California to Illinois: The out-of-state experience

By Michelle Tam, Design editor

“What made you come all the way to Illinois from California?”

I’ve been asked this question at least five hundred times since I’ve gotten to this state. Sometimes the mere fact that I got accepted here into a program that I’m interested in just isn’t a good enough reason for people.

Sure, I love the Golden State and all, especially when I’m seeking out what to do in Long Beach with the family I’ve got there, but from the other dumb things I’ve been asked, it seems like people have this extremely skewed perception that California is an absolute paradise full of beach blonde surfers who eat In-n-Out for every meal and smoke weed as their only pastime.

I’ve lived my entire life in the same house in the same city: Fremont, California. I grew up with consistent temperatures, the Pacific Ocean only an hour drive away, and all my Asian neighbors and classmates; these things were the extent of my small and comfortable world. When I was young and naive, I had no idea there were other places in the country that weren’t just like the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, for college, I decided to move 2,000 miles away to Illinois, a place where I had no experience and absolutely zero ties. It is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever had to do. As a 17-year-old living alone in a state I’d never been to before, I definitely questioned my decision in the beginning. Why did I come all the way to Illinois?

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

I spent the first semester of freshman year withdrawn and homesick, finding refuge in texting and calling my family and friends back home and counting down the days until Fall Break when I could see mountains and palm trees again.

It was harder for me to find where I belonged among the rest of the 40,000 students here when I was constantly longing to go back home, to the familiar. It also didn’t help that I was forced to experience some of the coldest, most bitter temperatures of my entire life.

It took me long enough, but I finally realized that my sully attitude about moving so far was the only thing holding me back from seeing everything that U of I could really offer me. Only toward the end of my first year here, after switching majors and realizing what career I want to pursue, did I finally discover my niche at this huge school. I finally learned to welcome the fact that I was lucky enough to explore a new part of the country and embrace every opportunity that came my way.

So despite the homesickness and culture shock and the dumb questions, I’m so immensely glad I came to the University of Illinois because I’ve gotten to learn more than I ever thought I would and do awesome things I would have never dreamed of. From meeting all kinds of people, to being a part of so many different organizations and cultures, to trying unique classes outside of my realm, I learned to love this university. Coming halfway across the country is a choice I am proud of and I now bleed orange and blue.

Despite this, living so far away from home has other challenges too. I am unfamiliar with the concept of “going home for a weekend” and having “my parents come down to visit me for lunch.” Every time break swings around, it takes me an entire day to get back home. Oh, and don’t forget about that out-of-state tuition thing.

But it’s all worth it.

While my friends back home stayed in their sheltered bubbles of constant sunshine and clear skies, I was in Illinois braving everything from 20 mph winds to flash floods to icy snowstorms. And while my friends went home during their breaks, I was up in Chicago trying Lou Malnati’s renowned deep-dish pizza and living downtown in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Or I was in Columbus, Ohio eating massive donuts from The Short North and jumping into Ohio State’s freezing Mirror Lake as part of their football game tradition. Or I was in the Wisconsin Dells, cruising through the Wisconsin River and touring the beautiful scenery on a Duck vehicle. I’m so excited to continue to explore more parts of the Midwest.

Going out of state was the furthest thing from easy there is, but breaking out of my comfort zone to attend this amazing school amidst the cornfields has only granted me opportunities I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. I also believe that surviving two Midwest winters has made me a stronger person; I no longer think 50 degrees is freezing.

California is great, but it’s easy to get stuck in this narrow-minded mindset that it’s the only place to be. I mean, there’s no water there for pete’s sake, and the traffic is terrible. But we’re students! We’re still young and adventurous, so travel and break out of your bubble while you can. Moving out of your home state to another by yourself isn’t a walk in the park, but I can’t stress how grateful I am for all the new experiences in the past two years. Keep exploring, Illini.

Michelle is a junior in Media.
[email protected]