Surrounded by unfamiliar people (most of them smiling)

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Zana Van Rooyen at her graduation from Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, in June. — Photo courtesy of Heather Goff

For the past three years, The MVTimes has asked four recent Vineyard high school graduates to share their experiences during their first year after graduation. Our second correspondent is Zana van Rooyen, who is a freshman at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt.

I have never woken up so sure that the building I was in was burning down. My half-asleep self could have sworn that the fire alarms were going off at 7:45 in the morning, and that I had to get out of my hall as soon as possible because I was going to burn to death otherwise. As I was throwing on my shoes and becoming somewhat coherent, I listened more carefully to the blaring, echoing sound I was hearing. I stood in the middle of my room and listened more closely. I heard laughter … who laughs during a fire evacuation? No one. Who is this enthusiastic before 8 am? Orientation leaders with whistles waking up first-year students. I opened my door to see already sweaty Saint Michael’s College O-Leaders, matching shirts and sweatbands and all, running down the hallway.

Not being a morning person (at all), I should have been more upset that I was being woken up so early in such a fright, but strangely enough, I felt excited to start my day that way — with such happy people. And if I’m being honest, I was beyond relieved that the building wasn’t going up in flames. That would not be the most ideal way to begin the first day of a college career. Instead, the four days of orientation at Saint Michael’s were filled with meeting (what seemed like) millions of people and yelling across the basketball court in massive rock/paper/scissor wars. The rock/paper/scissors thing only happened once, but I think you can get the vibe of what I’m trying to get across here. It seemed like everyone was smiling all the time. Those are my kind of people.

I felt a little bit uneasy the first few days in Vermont after I said goodbye to my mom. It seemed like absolutely nothing was familiar; this was my first time being immersed in a place with no familiar people, and that scared me to death. On Martha’s Vineyard, a place where I have lived my entire life, you go to the mail or the store or Mott’s, and you are more than likely to see someone you know. That’s just the way Island life is. Being at college and walking outside and not seeing a single familiar face was something I just wasn’t used to.

After the first couple of weeks, I realized why I was at Saint Mike’s. Every time I walk to class, the dining hall, or even down the hall to the water bottle refill station, I see a (now) familiar smiling face. This college, only 2,000 undergrads, is the perfect size for me, and reminds me of home every day. I’m not saying that I know everyone, but at the same time it feels like people are familiar now. There are not tens of thousands of people on campus, and it’s comforting to see the same people doing the same things every day. I know whom I will see on the way to my 9:45 grabbing breakfast, and I know whom I will see on Friday afternoons sitting at the benches. The size of this school gives me comfort in familiarity, and I love it.

It seemed like for all of high school, I was thinking about my future and what it would look like. I always knew I wanted to go to college and participate in clubs and do my laundry in the basement and eat boring dining hall food, but I never knew how happy all of that would make me. College, for the past two months or so, has made me the happiest I have ever been. The independence and the responsibility I have can be daunting at times, but it’s manageable. I manage the stress with my friends here and a few from back home.

I’ve also been missing my friends from back home a lot lately. The past few weeks have been filled with two- or three-hour phone calls catching up on who did what, reminiscing about high school, and laughing about the times gone by. I recently got off the phone with one of my best buds from Martha’s Vineyard and realized how much I told him about my college career already, and how many great people I’ve met. Saying it all out loud at once made me realize how lucky I was to have ended up where I am today. Here I am, sitting at my desk, listening to the laughter echoing down the hall. I have ended up in one of the happiest places on earth.

Thinking back about how nervous I was before coming to Vermont, I wish I could go back and tell myself that everything was going to work out — because it is.