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You’re On Your Own, Kid: Megan Dougherty’s Senior Column

COVID-19 stole my last year of high school and then I offered up my freshman year of college out of fear. Staying home one extra year under the guise of the pandemic allowed me to ignore the inevitable: growing up.

I spent all of the 2020-21 school year pretending to be a college student from the safety, comfort, and familiarity of my childhood bedroom, but that couldn’t last forever. I was a fish out of water when I finally moved to Happy Valley for my sophomore year. It was like freshman year all over again, except this time, I was completely on my own.

Skipping the freshman dorm experience, I moved straight into Nittany Apartments with three people I had never met. They probably regretted their decision to room with me as I silently spiraled while sitting in our tiny, undecorated living room that first night. I was sick to my stomach as I watched my parents’ car pull away through the window, wondering how I’d survive with them a whole three hours away. I couldn’t cook, had terrible directional skills, and had no friends here despite being a sophomore, but I was just supposed to make it work?

I’m not sure I even left the apartment alone until I had to attend class that Monday morning, and I’m confident I managed to get lost on my way to Willard. I woke up nauseous the whole first week of classes, but once I was able to keep down my nerves and my breakfast, Penn State wasn’t half bad.

That September, I applied to Onward State in search of friends and a place for my words to call home, and that was a step. 

I can still remember my 19-year-old self walking into the Bellisario Media Center one sunny September afternoon with shaking hands and a downright embarrassing lack of general Penn State knowledge. If notes from my OS interview still exist somewhere, I’m not sure if I’d want to read them all or erase them from existence immediately. From the moment I was accepted to be a writer to the day I became an associate editor, that clueless girl has always had a place in my heart. She was trying, OK?

With every Sunday meeting, I grew a little less clueless and a little more determined. It’s not easy to instill confidence in someone who’s not entirely sure they belong, but if life has taught me anything, it’s that you always find your people.

That same month, I went on a first date that became a beautiful, lasting relationship, and that too was a step.

I tried new things and stepped exponentially out of the guidelines of my comfort zone. I found new favorite foods, made friends, attended concerts and comedy shows on a whim, and even took classes I wasn’t sure I was qualified for. It was different, but I was having fun.

Don’t get me wrong, my first in-person semester at Penn State was no walk in the park. I struggled to balance taking care of myself and school, and it showed in my academics. However, I channeled all that stress and anxiety into doing better, becoming better. The further I strode beyond the salt ring of protection I had surrounded myself with for so long, the more of myself I found. 

I learned I would much rather spend my Friday nights playing video games with my friends or cooking with my boyfriend than partying or going out to bars. I love a good gossip sesh over margs, but my roommates know I have a bedtime. In trying new things, I expanded my interests, but I also discovered that it’s OK not to enjoy all the typical college activities, too. 

A step, and another, and another.

With those discoveries came a sense of self that seemed to catapult me through the next three years. One and two-year anniversaries, my 21st and 22nd birthdays, 46 pages of an honors thesis, and six Taylor Swift albums all flew by like a blur. Yet at the same time, I remember them all in high definition. 

Every memory made, big or small, caused the sun in State College to shine a little brighter on me. I don’t just remember the milestones. In fact, it’s the days that were just like any other I’ll miss most. The lazy weekends and grueling weeks all strung together into years before I knew it. Maybe it’s the English major in me that collects details like bracelet charms or maybe these last few years were just that memorable. I think it’s a little bit of both. 

Through all that growth and budding self-confidence, the one thing I could never shake is my fear of the future and the fact that I’ll ultimately have to brave it alone. My family and friends will be there to support me, of course, but the decisions are mine alone to make now. As a kid, I dreamt about being old enough to do my own thing and make my own choices, but now I often wish I could at least slow down the clock.

Uncertainty has always been my enemy. At each turn, I’ve found myself stumped by the wavering unknown of the future and the choices that accompany it. Should I stay home freshman year? Who will I live with sophomore year? What should I write my thesis on? Will I get a summer internship? If so, will I have to leave State College? All these open-ended questions that I inevitably answered correctly, but here I am still worried about what comes next. 

I’ve learned, though, that being afraid when you know yourself is much more bearable than when you don’t. Every puzzle piece didn’t just fall into place before. I found where it belonged. And I can do it again.

What are my plans after graduation? Get a job, hopefully. It’s daunting to not know, but it would be even more so if I wasn’t sure of who I was and what I could do. The last four years gave me that superpower, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Thank you to my sophomore-year roommates, Alyssa and Morgan, for taking a chance on me and dealing with all my newbie quirks. Thank you to my boyfriend, Aden, for being my rock and best friend for the past almost three years. Thank you to my long-distance best friends, my people, for every late-night call and encouraging text. I couldn’t have survived this wild ride without you all being one phone call away. Last but certainly not least, thank you to my family for pushing me out of the nest and knowing I would fly before I even did.

Surrounding myself with the best people friendship could buy made college (and every unknown it presented me with) so much easier, but I needed myself, too. When it mattered most, I was always there. 

It wouldn’t be an OS post of mine if I didn’t quote the woman who says it best every time: you’re on your own, kid. You always have been.

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About the Author

Megan Dougherty

Megan Dougherty is a senior majoring in English and an associate editor at Onward State. She loves making music, consuming the maximum daily amount of coffee recommended by the FDA, and overanalyzing Taylor Swift lyrics. Feel free to follow her on Instagram @meganedougherty and forward any (free) The Eras Tour tickets to her email, [email protected]

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