Chapel Hill

Sonic Youth – Chapel Hill

My recent posts lamenting the weather prompted one friend to say she felt so sorry for me and wished I could live someplace warmer. That was my sole goal when I applied to colleges. My family was well-versed in small New England liberal arts colleges and Ivy League schools, but once you passed the Mason-Dixon line, it was the land of the unknown. After only two Maine winters, I was hell-bent on going someplace warm and I didn’t much care what programs the schools offered, I just wanted to be where it was warm.

My mother refused to pay the application fee for any California schools so I decided to just apply to all the big state schools in Virginia and North and South Carolina. Not Georgia, that seemed too far south (I know, I know, but I didn’t then). Off went my applications to UVA, William & Mary, UNC-Chapel Hill, and UofSC-Columbia. My mom thought this was a really bad plan and insisted that I apply to two schools in familiar territory that her youngest brother had attended; one in CT, the other in a Philadelphia suburb. My dream school was Chapel Hill, with William & Mary a close second.

What we didn’t know was that these schools were much harder to get into if you were an out-of-state resident. I had bombed my junior year of high school because I was pissed off about leaving New York and moving to Maine. With less than stellar grades and only decent SAT scores, I didn’t make a convincing case. Chapel Hill only accepted 15% of its students from out-of-state residents. The Virginia schools allowed as much as 30% but the competition was strong. Needless to say, I didn’t make it.

In the end I had to choose between South Carolina and the Philly ‘burbs. I really wasn’t excited about either one. I’d had my heart so set on Chapel Hill that everything else seemed like a disappointment. My mother reasoned that if I intended to transfer anyway, good grades from the school she knew would look better than good grades from a giant state school that no one knew much about. While that made sense, the deciding factor for me was something I’d read in a brochure than came in the fat envelope from South Carolina.

It was a little piece filled with testimonials from students and there was this one girl who said her favorite thing about UofSC was sharing the bathroom with 20 other girls. I’d hardly ever known a day when I’d had the bathroom to myself and I was quite certain that my 17 years of sharing the family bathroom with my five siblings and parents had made me immune to any possible charms of a group bathroom experience with 20 girls I didn’t know. Plus, if that was considered printable by the school, it stood to reason that other people also shared that girl’s view and I was going to be a real fish out of water. South Carolina was out, and the deposit was sent to my uncle’s alma mater.

I did try to transfer, but I was slightly better informed the second time around and of my original group of schools, I only tried for William & Mary, where I still didn’t get in. I continued to carry a torch for North Carolina, Chapel Hill especially, but I recognized that my chances were even worse as a transfer student and maybe caring about the programs and majors was a better reason for choosing a school than just its happening music scene and lack of a harsh winter.

Years later when I was living in DC, a good friend from high school was going to Duke for her master’s. I rented a car and drove down to spend a few days so I could finally see if it was the perfect place for me. I hung out in Durham, made my pilgrimage over to Chapel Hill, and wound up my visit by meeting with someone in Raleigh at the North Carolina Museum of Art. I was working in one of the Smithsonian museums at the time and we’d been in contact with them regarding some piece in an exhibit so I figured it was my foot in the door. The person I spoke to was very nice but said it was pretty rough to work in a publicly funded art museum in a state where Jesse Helms was your senator. Oh. Yeah. I remembered happily signing a friend’s absentee ballot when he was voting for Harvey Gantt against Jesse Helms only a couple of years earlier. Hmmm, that was something I hadn’t spent much time thinking about.

I briefly flirted with the idea of graduate school down south, falling hard for Savannah College of Art & Design’s master’s program in historic preservation, but I didn’t end up going that route. I’ll never say never but at this point I think it’s unrealistic to uproot the family and though I hate the winter here, I am usually pretty happy about the political climate at least.


  1. My experience was the reverse — we were (temporarily) living in Arizona when it came time to apply to college, so I was desperately looking at schools that had more traditional seasons, to assuage my homesickness for New England. I don’t actually recall all the schools I applied to, but I think U of Wyoming was in there, as well as Swarthmore (where I didn’t get in), and my ultimate destination, Washington U in St. Louis. It was a good fit, but the experience of sharing a bathroom with 20 other girls? Yeah, not high on my list of favorite things. 😉


    1. It’s interesting to me to contemplate how differently things would have gone if we’d never moved to Maine. I’m sure my academic standing would have been much better and my choices of schools would likely not have been so singularly focused on weather.


  2. I wish I could have gone away to school. I had to stay local for a variety of non-fun reasons, but I still wish I could have gone somewhere new.
    Also: Sonic Youth! They make me feel young again.


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