“You are of this place. It is changing you.” I see these words by Mural Row at the center of campus. Directly across from a painting of elegant pink roses, the contrasting mural of plain white lettering screams at me against a stark gray backdrop. They are the first words I see as I walk to breakfast each morning before class. They are supposed to inspire me, I think, but they do the opposite. The quote is impossible to ignore as I make my routine trek from dorm to dining hall; its bold, block font has ingrained itself in my mind.
Most people are afraid of going to eat at the dining hall alone. It’s a sign of unpopularity here at this college consortium of six thousand students. “Social suicide,” my peers say, because here at The Colleges, everyone knows everyone. Most people are afraid, but not me. I am the weird girl who has never stepped foot into a dorm party at Kenna on a Thursday night. I am the strange girl who goes home on the weekends instead of hanging out by the poolside or heading to Mount Cypress with my friends. I am the peculiar girl who sits in a room all day, the faceless roommate in C212. I am not afraid of them, though. I let them stare.
I walk into the dining hall and sit at my usual table to the side. I eat my breakfast in ten minutes, aiming for as little contact with anyone as possible. Oh no, is that a familiar dark blond head I see? It looks too much like my roommate’s best friend. I skirt around his table and speed-walk out of there toward a class I don’t care much about, escaping through a haven of automatic sliding doors. I breathe in a gulp of fresh air and breathe out a sigh of relief that I am finally alone again. I am back at the walkway by the mural wall as I head to class. There they are again, those words. I am sick of seeing them.
It began on May 1st, 2018, late afternoon after a few hours of waiting by the phone. “I am pleased to offer you a spot in our undergraduate program and conditional acceptance to our medical school,” I remember. “You have 24 hours to send us your deposit”—24 hours to decide my new home for the next three years and the four after that, 24 hours to decide who and what I would be for the rest of my life. I was offered a seat in an accelerated linkage program in medicine, a coveted position I had worked hard for and a gateway to my goal of becoming a physician. It was a dream, the kind you can only say yes to. My “yes” was a proud moment for the Trinh household and an even prouder one for my extended relatives.
I am in my dorm waiting nervously by the phone. I glance at the clock on the desk. 10:04 PM. I scroll through my messages again, re-reading the text from my aunt: “I heard about you wanting to transfer. I will call you at 10.” More than 300 miles away, I am not sure how she found out so quickly. I suppose with a family as tight-knit as mine, it should have been no surprise. Just as I put my phone down, it buzzes. Repeatedly. It’s my aunt. I answer the phone with shaking hands.
“It’s ridiculous to even think about transferring to community college and then to a UC after that. It’s not like you’re depressed or anything.” All I can do is nod and say okay.
“Do you know how big it is at a UC? You won’t do well there, and you won’t be able to get into medical school.”
“You need to think about your future. This program is the fastest way to get there. What you feel right now is temporary.”
“Just stick it out, okay?”
I hold my tongue throughout the whole conversation, all thirty minutes of it. Mostly, I hold back the lump in my throat and the tears threatening to spill over. This is the next six years of my life she’s talking about. Six more years in the confines of two campuses I chose but never really chose. There is no point in talking back, though. My aunt is right, I know. “Okay, I will do as you say.” My sister’s idea to transfer, the flicker of hope I had of leaving this place, is extinguished. I hear my sister’s voice in my head. Do what makes you happy. I silence it. An image of white painted letters on a gray brick wall fills my mind instead. You are of this place. It is changing you.
It was early in November, a few months into the school year, that I began to regret my choice. They were speaking ‘no’s over me, caging me in a box: my program coordinator, faculty advisors, professors. No, you can’t major in General Biology; it hasn’t been done in this program before. No, you can’t take Learning and Memory. No, you can’t do research. You must follow the program’s guidelines. The small-community feel some might call cozy was stifling to me; the curriculum didn’t foster well-roundedness but felt repressive to my yearning for scientific research; more than anything, the program that was my linkage to becoming a doctor was not a gateway but my cage. But I was here and had made my decision. Despite its shortcomings, this program would fulfill my career goal, a passion that was growing in me each day. This program was my ride there, and I could not get off.
