At the time, I thought it was a sign that I never got an actual acceptance letter to Virginia Tech. I remember logging onto the application site one night at the request of my high school counselor; I glanced quickly across the screen, trying to find the proper button to hit to get me where I needed to go.
My gaze slid to a stop when I saw the words, “pay your deposit here,” in the middle of the screen in all-caps. It was such an insignificant moment; I wasn’t anxiously slitting open a thick envelope shaking with excitement, a moment so many of my friends talk about fondly.
I was staring at a glowing laptop screen that—despite the lack of the word, “congratulations,” was telling me that I had been accepted to Virginia Tech—and I felt nothing. I never wanted to go to Virginia Tech; I never even considered applying until my older brother, a freshman at Tech while I was applying to schools, begged me to apply. Even my parents, both alumni of the University of Virginia, told me I had to apply, that it would be a mistake if I didn’t.
Spring rolled around and for one of the first times in my life, so did the rejections; one after another came in, each one with the worst anxiety-riddled word stamped on the pages: waitlisted. Was it worse to be not wanted at all or to be pushed into the category of “you’re not quite good enough”? It felt like being told that I had all the qualifications, but unfortunately didn’t stand out enough to make the cut. I wasn’t special enough.
Before I knew it, I had little to no options and I found myself for the first time facing the possibility of something I had never considered: going to Virginia Tech. Everyone I knew that went to Virginia Tech told me to wait—wait for that moment, they said. You’ll fall in love with Virginia Tech. Just wait until you get to campus. I waited. I went to orientation, had the most incredible orientation leader in the world, and had as good of a time as anyone could have at orientation. But I left with a pit in my stomach; yes, my orientation leader had made me excited about going to college, but I wasn’t excited about where I was going to college.
Though I had heard people talking about going to something called Hokie Camp, I didn’t even bother looking into it—why would I want to go to another experience like orientation where I would be surrounded by people who were in love with Virginia Tech? I’m one of the most outgoing people I know, but I also knew that I could be very good at putting on a front so as to appear like I fit in. I didn’t want to start putting up my fake “I love Virginia Tech” front before classes even started.
So I waited until I got to campus. The entire first semester, my thoughts constantly shifted between knowing that I was loving the college experience in general and knowing that if I was honest with myself, I was unhappy. I didn’t want to be at Virginia Tech; it was so hard to change my mindset from having my heart set on one school my whole life to being thrown into a sea of die hard Hokies. I hated the idea of being a failure though and I didn’t want to think that I failed at Virginia Tech, so I tried everything I could to give Tech a chance. I got into a freshmen leadership program, I joined a sorority, I met some of the most life changing people I’d ever known.
All the while, I had a half filled out transfer application saved on my laptop. There’s a cheesy quote out there that says something along the lines of, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep; slowly, and then all at once.”
I fell in love with Virginia Tech very, very, very slowly (painfully slow)—and then all at once. The slowly part was over the course of my first two years at Virginia Tech. I began to learn that the walls I had built had been constructed from heartbreak; heartbreak that had stemmed from expectations. I had been shutting myself off because of the expectations I had held in my head about where I was supposed to be, and how it was supposed to be. Bit by bit, or more accurately, person by person, I began to see what everyone had been telling me to wait for. I stopped working on my transfer application and instead began spending all my free time looking up to these incredible people I was lucky enough to have for mentors.
These people were Virginia Tech for me. When I wasn’t in love with Virginia Tech, when I couldn’t see past the walls I had built up for so long, they showed me how to open myself up and how to let Virginia Tech love me, so that I could love it. The all at once part happened at Hokie Camp. During my sophomore year, I was hit by how far I had come since crying to my mom on the phone at night when I was a freshman. I realized that the only reason I had stayed was because of my mentors that had made Tech home. I had found reasons to stay, but it took me a while to find them because of all the walls I had built up. I thought to myself, if I could shorten the amount of time it takes for even one incoming student to find their reasons to stay, than everything would be worth it.
Over the course of four training semesters, two summers, 22 days, and five Hokie Camp campfires, I found myself falling in love with Virginia Tech so quickly and so repeatedly that I felt my heart could burst. Being at Hokie Camp was like being in the most pure form of the Virginia Tech community—I was surrounded by everything that I had been waiting for, and I got to experience it alongside students who were discovering that feeling for the first time.
Every minute I spent at Hokie Camp, all I could think about was channeling the strength and love I had learned from my mentors and trying to find a way to pass those feelings down. All I ever wanted was to convey that no matter where you were on the road to falling in love with Virginia Tech—no matter how in love you were, or how against it you felt—that all you had to do was stay. Wait for those people that could show you how to let Virginia Tech love you.
Today, nothing makes me feel more at home at Virginia Tech than when I see Hokie campers on campus with their people. Nothing has ever given me more joy than hearing two weeks, or two years, down the road how in love they are with Virginia Tech. I was lucky enough to find my people, and lucky enough to have them save me from leaving a school that has become a part of my very being.
