Candace Butera is a graduating senior at Northwestern University, majoring in Journalism and Legal Studies. After graduation, she'll be moving to Washington D.C. and away from her beloved Evanston, Illinois campus.
In about a month, I’m heading home to New York to help my parents pack up the house I lived in from the ages of 6 to 17; it’s the house I returned to on my college breaks, and the house that held the kitchen table where I sat for many hours this past winter applying for job after job. My parents are only moving one town over, but people keep asking me if I’m sad or if it feels weird. Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet? Or maybe I’m putting it in a “save for later” folder where I’ve been pushing all of the thoughts associated with large changes that have rapidly fired at me (and will continue to) over the past few years.
I’ve felt that since I’ve started college, I haven’t settled. Some large part of my life has always been in flux. Everything keeps moving, from internship to internship, from dorm to dorm, from class to class. But those changes in physical space — where I am, where I’m planning on going, and the communities around me — have always been wrapped up in the safe idea of campus. And so, knowing the physical spaces where I live and work, and the scenery around me, will change so drastically upon graduation is what gives me pause. I'll be moving from a space designed to make me feel welcome... into a small apartment with sketchy electrical circuits, inconsistent hot water, and an hour's commute to work.
I'm not afraid of a little change in general; in fact, I'm quite used to it. One of the first things I heard during my freshman year at school was that Northwestern has two seasons: winter and construction. And you can see (and hear) that construction at work. Northwestern created its "We Will" program to help “build a vibrant, more diverse, and tight-knit community" — and, sure that sounds vague, but the school is always erecting new structures and spaces for its students. Northwestern’s campus is specifically designed to foster community development. Classrooms and academic buildings are placed in clusters, while residential buildings are placed closely together on other parts of campus. Libraries include collaborative spaces along with quiet zones, and lounges for students taking study breaks.
There's a tremendous amount of thought behind the design of physical spaces I often don’t acknowledge, but my impending graduation is changing how I view the places I associate with daily tasks, friends, and college life. Of course, when it comes to campus and its buildings, structure and infrastructure matter, but our mindsets and the way we navigate these spaces to find community and comfort carves out a role for these spaces as well.
Throughout my four years on this constantly-changing campus, I've found places and spaces that make me feel comfortable during times of overwhelming stress. I think back to the way these spaces have helped shape my experiences: There’s the one bench that I would wait on for a friend before we walked together to class, the movie-screening room in my residence hall where I would watch movies weekly with floormates, the gym I visited to take a mental break from the world moving around me, and the student center where I spent so many late nights.
These comfort zones provided refuge and options for times of writer’s block and moments when no matter how long I sat staring at a book, I seemed to retain nothing. I knew I could pack up and find my focus elsewhere. There's just something about walking into a space where you immediately recognize a friendly face — or at least a face that acknowledges that we’re all in this classwork grind together. There is always comfort in the familiar.
In a few months, I’ll move out of the home I share with nine other women in Evanston and into a small apartment in Washington D.C., 700 miles from the shores of Lake Michigan, a refuge where I’ve spent afternoons kayaking along the student-filled shoreline. From out on the water, I can see the Chicago skyline as clear as day, right from our campus. I’m going to trade in the 15-minute walk to class for a 40-minute train ride commute. I’m trading in a spread-out, mile-long campus for an office space anchored in the Watergate. I already know I'll miss the wide streets and towering buildings of Chicago and the gleam of Lake Michigan that shines outside of the window of the car as I drive downtown on Lake Shore Drive.
And I also know I’ll find new, beautiful places where I feel comfortable in a new city, but I’m still daunted by the knowledge that at points I’ll experience feelings of isolation, loneliness, and extreme sadness despite being in a city of millions. It's especially worrying because I’ve felt this loneliness countless times at school, even with a friend a door-knock away.
And while my time in college was intentionally designed to make me feel less alone, my experience in a new city won't be quite as amenable. Research demonstrates that urban spaces have characteristics that can affect their residents, such as a stronger sense of social isolation and scattered mental health resources. The physical spaces we inhabit can have an actual impact on the way our brains produce and utilize dopamine, a key neurotransmitter that triggers the pleasure center in our brains, and researchers have found that certain spaces, combined with stressors, can trigger changes in our mental health and overall wellness.
Of course, sheltering myself on campus from the real world isn't a feasible plan, no matter what harrowing research I dig up. Plans change, spaces change, and even the best college bubbles burst. And so we adapt our mental associations to accommodate these physical changes. It’s human nature to do so, but it’s still a process.
The key to adjusting to life in a new city is recognizing which places provided those safe feelings at school and finding real-world versions of them. I'll start with building on the routines that I've already established and evolving them to fit my new city. For me, I'll start with finding a gym close by to establish that space where I know I can go to find a moment to breathe when everything is moving too quickly around me.
Graduation has given me the necessary perspective to determine what exactly I need to cope with change and the spaces I want to seek out. I can recognize that the my life has been in flux for a long time and though the changes I experienced during my college tenure were less drastic, they nevertheless prepared me with the tools I need to adapt to any new setting.
The idea of moving to an unfamiliar place isn't any less scary, but it does feel a little more manageable. Life, like the Northwestern campus itself, will forever be under construction and I will be in constant search of the spaces and places to make it just a little more comfortable.