Before I came to Carleton, Minnesota did not exist.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was only peripherally aware of the vast expanse of continent between the two US coasts. I had traveled throughout California and visited relatives in New York and Massachusetts, but I had never stopped anywhere in the middle. When I first arrived in Northfield, I had no idea where I was in relation to anything else. It was not until winter break of my freshman year that I was able to successfully identify Minnesota on a map.
When I made the choice to attend Carleton, I did not know what the Midwest would have in store for me, only that I needed a change. I come from a beautiful place, a city and a coastline that contained 14 years of memories. However, although it had been my home from most of my life, somehow, it never felt like the place that I belonged. It was a little frightening to leave everything that was familiar to me, but it would have been even more difficult to stay.
I knew by the end of my first term at Carleton that it was a perfect fit, but it took longer to feel connected with Northfield. It is not possible to internalize a place instantaneously. However, over the past four years, this small piece of the upper Midwest has very much become a part of me. In addition to eleven academic terms, I have also spent the last two summers working here, shopping at farmer’s markets, and swimming with the local club team. I have run through neighborhoods enough times to get lost in pretty much every way possible, and through that process, I have come to know my way around.
I often visualize my connection to an environment in what artists describe as “the figure-ground relationship”, my lone silhouette both separate from and difinitively a part of the larger scene. During my time here, I have internalized my relationships with two unfamiliar landscapes: snow and corn. The city where I grew up was mountainous and forested in places, bordered by both an ocean and a bay. In contrast to this varied topography and temperate climate, I found a quiet sort of awe in the flat expanse of agricultural fields stretching in all directions under an infinite sky.
As the seasons changed, I watched the vivid greens and yellows of the corn slowly fade to a monochromatic snowscape, fascinated by the juxtaposition of teeming vegetation with the monolithic stillness of snow. The extreme temperatures were also a change for me. I had never before known what it meant to step outside and greet the cold as an entity of its own right, a tangible and powerful force that accompanied me everywhere I went from November to March.
Since I was a senior in high school, I have often been asked, “Why Minnesota?” The overwhelming Californian attitude can be summarized as “West Coast Best Coast,” and the land of Hollywood and the Golden Gate Bridge is a destination, complete with its own legends and mythology. It is a place that people go to, not a place from which anyone is expected to leave. But I left, and four years later, I am not sure if I want to go back. Minnesota is famous for its cold, its lakes, and its niceness. The latter seems like such a cliché, a mild and trivial attribute that conveys neither street cred nor intellectual merit. But after four years of high school, niceness sounded like the best thing in the world. It seems like such as simple concept, but when you are treated with kindness, it is easier to be nicer to yourself as well. To reach out to other people. To try something new or difficult or scary. .
Somewhat ironically, I have developed a sense of place in Northfield by leaving it. I have traveled to water polo tournaments in Illinois, volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in Iowa, canoed Taylor’s Falls, marched in the Twin Cities pride parade, bought funnel cake at the state fair, swam in a lake near International Falls, and eaten at nearly a dozen Chipotle’s throughout the upper Midwest. Through these explorations, I have a much better conception of what this part of the country looks like, how it all fits together, with Northfield as a kind of epicenter, a home base. And after four years, it really does feel like home.