My family is liberal and not at all religious. Depending on where you grew up, that fact can either be a non-event or a defining part of who you are. In Queen Creek, Arizona, it meant everything.
I was regularly taunted by kids in my class who said that non-believers like me were going straight to hell. My mom took our Obama-Biden campaign sticker off our car after the second time it got keyed and I remember hearing the n-word in elementary school after Obama’s election. In sixth grade, I learned that a friend’s mom wouldn’t let her play with me if she knew I didn’t go to her church so I hid defining characteristics about myself—my three sisters and I had only ever been to church for my Catholic aunt’s wedding—in order to not be completely lonely.
I couldn’t wait to get out. I dreamed of going to Harvard, but was enamored with all of the old, storied New England schools. I loved watching “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and reading The Atlantic. I fantasized about finally feeling like I belonged.
So I worked hard in school. I have a single mom and we don’t have a lot of money, so I knew that I would have to score a near-full scholarship.
When I graduated high school at 16, my mom didn’t want to send me so far away so young. I enrolled in my local school, Arizona State University, and we both agreed that I could transfer out after my freshman year.
I arrived on Bryn Mawr’s campus, a Seven Sisters school in Pennsylvania, in the Fall of 2019. I was overjoyed. The campus was gorgeous, and, to this day, it is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in real life. There were gothic towers and acres of manicured lawns. I was eager to join the other nerdy girls and to find friends I’d have for life.
I’d gone to underfunded, overcrowded public schools my whole life and this was my first experience with small classes and teachers who seemed to love teaching. I took a poetry class where the professor would sing folk songs to us in the hallway as we made our way into class. I learned to write short stories from an Italian instructor who compared writing to preparing homemade pasta. I had been nervous about not being able to keep up academically, but the calculus class I took that first year was easier than the one at ASU.
Socially, it wasn’t entirely what I expected. The people at Bryn Mawr were the wealthiest and most liberal I had ever encountered. During my first week on campus, a girl I met suggested over dinner that 9/11 was justified because the United States had meddled in Middle East politics. She went on to say that the 9/11 memorial should be changed so as to show more respect to Muslims. One of the girls in my hall casually mentioned that Michelle Obama had been in a spin class she had taken in the Hamptons that summer. At first, I thought she was kidding.
I joined a sketch comedy group, which often started meetings by asking members to answer a question. One day, the question was “How is your semester going?” A few people answered directly, and then one girl said “I’m having a great semester, but I totally acknowledge that some students, especially BIPOC students, face a lot of challenges on campus.” Then, every person after her prefaced their answer by saying that students who aren’t white were probably having a worse semester than them.
I didn’t sit around with my friends all night arguing about big questions like I thought I would. It was assumed that we all agreed on the answers. But I made friends, and I loved my classes. I went to parties at nearby colleges, and I was making plans to study abroad in Ireland, which, as someone who had only left my home state twice, was a huge deal for me.
That was supposed to be in the Fall of 2020, but of course it never happened. I remember talking about the coronavirus on the way home from a party with my friend, a self-professed germaphobe, in January of 2020. She asked if I thought we should be worried. I told her that as a campus we should be more worried about binge drinking, and we both laughed. I thought that would be the end of it. Weeks later, Bryn Mawr announced that my spring semester would be held online.
The next few months were the worst of my life.
While many of my classmates retreated to their big houses on the East Coast or their family’s second homes, I moved home to our apartment in Tempe. There were two bedrooms between the five of us; myself, my mom, and my three younger sisters. At the time, I didn’t even have a desk where I could do my schoolwork and, regardless, I couldn’t escape the distraction of my younger siblings. Their schools were closed, too.
There was no library or coffee shop open to decamp to, and the internet in our building was shaky. But the poor connection was not my biggest problem. It was finding the motivation to attend online class as I watched everything I’d worked for evaporate.
Bryn Mawr’s Covid safety precautions for Fall 2020 were announced in July. They included, but were not limited to, isolating for 10 days prior to returning to campus and quarantining for two weeks upon arrival, living alone in a single dorm room, canceling all sporting events, weekly PCR testing, eating cafeteria take-out in our dorms, and wearing masks at all times, indoors and out. The masks could only be taken off with the door closed in our dorm room, or “outside in an area where you will not encounter others.”
If you did test positive, you were even further isolated to a dorm at the edge of campus, and food would be left at a drop-off point. I wanted to be at school, but why would I spend my days 1,600 miles away from my family, with no clubs or activities, eating alone in my dorm room, avoiding all social interaction?