“Sorry, there’s no room,” Professor Chase says, turning back to her computer. Another sign of dismissal. I am very familiar with those.
“Is there any chance of a space becoming available?” I ask, my voice dangerously close to breaking. I realize how close I sound to begging, but this is my last attempt at getting a class I need for the semester. I throw my pride to the wind. “I’m in the linkage program, and I really need this class in order to keep up with the requirements.”
With a sigh, she says, “There should be room in Professor Gonzalez’ section. You should get priority there since the class is offered by your home campus.” A sliver of sympathy at last.
I play back in my mind the last week and a half I spent attending Professor Gonzalez’ class and keeping up with the work. She had promised a spot for me after the week’s end. I have room for one more, so the spot is yours, she had said. I’ll take you off the wait-list and enroll you in the class on Friday.
“I’ve already spoken to Professor Gonzalez. I wasn’t able to get in,” I tell Professor Chase.
Her brows furrow as she says, “That’s strange. I sent one of my wait-listed students to her just this morning, and she was accepted right away. I’m surprised you didn’t get in, especially since you’ve been attending and doing the work.” Her words are a blow to the gut. I’d thought Professor Gonzalez was the first to genuinely try to help me. No one, not even my faculty advisor, had cared as much. I wonder why she went back on her word, but I quickly shove these thoughts aside. It doesn’t matter now.
“Okay, thank you, Professor.” I try to keep my voice from wavering and try for a smile. “Have a good afternoon.”
It takes everything in me not to rush out of Professor Chase’s office, as I try to keep the lump in my throat down. I am in the hallway by the time the pounding in my chest begins. I feel a tear escape as I speed-walk down the stairwell and hope no one notices. I brush it off quickly, cheeks hot with embarrassment. As I exit the building, I am met with sunlight and laughter as other students walk by me to their next class. I say a silent prayer for no one to see or recognize me.
I feel silly for being upset, petty that my tipping point was not being able to get into a class. This happens to everyone. But this is the fourth class I have tried and failed to enroll in. I have gotten the cold shoulder from professor after professor over the past week. I don’t know why I expected anything different, but I really needed this to work. If I am going to stay here for the next two and a half years, I need to make this place work for me. While fulfilling program requirements, this last class in my schedule was one I vowed to choose for myself, a small victory in the greater sacrifice I am making by staying in this program. But I am used to not being able to choose.
I don’t know what I will do if I don’t get into another class. At least sixteen units per semester. It is crucial that you take four classes a semester, my program advisor Professor Burke, had said. I think about all the requirements I must fill, all the boxes I must check to stay on track. Seven courses in social science, six courses in biology, four courses in chemistry, three courses in social justice, and maybe room for one or two classes of my choosing. If I don’t register for enough units this semester, I will be behind. I don’t know what I will do if I have to spend another year in a place I hate.
My feet stop abruptly as I consider turning back to visit Professor Burke’s office to request once again to register for his class, Learning and Memory. But then I remember his rejection. I don’t think he will accept me no matter what I say, and I don’t know if I can handle another refusal today. I count all the ‘no’s I have heard this week.
You won’t be able to do a Psychology minor, Professor Lee had said.
You can’t do a different major than the one designated for the program, Professor Meyers had said. Just stick with the outline they gave you.
Don’t bother applying for the summer research program, Professor Burke had said. Students in the program don’t usually do it. And sorry, but you can’t take Learning and Memory next year. Even though you’ve already taken the prerequisites, it will be difficult for you because you’re not junior-level.
No one seems to understand why I want more than what this program offers me. I am lucky to be in this program, they say. What more could I want? It feels wrong of me to want more. But I do.
