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What I Learned In Boating School Is: Erin Sullivan’s Senior Column

As I sit down to write this, all I can think about is Spongebob staring at his paper in Boating School with Mrs. Puff watching as he says, “What I learned in boating school is…” — except my Mrs. Puff is managing editor Matt DiSanto, and I’m staring at a blank document thinking about how to reflect on what was my entire life over the past four years.

When I was in high school, I was pretty sure of myself. School wasn’t very hard, I had friends, I was passionate about my interests and hobbies, and my time was always spent in good company. I wasn’t really challenged, and I didn’t even know better. 

I always thought I’d make it out of Pennsylvania to a rent-gouging major east coast city and look back and think that’s what would signify that I “made it.” I’m too good to go to the state school! That girl from my Spanish class that thought Portugal was in South America is going there. I’m gonna go play volleyball somewhere because that’s all I know how to do and have it all planned out.

Even reading that back to myself sounds insufferable. Ah, the naivete of a high school senior. I was soon slapped in the face with a FAFSA statement from a handful of schools that gave me no choice but  ̶P̶e̶n̶n̶ ̶S̶t̶a̶t̶e̶ Boating School. I shed my pathetic little tears and soon enough I was moved into Atherton Hall come August 2018. My parents saw me off on the corner of Pollock and Shortlidge and I walked into Thomas 100 alone to start SHOTime. I was all alone surrounded by other people that were also alone. What now?

My first semester wasn’t very kind to me. School was… hard? I’m being… challenged? I’m not on top of my work, I don’t even know how to organize my time, I’m waking up every morning in a twin XL bed with no air conditioning and thinking about the 265 Calc problems I have due Friday. Not to mention, I’m not playing volleyball anymore. I had to quit cold turkey when my delicate D3 dreams were crushed by the powers that be (Federal Student Aid). It sounds very corny, but in my salad days, it was one of the biggest pieces of who I was. 

So, I’m not as smart as I thought I was, I’m no longer an athlete, it’s hard to make friends, and everyone on my dorm floor is sticking their hair on the shower walls and leaving it there. I’m barely treading water at a place I thought was well below my pay grade. What a slap in the face.

Freshman year really forced me to grow the hell up. Penn State is a place that requires you to find out who you are and what you want. Roughly 40,000 people attend University Park, so if you don’t stick up for yourself, no one will. Who are you gonna be under pressure? Who are you without the pieces of yourself you thought were all that there was? I soon found out that those factors of what I thought made up the perception of myself by others and me were really just surface-level fluff. You can really only define yourself by who you are at your core. All that other stuff only matters as a reflection of how you perform who you are. It would have never clicked had Penn State not thrown me into the deep end and forced me to swim. 

In the fall of my sophomore year, I joined Onward State. I just got a new camera for my birthday over the summer and was ready to see what she was capable of. I had my interview in the basement of Irving’s with Anthony Colucci and Ryen Gailey, and the rest was history. I went to my first social at Lexington House Apartments courtesy of Hope Damato, and I think it lasted 45 minutes until the cops showed up. Truly a movie in its own right. 

I’ve found some of my best friends through this blessed blog. People so different from me and yet we have so much in common. I want to thank Matt DiSanto, Hope Damato, Michael Tauriello, Will Pegler, Ryan Parsons, Mackenzie Cullen, Ryen Gailey, and so many more people on staff who have made my short time here more special than I am capable of putting into words. I am a photographer and not a writer after all. I would not be the person I am without any of you. I would not get to see the things I’ve seen or done the things I’ve done without the opportunities I’ve been given through Onward State. I would’ve never thought I’d be able to cover such special events and brush shoulders with such special people (ahem, Cael Sanderson). 

I’m someone who is very meticulous about my memories and nostalgia. I like to make monthly Spotify playlists that I will beat into my head for 30 days so that I can listen to them a year from now and reflect deeply about walking in the rain to Bacterial Pathogenesis in the Tyson Building as I sweat off my hangover. I tend to remember things more fondly than they occurred, perhaps to a fault, but I think I’d rather it be that way than the opposite. When you look back on your childhood, you have that one obscure memory of getting on the bus on a random crisp October morning or going to the grocery store with your mom. I like to imagine I can give myself those memories if I’m conscious enough about the little things. I tend to do a Jimmy Neutron brain blast/That’s So Raven vision pause and take in my surroundings on the way to a night exam that has been making my stomach hurt for weeks just so I can look back and remember what happened or how I felt. Of course, I will remember my long nights out and time spent with friends, but I think it’s so paramount to soak in the in-between moments. 

The In-Between Moments

When I came to Penn State, I felt like I lost myself. I got too comfortable in my last placement and I almost didn’t know how to adjust. I was forced to rethink and reshape who I was which helped me to discover pieces of myself I didn’t know I had. But who can fault themselves for getting too comfortable? If you become too paranoid about what happens next, you will never be able to truly enjoy what you have in the present. Take in the in-between moments when you remember to. It’s just like the great prophet Ferris Bueller said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

So, get comfortable and settle in. You’ll be here for a while. Boating School will give you a perspective on life you didn’t know existed.

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About the Author

Erin Sullivan

Erin is an alum who majored in immunology and infectious disease and was doing it before COVID-19 was cool. She's from the South Hills of Pittsburgh and loves the Penguins and Steelers a̶n̶d̶ ̶P̶i̶r̶a̶t̶e̶s̶. She also loves Penn State wrasslin' and Cael Sanderson's mystical shiny dome. You can tell her your movie recommendations, how much you like her sneakers, or reach out just to say hey at [email protected]

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