It’s not really about the place.

By Zoe Denenberg
November 27, 2019
Tucker Wilson Photography

A few weeks ago, I attended my first college reunion. It was my first time stepping back on campus since my graduation (which was just six months ago, although it feels like it’s been much longer). Almost all of my friends gathered back in Charlottesville for 48 hours, some driving down from Washington, D.C., others flying in from California and even London. We planned this trip a few months prior to graduation, before most of us even knew where post-graduate life would take us. Still, we all promised to return, and we made good on our word.

A friend picked me up from the Charlottesville airport, and as we drove down Route 29 towards campus, I thought of the last time I’d driven this road—heading in the opposite direction, my Honda Civic packed to the brim with all the possessions I’d accumulated over the past 4 years. I listened to acoustic music the whole teary-eyed, six-hour drive home.

The next few months took me to Alabama, where I started a job at Southern Living; as I launched into the working world, my life in Charlottesville felt like a distant memory. Yet driving down Route 29, passing the grocery stores I once frequented and the four different fried chicken outposts that pepper the road, I felt utterly at peace. It felt like coming home.

College towns are transitory by design. Some elements remain constant—certain local characters, storied restaurants—but the town is constantly in flux. It welcomes a new wave of students each year and, in turn, says goodbye to a class of graduates.

For some, the town becomes an instant home; for others, it takes time. As students begin to venture outside campus limits, they develop their own routines and attachments: they find favorite coffeeshops and bistros, unconsciously developing a partiality for a certain green velvet couch; they stumble upon hiking trails and running routes, where they explore with friends before the sun rises and train for their first races; they develop relationships with shopkeepers and return each week to pet the bookkeeper’s corgi (they learn his name: Gizmo). They turn the town into something that is theirs, and they make it into their home. But part of the deal is, and has always been, that this home is temporary.

Moving away is hard, but leaving a college town is a particular type of loss. Because it is not loss at all: graduation is framed as a mark of growth, as a step forward and into the “real world.” Leaving a college town, where you have perhaps for the first time built a complete, utterly whole life for yourself, is both completely natural and terrifying.

A few weeks ago, I sat down for dinner with a friend’s father, who told me that he still returns to his college town every year. When I asked how it feels when he goes back now, he said that as much as it’s changed since he was a student (how long ago, he declined to say), it is a good kind of change. Because the real reason he goes back is not for the football tailgates or for the greasy cookout burgers. Each year, all of his college friends meet back up in their college town because it is the place that brought them together. Now, they all have spouses and children of their own; some years, not all of them can make it into town for a weekend. But just as the town itself has changed, they have changed with it. Their relationships have grown and have gained new value as they navigate different phases of their lives. And the place that first brought them together has always been a home to return to.

I thought of this story during my weekend in Charlottesville, when I reunited with friends who have moved to different corners of the country (some even to different continents). We fell back into old routines, visiting our favorite coffeeshop couches (now without backpacks in tow) and navigating familiar roads and neighborhoods without the pesky chirp of the GPS.

“When you go back for the first time, the town still feels like it’s yours, but the further out you get from your college years, the more the nostalgia dials up,” says Southern Living Editor Betsy Cribb. She graduated from college just over 5 years ago, but she's returned to her alma mater countless times for reunions, weddings, and other occasions. “The town doesn’t belong to you in the same way it once did, but now a new generation of students is there experiencing the same place that gave you so many memories,” she says.

On each trip back, you make new memories, not to replace but to add to the old. At different seasons of your life, a trip back to your alma mater brings a sense of comfort and stability deeply rooted in nostalgia. It feels new and different, but also entirely the same.

I didn’t expect the town to remain preserved like a snow globe in its state on that day when I drove down Route 29 and said goodbye. Life in Charlottesville moved on without me; new cafes opened and that grimy burger joint finally closed. I’m sure that each year when I return, I will find the city transformed in new, bigger ways.

The beauty of the college town rests both in its transitory nature and in its fixtures. That same green chair you used to cozy up in may not be there anymore, and the coffeeshop may even have shuttered its doors, but it was never just about the coffeeshops or the trails or the bookstores. A college town is the sum of its parts—like you, it will change and grow in radical and sometimes uncomfortable ways. But no matter how much it has changed, it will always welcome you back home. As much as it is a place of change, of transition, it is a place of constants.

No matter where this place may be for you—whether it’s in Tuscaloosa, Athens, Lexington, or beyond—when you return, you will be welcomed home, even if it was only home for a short while. We may make promises to return every year, but sometimes life happens and interrupts the most optimistic of intentions. But I know that Charlottesville will always be a home for me to return to; and hopefully, friends will be there waiting for me.

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