All of the ‘no’s this week have made me feel defeated and incredibly lonely. I realize it has been a long time since I have felt truly supported. I wrap my arms around myself as I walk, trying to escape the hollow feeling in my stomach. Tears rise up in my chest, and I feel like screaming. A vision of a gray brick wall begins to surface in my mind. I force it out. I am tired of walls. I walk past a group of chattering students. I realize I am heading in the opposite direction of my own campus, past Sierra College, past the central library, to the edge of The Colleges. I don’t know where I am going, but I let my feet take me anywhere.
I sit at a desk in the study room with empty thoughts for company. It is the most secluded room I can find on a Wednesday afternoon. I have spent so much time in here in the past two months since the spring semester began that it is more familiar to me than my own dorm. I am in my usual room at the end of the hall. Two wooden desks with five chairs take up most of the space in the room. An old ragged arm chair sits in the corner. It is a study room meant for groups, but I use it just for me. I discovered this room, neglected and vacant, sometime this semester. It has been a sanctuary during the gaps in my empty schedule, away from my roommate, away from my friends. Although it is a plain room, I feel safest here. In this room, it is just me, my books, and these four blank walls.
My phone lights up with a flood of texts, notifications, and instant messages, but I cannot bring myself to answer.
“Wanna get lunch together at the dining hall?”
“Hey, let’s video call this week!"
“When are you free to hang out?”
I stare at the screen, trying to figure out how I should respond, but the truth is I am too worn out to keep a conversation going and too numb to hang out with anyone. Six months ago I would have responded to my friends eagerly, but I find that now I am much more comfortable in the silent isolation I have found in this room. I cannot bring myself to leave it.
I shut my eyes as the familiar feeling begins. I rest my head in my hands as I tell myself to calm down. You are of this place. It is changing you. Tremors race down my legs. My heart beats too loud, too quick. Suddenly I am aware of my own breathing: heavy, rapid, ragged. You are of this place. It is changing you. There is something wrong with me. There must be. Something is building inside my chest, clawing its way up my throat, released as droplets on the page in front of me. You are of this place. I am suffocating. I am so tired. I want to escape this; I want to escape myself. It is changing you.
I sit on the sofa with my knees tucked in close, bracing myself for another “transfer intervention.” I’ve grown accustomed to it lately. Even though I am on summer break now, that place seems to sneak itself into every conversation I’ve had with my aunts, uncles, cousins, even my grandma. I look back at my older cousin. She’s still talking.
“…all I’m saying is that you should really consider that you may never get an opportunity like this again if you transfer. Look how hard it was for Allen to get into med school.” Yes, this is true, and I know it. Even though I have decided to stay, I bite my tongue. I don’t tell her that I know or that she is right. They are all right. I don’t tell her, because once I do, my decision will be final. I will be letting go of my life vest once and for all. I am not ready to.
She keeps going. “You just need to figure out how to make yourself happy, by yourself. Get a hobby, take the train to L.A. You don’t need to fit in, maybe just find your niche.” Haven’t I already been trying that? I spent almost the entire last semester by myself, drawing and listening to music to get me through the day, holed up in a study room. I forced myself to join the Vietnamese Student Association, became next year’s board member. But I am still a stray piece of a different puzzle trying to fit into this one.
My voice breaks when I tell her, instead of holding my tongue any longer, “I’ve tried. I’ve tried all those things, but I’m just not happy there.” It is changing you. That’s when I realize what my heart really wants: to start living now, not just after I have achieved my dream to be a doctor. By the time I leave that place, how much of myself will there be left? What is my dream to help others worth if I cannot be brave enough to help myself?
She looks at me then and finally really sees me. “I want you to be happy. And if you aren’t happy there, then I think you should leave.” She tells me what my sister has been telling me all along, the small voice in the back of my mind that I have blocked myself from hearing for months. That’s when I realize who has been my real captor all this time. Not a place, but myself. It was me: blind to any alternative but to stay because of the little faith I had in myself. It was me: desperate for affirmation from my family when the only affirmation I needed was my own.