I’ve been even luckier to have 22 days of helping incoming students fall in love with Virginia Tech. I was extraordinarily blessed to have experienced the majority of those 22 days with 13 people who held inside each of them the love and selflessness that makes people fall head over heels for Virginia Tech. I wouldn’t be as deeply in love with Virginia Tech if it weren’t for the people that helped me on the road to becoming the person I had always aspired to be. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I never once imagined myself coming to Virginia Tech; I wasted so much time planning when I could leave, asking myself if I was out of the woods yet.
I never would have expected finding my home, right there, in the woods. Looking at it now, I’ve never been happier to have been so wrong.
Dusk is my least favorite part of the day. As a morning person who loves to see the world come alive with the sun painting pinks, blues, yellows, and sometimes even green across the morning sky, seeing the day end is always slightly sad. Not that a sunset isn’t gorgeous in its own right, mind you. They have their own special beauty, but that time after the sun has gone down and before the stars come out is always a bit depressing.
There was a time when I loved dusk. I was little, and the whole world was my playground. I spent whole days running through the pastures of my grandparents’ farm, terrorizing the barn cats, swinging on a splinter-filled wood swing, and (quite dangerously) exploring sink holes at the back of the property.
Despite all those wonderfully long, gorgeous summer days, the moments I remember fondly aren’t the sunrises when I woke to the smell of my Grandma cooking bacon and making biscuits from scratch or the searing, comforting heat of the Kentucky summer sun as I got sunburnt yet again while playing hide and seek with my cousins.
Then, dusk was not the end of another day filled with midterms and stress about my future after graduation; it was the hour of lightning bugs.
Their lights would start slowly: first one, then another. They appeared like magic every few minutes just as the sun sank below the horizon. And then, they’d all light up at once. The pastures were full of them, and my Granddaddy, the man who always reminded me to value life more than anyone, would hand all of the grandchildren a mason jar and set us loose on the fields.
We’d gather our little balls of light into jars, using them to light our way back to the porch where we excitedly told whatever fairy tales we had concocted on the walk, and my Granddaddy would take us on his lap and listen to every single one.
On a typical night, I’m rushing from meeting to meeting or longing for my Mom’s cooking as I prepare yet another BLT for dinner. Amongst all the stress, I forget to stop and observe the quiet peacefulness of dusk and remember my Granddaddy’s comforting voice as I told one childish tale after another. But sometimes, I’ll catch a firefly lighting up the night sky out of the corner of my eye, and suddenly, I’m seven years old again.
The world is a magical land filled with happy dusks and adventures through a country field, and all is well, if for only just a moment, amongst the craziness of my college kid life.
Her name was JuJu. A nickname from childhood that her dad had called her before he passed away. Juju was one of my campers in the Yellow unit of nine to eleven year olds and was a natural born leader.
She was only in elementary school, but carried herself as an outgoing young adult with a passion to create a brighter world through creativity and joy. I met Juju at Camp Kesem last summer. Camp Kesem is a place where kids can find solace, support, and love from others who truly understand losing a parent from cancer.
But Camp is about finding light in dark situations and creating incredible friendships. At Camp when the sun goes down and the campers are all in their pajamas, we have Cabin Chat. This is a time when counselors lead a discussion with a series of questions. The first couple questions are lighthearted, but eventually they become more serious throughout the week.
On one of the first days, we asked the girls in our cabin “What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” I was expecting the girls to say something like “a rainbow!” or “my dog is beautiful,” but instead I was floored from the answers they provided. Juju’s answer is the most vivid in my memory.
The other counselors and I were curious. We let her continue, “The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen was when my dad passed away and he wasn’t hurting anymore. He was finally peaceful…I know he’s up in heaven now playing golf with my grandpa and catching up.” We were all speechless. What nine year old should be able to say that? I started thinking about how young she was and how mature I could never be at that age.
I mean nine years old and accepting that your life will go on knowing this? Feeling at peace that you know he’s safe and one with God? When I was nine, I was playing with Barbies and cried when butterflies accidentally hit our moving car. But here she was, this little girl with the biggest heart and a calm voice. I however, was not calm. Internally I was wrecked, bawling like a typical elementary schooler.
I teared up and looked around to the other counselors, only to see similar teary eyes looking back at me. As we nodded heads towards each other, it was like a wordless agreement between the counselors that we would not let our emotions interrupt this beautiful time and that our lives were forever changed. Juju was only one of the campers who became one of my role models and inspired me to become a bigger, better person.
It is incredible to be part of an organization that brings children and teens together to share this experience with and make each summer unforgettable. This summer, Camp Kesem is providing two weeks of camp so even more kids struggling with a parent’s cancer can finally be a kid again and college kids can find inspiration from 3rd graders. I joined Camp to change lives, but this summer, I can’t wait to see who will change mine.