So I stayed home for the entirety of my junior year, except for a trip back to campus to empty my room, and put my things—about $300 worth of clothes, bedding, and notebooks—in a storage unit nearby. I hoped I’d be back on campus soon. By the time I went to retrieve my things, the bill for the storage unit totaled well over $1,200.
Those two semesters at home hadn’t been kind to me. I didn’t really keep in touch with my Bryn Mawr friends; gazing at their mansions through a glitchy Zoom made me feel like an outsider. When we did talk, they obsessed over how scared they were of the virus and how many precautions they were taking, as though it was some kind of competition. Instead of sharing my thoughts and experiences, I stayed silent because I feared their criticism and eventually dropped off. I started sleeping a lot, but only during the day. I became scared of the dark. I lost my appetite, and 20 pounds along with it. There was nothing left to look forward to.
I stopped logging on to school, and my As and Bs turned to Fs. Ultimately, I decided to withdraw.
The stakes of leaving were high. I had to walk away from my $75,000 scholarship, my friends—everything. After a few weeks of being overcome with uncertainty, I started looking for schools that were more aligned with my values.
I quickly discovered that almost every school that was operating even remotely normally was overtly religious. That was really hard for me to wrap my brain around given I had a somewhat fixed view of conservatives being rigid and intolerant. Yet, here I was, confronted with the fact that these religious institutions were, in practice, far more aligned with my values like individual liberty, critical inquiry, and diversity of thought than the place that explicitly claimed to be those things.
In my admissions interview for Hillsdale, a small school of less than 1,500 students, founded by Baptists in Michigan, I praised Christopher Hitchens—a staunch and unapologetic atheist—as one of my intellectual heroes. I disclosed that I was not religious. I debated with my interviewer about whether math was invented or discovered.
And they wanted me anyway. When I received that acceptance letter in November for the Spring 2022 semester, I cried.
I’ve been at Hillsdale for three weeks, and life here is blissfully normal. I have sorority sisters. We get together and study and play board games. The student union and dining hall are packed. No one asks anyone else’s vaccine status. There are no mask mandates, and no mandatory Covid testing. You'll see an occasional student in a mask but no one thinks anything of it.
Students and staff I’ve encountered disagree on the utility of masks and the danger of Covid, but it’s rarely the focus of conversation and certainly not the organizing principle of anyone's life. It feels like someone finally turned off the fire alarm that had been blaring for nearly two years.
I went to office hours—in person—the other day for one of my new classes, a required course about classic literature and I got into an interesting debate with a professor. Upon sharing an idea that directly refuted his interpretation of a line from Genesis, which I had never read before, he said, “That’s a great point. Why didn’t you share that in class?” “I didn’t want to be argumentative,” I told him. “Be argumentative,” he said emphatically.
Of course, there’s a serious social learning curve. I curse a lot, my classmates, generally, don’t. I get a lot of invitations to church services and Bible study, which I politely turn down. There is a distinct lack of PDA on campus. But I do not feel judged for thinking differently.
Someone on Twitter cited my migration to Hillsdale as an example of following an ideology to my own peril. I think just the opposite happened; I rejected an ideology and it set me free. When I stopped being scared to say what I really thought and surrounded myself with people who put their principles into practice, I was able to begin really thinking for myself.
There’s an alternate universe where Covid doesn’t exist, where I stay at Bryn Mawr and am never forced to learn these lessons or to confront my own limitations. I graduate believing that deep down there was something wrong with me for not seeing the world the way my peers did, and feeling ashamed for not being brave enough to voice my dissent. I am the same fearful girl I was at 10, who pretended to go to church so she could make friends.
My advice to upcoming high school seniors is this: try not to buy into the idea that any prestigious institution or affiliation will determine your future success. Credentials are no longer the proxy for knowledge that they once were; the internet has removed the gatekeepers of even the most specialized information. You don’t have to go to a particular college—or even college at all—to have a meaningful experience. Real growth isn’t about your GPA or the letters after your name; it’s about choosing discomfort and challenge rather than going along.
These past few years have introduced a lot of potential for regret and embarrassment, but instead, I was forced to embody the values I had previously only performed, like honesty and courage. In that respect, I’m glad this all happened. I know what I really believe. And I’m not afraid anymore.
COME HEAR JANE TONIGHT AT 8 PM EST/5 PM PST.
She’ll be joined by her mother, AJ Kay, and Alex Gutentag, public school teacher in California and a columnist at Tablet, for a roundtable discussion I’m moderating about kids and Covid. Bring your questions—and looking forward to seeing you.
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