I make a decision that day.
I pull into the street, Arrow Highway. White buildings come into view, in a sleepy town filled with orange trees. The campus looks different, even though I know that it is the same. College students are passing by nonchalantly, biking, talking, and laughing with ease. It is a picturesque scene before me and an unfamiliar view behind my tinted windshield. It almost makes me forget the entire year I experienced while I was here. Almost. Memories of sitting in study rooms, fleeing dining halls, and gray brick walls flood my mind. Knuckles white from gripping the wheel, I scan my surroundings for familiar faces. So far, no one, to my relief. I park my car and step onto the campus for the first time in almost eight months.
I head towards the dining hall where I am going to meet my old roommate, one of the few friends I have kept in touch with since transferring. I am the first to arrive, so I sit at an empty table in front of the entrance. I get a few lingering looks from people I recognize from my old classes. I fidget awkwardly with my clothes in an attempt to look busy. I am an old face, a ghost, in their midst. It is certainly strange to be back.
I wait alone for a few more minutes until I see my friend walking towards me. She smiles when she sees me and greets me with a hug. “How are you? How’s everything with school?” she asks me.
I pause before answering, my breath catching. It is the first time we’ve talked since I decided to transfer over the summer. She has remained in the linkage program, which makes me afraid to know what she thinks of my decision. I feel the weight of a hundred questions in her gaze, a speculation of reasons I never gave when I left. I adjust my glasses, a nervous habit, and remind myself to be brave. I still have flickers of doubt in my mind, rooted from pointed glances and skeptical tones regarding my decision to leave. It has made me uneasy while visiting my old campus. But I think of my new school, Irvine Valley College, where I have been attending until I transfer to a university, my final destination and hopefully a place to call home. I think of the friends I have made in the last few months. I think of the new activities I am involved in: volunteering at a children’s hospital, leading worship at church. I think of the classes I am taking this semester that have made me fall in love with learning again: Creative Writing, Voice, Genetics, Music Theory. They are all choices of mine, and I don’t regret them.
“It’s been really good,” I tell her. And for the first time, I mean it.
As we head to the dorms to meet with our other friends, I update her on my new experiences at IVC, and she tells me stories that have happened since I’ve been gone. It is strange hearing about how my old friends are doing. It makes me realize how much they have grown without me, but also how much I have grown away from this place. We walk down a familiar cement path between the dining hall and the dorms. I used to walk this path with my head down, eyes trained to the ground, but today I am not.
We pass by a brick wall, a sea of gray surrounding a quote I know by heart. You are of this place, it says. It is changing you. It occurs to me that I should have no ties to this mural anymore. I am no longer a part of these people, the people these words are meant for. But I certainly am a part of this place. Here in the heart of this place I left a piece of me I will never get back, buried deep in lonely hours in a study room, long phone conversations in my dorm, and a professor’s office on the other side of campus. As I peer at the wall of paintings, another one catches my eye, one that opposes the bare grayscale mural with pastels and flowers and light. I have walked this pathway a thousand times, but for the first time, I really notice the mural of roses. A hand grasps the bundle of flowers against an open backdrop of white paint. There are a few fallen petals, shed from the flowers, but the roses curl open nonetheless. It is the beginning of a full bloom after a winter season. For the first time, I realize that maybe this image was what was meant to inspire me, not the words. Despite the lonely breakfasts in the dining hall, tearful walks across campus, and hours of isolation in the study room; despite the broken piece of myself I have left here, I am on the way to a full bloom after my own winter season, fallen petals and all. Despite the struggles I have faced in this past year, I am stronger for it and am finding myself in the process. I see now that the artist who wrote this quote had it wrong. It wasn’t being a part of this place that changed me, but because I am of this place, I am changing me.