10/15/2013 01:23 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

From Cornfields to the City: What It Feels Like to Be a Transfer Student


No one knows me here.

There are some days when I feel invisible. I can walk around campus without recognizing anybody. To these people, I'm just another student, an anonymous face in the crowd.

I am loneliest at the gym. This is when I miss my old school, where I couldn't get through a workout without bumping into at least one friend. There, I walked around with confidence. I was more than a number: I was an Illini, and the ARC, the giant rec center at the University of Illinois, was my stomping ground.

Now I'm a Blue Demon, and my campus gym is called the Ray. It is unfamiliar territory, as is the rest of DePaul University.

Why I Left

The University of Illinois is an outstanding academic institution, boasting renowned professors and a spirited student body that bleeds orange and blue. The school is located 139 miles south of my hometown -- the long drive to Champaign includes corn, corn and more corn.

I still remember the anticipation I felt in the car just over two years ago. My parents sat up front, trying not to cry as they drove their daughter to her dorm room for the very first time. In the backseat, I stared out the window and prayed that I would love college.

I had high hopes for this new life: I wanted to make friends in all the right places. I wanted to be known on campus. I wanted to come back home and talk about how much fun I was having at school.

It took me a full two years to realize the truth: I was a square peg in a round hole. Looking back, the years I spent in Champaign were the hardest years of my life.

There were good moments of course, but so many of those happy memories are clouded by the worst ones: sobbing on the floor of my dorm room throughout my freshman year, abruptly moving out of my sorority house in the fall of my sophomore year, then returning to Champaign last spring, only to struggle even more.

I came back home for the summer in May, and whenever friends or family asked how my spring semester went, I smiled and told them how much I loved it.

The façade ended in late June. I broke down, and the truth finally came out: I don't want to go back. I feel trapped in Champaign. I need to get out of there.

Where I Went

By July, it was official. I was accepted as a transfer student to DePaul University for Fall 2013, where I would continue studying journalism. The perks seemed endless: I could intern year-round, come home to the suburbs whenever I wanted and kickstart my life in Chicago -- exactly where I had always hoped to end up after graduation.

Soon after choosing DePaul, I met the perfect roommate and we signed the lease for a perfect apartment in the city. Everything was falling into place -- perfectly -- and the agony I had felt for so long slowly began to fade.

I knew I would miss the people at U of I. In two years, I had built so many relationships, friends that I truly loved and cared for. But I also knew that I couldn't stay there for them.

"It's not you, it's me," I explained to my friends over long phone calls. "I just can't go back to Champaign. I'm cutting ties with the university, but I don't want to cut ties with you."

I assured myself that I would make new friends at DePaul. Perhaps I'd even have a whole group of friends, like the cast of Girls: We would sit in my kitchen and laugh about our days, our classes, our lives. More importantly, though, we would be there for each other -- because a busy city can be a lonely place.

How I Am

Classes began a little more than one month ago, and I still haven't found that group. My roommate and I live off-campus, and my classes are downtown in the Loop. I feel like a working professional -- certainly not a college student.

Each day is a blur of walking quickly up the stairs to the El, walking quickly to class and walking quickly back to the train to head home to my apartment. (Chicagoans seem to walk very, very quickly.)

Some nights, when my roommate isn't home and I run out of distractions, the loneliness comes. I scroll through Facebook, looking at pictures of friends at U of I, and my heart hurts.

These are the moments when I question myself, wondering if something is wrong with me. I've always been outgoing, an extrovert who loves meeting people and learning about their passions and experiences. All of my life, I've been surrounded by friends.

Until now.

I broke down last week, confessing to my roommate how I've been feeling.

"I miss U of I," I whispered, head in my hands.

"Melanie, you can't romanticize the past," she said. "You weren't content there -- remember? Transferring is hard. Last year, that was me too. Making friends takes time, but it will happen. I promise."

Her encouragement got me thinking. Throughout my entire transition, I haven't regretted leaving. U of I taught me so much about myself, but I never felt like me when I was there.

The truth is that here in this different, independent life, I am me. I do what I want, when I want. I design my weekly schedule, test new recipes, decorate my apartment, excel at my internship and explore my city. Here, I am free.

I'm the me I could never be at U of I.

And for now, that is enough.

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