Half of the student body at the University of Alabama was predestined to attend college in Tuscaloosa. They grew up hearing tales about God’s favorite man, Bear Bryant, and wore houndstooth backpacks to school. Denny Chimes was a beacon, beckoning them to what their parents fondly prophesied would be the best four years of their life.

I am part of the other half. I was an Ohio girl who applied an hour before the application was due, because my mom wanted me to, “keep my options open.” Life in Alabama was as foreign to me as life in Tibet. But the first thing I learned when I spontaneously decided to become a student at UA was that the craziest option is often the best one.

It’s been four years since I drove down to Dixie, and I have now graduated. In a typical post graduate life move, I’ve temporarily moved back to live with my parents in Ohio. I spend my free time eating Quaker instant grits  and repeatedly watching the bittersweet final scene of Tim Burton’s, “Big Fish,” in an attempt to exorcise my emotions about graduating through tears.

When I try to explain to my Ohioan friends why I’m moodily singing, “Dixieland Delight,” they don’t get it. They don’t understand how fiercely I miss the shade of ancient oaks and walking from class under moonlit magnolias. How much I miss strolling along the Black Warrior river with my friends, or even ordering coffee at the library. Nostalgia has lent even the most mundane memories a golden, wistful glow.

Yes, I’ve been reflecting. I’ve been thinking. And I’ve come to some conclusions.

I know now that the University of Alabama saved me. It’s a strange savior, one mired in scandal and tradition and hard-won change. But it’s mine. It saved me from being apathetic, from leading a passionless life, from the idea that life is ordinary. I cannot explain this place. All I know is that I will miss it more than I can describe in metaphors.

The university’s goal is to educate, and it succeeded, though not always in the way it intended. The many recent controversies have offered a valuable opportunity to learn. I learned what cowardice looks like, I learned what I stood for and I learned the value of fighting, even when it seems I always lose. Those lessons are worth more than knowing how to mold a mug using a pottery wheel or the significance of the Battle of the Seven Pines during the Civil War.

But I know those things, too. And I know them well, because the teachers here are extraordinary. Not only did they educate me, but they challenged me, and continue to support me. These mentors, and the many friends I’ve gained here, have offered me extraordinary encouragement as I’ve attempted to transform my life into something I can be proud of. I’ve met the most inspired, passionate people here and they showed me how it feels to care until it hurts. They are devoted to solving Alabama’s many problems, and they appear to be on a Quixotic quest to single-handedly save the state.

Truthfully, learning to care for and dedicate myself completely to something other than myself was the greatest lesson. Simply giving a damn was a revolutionary concept to me. I was raised to be mild-mannered, to not disagree at the dinner table. Problems were for other people to fix, and activists were annoying. But I had the classic college experience of questioning, of protesting. I think everyone should embrace their college years as a time to do that. As a journalism student, I began to meet the people who were affected by abstract political issues. I began to realize that my voice did matter, and I started to use it. I became less afraid, and I realized that apathy is the common factor in all societal ills.

I vividly recall graduation, my last memory of life as a student.  It was only two weeks ago, so I ought to. Normally, I’m a nervous person, prone to neurotic fantasies about tripping on stage or accidentally setting my gown ablaze. Instead, I thought about all I had accomplished. My hundreds of victories, and more importantly, the hundreds of defeats I had overcome. And as I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, I felt a strange feeling of supreme confidence. I knew I had earned it. I knew I could do anything I wanted after this moment.

In my post graduate life, I face a discouraging job market. I haven’t yet thought of a new set of goals, and I don’t have many concrete plans. Older relatives might even call me, “directionless.” But they’re wrong. I do have a direction. I’m headed South.

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