applicable to my new East Coast life. We did not have the same experiences growing up. I know how to defend myself from bear attacks – if it’s brown, lie down; if it’s black, fight back. I know about going to prom in mid-May with a foot of snow still on the ground. I had no idea that people voluntarily went apple picking for fun or that when people said “the city,” they always meant New York City. I had the horrifying realization that jumping spiders exist.

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Even small things were new to me – I had never seen precisely shaped decorative hedges before my arrival at F&M. I was constantly amazed that something like this hedge could exist. I loved it.

There were other, larger differences that I struggled to adapt to as well. One of the changes I immediately noticed was the weather. It was humid, especially in August when I first arrived, and always sunny and warm. I only owned one tank top and three pairs of shorts, so not only was adjusting to the heat itself a challenge, I was inadequately dressed for it. Anchorage has a very dry climate and I had never experienced prolonged exposure to humidity, which needless to say, was terrible. I felt hot and sticky all the time, which was a distinctly new feeling for me, and I couldn’t escape it. The air conditioning in academic buildings was a welcome relief, but my California-grown roommate was quite used to summer weather and so didn’t want or need to blast the AC at all hours. I thought everyone noticed my profuse sweat and my non-stylish, eclectic summer wardrobe, so I was very self-conscious as I slowly adjusted.

Not only was my clothing inadequate for the hot weather, I also apparently had no style. People tend to dress very casually in Alaska, often with a practical outdoorsy/active vibe. In 2012, Travel + Leisure Magazine ranked Anchorage the worst dressed city in America, and it seems like we take a great deal of pride in continuing to uphold that title. My friends made fun of my Dansko clogs (a very popular, fashionable staple in Anchorage, I might add) and my constant rotation of sweatshirts that proclaimed “Alaskan Grown” in bright colors. I didn’t feel like I fit in with most of the crowd in my dorm, who split between very preppy and very NYC stylish. I had never seen large groups of men rock pastel tones and brightly colored shorts. I had never heard of the brands people wore, especially Vineyard Vines, and was at a loss to follow conversation when it turned to clothing or shopping. Going to the mall was really a learning experience because I hadn’t heard of the majority of stores and I was baffled that there could be so many options.

All of these small daily differences added up over time, accumulating in a low-grade insecurity throughout my years in Pennsylvania. It was not a constant feeling of self-doubt; I was not agonizing over my differences. I didn’t even recognize that I was feeling anxious/insecure until my senior year when I started reflecting on why I felt such relief whenever I returned home. I was always glad to learn new things, but that left me feeling as if I didn’t know what seemingly everyone else knew. I was comfortable, confident, relaxed in Anchorage. I was surrounded by a familiar environment in which I knew local customs and brands and sayings. Anchorage was my safe place, regardless of whether or not I wanted it to be.

Homeward Bound

Leaving home expanded my worldview, forced me to be more independent, and was a catalyst for personal growth and fulfillment. I’m so grateful for my entire college experience, even the heartbreak and the struggle, because I learned so much about the world and myself. Meeting so many different people broadened my perspective of humanity, and made me realize that not everyone was like me, and that’s a good thing. I’m sure many people have had that personal growth attending college in state but personally, I needed that push, that independence, that exposure to new ideas to truly see who I was and who I could be.

I’m glad I left but I’m also glad I’m back. Growing up, all I wanted to do was leave and experience something different. I resented the cold, the lack of amenities, and most of all, the seemingly endless winter darkness. Now that I have returned, I am so grateful for Anchorage and the life I lead here. I love living less than two miles from the 500,000 acres of scenic Chugach National Park, the midnight sun, and I definitely love the absence of snakes/cockroaches/cicadas/ticks/etc. I am confident that my cultural capital is just as valuable as everyone else’s, and just because it is different, doesn’t mean it’s bad. I probably won’t live here permanently, but I am content to be here now, soaking it all in. I will always treasure this place and what it has given me.

One of the best things about being back home? I never talk about Alaska, I just enjoy it.

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The author with her delightful friend, Leye Owolabi, in front of a beautifully flowering tree, a thrilling and unexpected sight for the newly arrived Alaskan.

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