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What My Boarding School Taught Me About Loneliness

At the end of September, one of my former high school classmates posted a seemingly innocuous question on our still-active class Facebook page.

“how’s college going for everyone?”

There were over fifty comments. They ranged from humorous to ecstatic to heartbreakingly nostalgic. Permeating throughout is a communal sense of what we have lost. We miss each other collectively, as a group, even though there are those we only know by name or face. There’s something to be said for the strength of our bonds. Our wistfulness stems from the kinds of connections that can only be explained by our circumstances.

After all, I went to boarding school.

I was fifteen when I first moved away from home. My parents and I loaded my things into our minivan and drove two and a half hours to my new residence, a nondescript building that squatted across from a vaguely bunker-esque complex. There, I received the keys to a plain room outfitted with standard-issue wooden furniture. I met with my roommate and decided where to put my bed, and I hugged my parents goodbye and tried not to feel too anxious or too excited.

I spent three years at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), a public boarding school in Aurora, Illinois, that houses sophomores through seniors. Illinois residents apply for admission to live and learn at a school that emphasizes experiential and problem-based learning. In fact, I rarely memorized rote facts during my three years at IMSA—instead, I spent countless hours in discussions, labs, and debates, learning to understand things on a deeper level and make connections that I had never been expected to make before.

The academics at IMSA were no laughing matter. I spent three years of my life stressed and sleep-deprived, and I can’t count the number of times I worked long into the night, a tiny voice in the back of my head whispering how easy it would be to just give up and go home. Sometimes, I longed for a life where midnight was late and no extracurricular organization would even think to meet at 9 PM on a school night.

But I couldn’t bring myself to quit. I was intoxicated by IMSA, enthralled by its challenges and addicted to its opportunities. I found myself tested in new ways and thriving, and I loved it. More than anything, though, I fell in love with the community. Six hundred teenagers living together, with passionate faculty and staff just an arm’s reach away. Upperclassmen and underclassmen who nurtured and mentored each other without a second thought. I never expected how deep the bonds of communal living would go, and I never expected how formative those years would be and how much my school would come to mean to me.

They say that you make some of your best friends in college, and I believe that wholeheartedly. There’s something about living with someone that completely changes what they mean to you and how you interact. I was fortunate enough to get that experience early on, and I didn’t give a second thought to how easy it was to see my friends or how unusual it normally is to see random classmates late at night.

I can’t really explain IMSA to you. I could try. I could tell you that I spent some nights working, fighting to keep my eyes open, and some nights laughing until my sides hurt with my best friends by my side. I could tell you that I found myself there, that I discovered a person who had been hidden away before. I could tell you that I wouldn’t change a single thing. But none of that would really help you understand.

When I came to college, I believed that I was prepared to live away from home in a new place. After all, I had done that for years. And in a way, I was right. Roommates, dorm rooms, dining halls, even laundry facilities—all of that was familiar. That let me focus on the excitement of college, of Yale, and it was overwhelming. I met countless amazing people, discovered brilliant professors and engaging classes, found a world of opportunities in extracurriculars, and quickly embraced my residential college.

Yet when the initial rush of the first few weeks had passed, I couldn’t help but feel… empty. When walking to and from class, accompanied only by the sound of my footsteps on the sidewalk, my mind would wander back to a plain old building in Illinois. I couldn’t help but notice the differences, and I yearned for something I couldn’t even define.

When most people here go home, their friends will still be within arm’s reach—an easy drive, maybe, or a bus ride or subway trip or even just a short walk away. When I go home, I come back to find my friends scattered all across the state, hours and hours away. There was a sense of finality on our graduation day—the last day we would ever stand together as a class, probably the last day we’d all be in the same city at the same time. In a way, we’re not just from our hometowns; we’re from IMSA, a city unto itself and a world all its own.

I began to realize that I was achingly lonely. Not lonely in the usual sense—I loved Yale, and I loved the people I was meeting and just starting to know. I had made friends, I felt accepted, and I was endlessly grateful. But deep down, I felt stranded, isolated from the people and place that had sheltered me for years, a community that I had just taken for granted. By taking away that community, I found myself lonely in a way that couldn’t ever really be remedied.

I’ve talked with friends here who are homesick. I can’t blame them. After all, we’re living in a new environment with new people, and it can be hard to adjust. But to tell the truth, I’m not homesick for home. I’m homesick for the school I left behind. I miss something I can never have again, and I think that’s what hurts most. I’m afraid of going back to find a place that I don’t recognize and that I can’t understand, and I’m afraid that IMSA will forget me.

It’s easier now. I’ve found my place here. I know who I’ll eat lunch with each day or who I’ll find when I attend extracurricular meetings, and I’ve made incredible friends. Swept up in the stress of midterms and the rush of work, it’s easier to forget what I’ve lost.

But when I’m alone, it all comes back to me. When I lay in bed, equations and essays fade from my mind, and I’m left with the emptiness. And that’s when I can’t help but remember.

True, my boarding school gave me the skills to live away from home and to work hard in school. But what my boarding school really gave me was a community. It gave me some of the most amazing people and the chance to spend years living just down the hall from them. And then it took them all away.

Don’t get me wrong—I am truly, boundlessly happy here. When I walk out of the dining hall and see Harkness Tower glowing in the sunset, or when I feel swells of music wash over me in Woolsey Hall, I can’t help but marvel that I’m actually here. When I sit around the table with wonderful people I have the privilege of calling friends, I feel like I have found my home. And I have no doubt that I will love Yale just as much as IMSA, maybe even more. But part of me still longs for the community I once had, for the people I have left behind and the place I can no longer call my own. IMSA was too generous to me, and in its absence, I am just beginning to understand what I have lost.

I talked to a lot of friends back home who couldn’t wait to graduate. To them, high school was nothing more than a nuisance, maybe redeemed by a handful of close-knit friends. But to me, high school was a fiery blessing, simultaneously cruel and loving, punishing and kind. I looked to college with excitement yet dreaded the dwindling days of the academic calendar. Now, my IMSA family has been scattered across the nation, with only the endless threads of Facebook comments to reunite us.

  • Katie Viña

    You will always have your wing mates. The ones you fought tooth and nail to all be in the same wing your senior year. You will always be there for each other, and IMSA will become this place that you are so grateful for, that pales in comparison to when the weddings, babies, and accomplishments start rolling in down the line. It will never be the same. Like everything else, it will evolve. It will grow. And one day, even when you and the ones you were closest to are living on different sides of the country, you will only be happy.

    • Anonymous

      Hey, Katie! Thanks for bringing a perspective from farther down the road – it’s really eye-opening. But I’m glad to know that IMSA will always mean something special!

  • Jeremy DeJournett

    You hit the nail on the head. I, along with many of close friends, went through a similar period in college. When it comes to describing what the school really *was*, this article reminds me a lot of the commencement address I wrote when I graduated NCSSM in 2012. Maybe it will resonate with you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7K741Mbyr4

    • Anonymous

      Hi, Jeremy! Thanks for sharing – this really did resonate with me, and I’ve always loved hearing students at other schools talk about their experiences. I’m ecstatic that this has been shared through not just the IMSA community but also through NCSSM and other similar schools, and I’m very grateful for all the support!
      -Heidi

  • Ali

    Also from NCSSM, here! I wanted to let you know that over 50 of my friends of my friends have shared this article. You articulated how all of us feel so well. I just want to let you know how much we appreciate it. <3

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