Thursday, September 10, 2015

From Homeschool to College: Dealing with Culture Shock

There was always an expectation in my family that I would go to college.  Both of my parents had a college education and saw its value, and they didn't cave to the general attitude at our homeschooling cult church that higher education wasn't appropriate or necessary for girls.  Even though my parents' expectation was for me to attend an extremely fundamentalist Christian college simply to get a skill to "supplement my future husband's income, if necessary," that expectation was more than what many of my female peers at church had, and I'm grateful for it.  And, unlike many homeschooling families in our circles, my mom also put in the necessary work to make sure I wouldn't encounter any roadblocks on my way from homeschool high school to college--she made a very professional-looking and detailed high school transcript that included my GPA, she signed me up for the CHSPE (California High School Proficiency Exam) so that I could have a legal high school diploma, and she made sure that I took the SAT.

Still, it took me three years after graduating from homeschool high school before I began to pursue higher education.  Years and years of severe isolation had not emotionally or socially prepared me to deal with the world outside my home. Years of listening to sermons about the evils of the outside world had left me terrified to leave the "shelter" of my home, even though my home life consisted of nothing more than broken family relationships and debilitating depression during those years.  Years of heightened spiritual sensitivity had also paralyzed me with no sense of direction in life, waiting for a sign from God about what to do with my life, terrified of making a mistake.

With no end in sight, the darkness of those years gradually increased my sense of desperation until it was finally enough to overcome my inertia.  I decided to be a moving vehicle that God could steer, and I would simply make the best decisions I could until I heard from him.  I started taking a full load of classes at my local community college a few months later.

I entered my classes confident in my academic ability.  Thanks to my mom's willingness to administer yearly standardized tests and my scores from the SAT, I knew that I was an above-average student.  As I expected, I performed well on tests and got great grades.  But I had other college struggles that caught me off guard.  For instance, I was used to simply reading textbooks for the info I needed, so I had no idea how to take good notes in class, and my handwriting and rushed spelling looked like a child's.  In class, I'd get distracted occasionally by hearing the pronunciation of words that I had only ever seen on paper and had been saying wrong in my head for years.  I sometimes had questions, but no idea about the etiquette of asking questions during the lecture.  Additionally, my teachers were surprisingly fond of group work, something that I had no experience with, and I was at a loss as to how to collaborate or give/receive feedback.

But for me, the worst thing of all was my discomfort with myself, my body, my existence.  While everyone around me seemed to just plop down easily on any available floor space or chair in order to study and eat and chat, I simply couldn't do it.   I could never relax and be at ease where there was even a chance I might be seen by another person, and attempts to talk with others left me breathless and sweaty, with my heart racing.  At this time in my life, I couldn't even eat in front of another person--not because of an eating disorder, but because of anxiety.  The pressure of eating and chatting at the same time made me physically shake, because I had only really experienced eating silently together with my family, and we never had people over for meals.  Because of these issues, I couldn't handle being on campus for a second longer than necessary.  For breaks between classes, I would sit in my car or drive home and come back just in time for the next class.  The stress of being in public and being surrounded by people was too much.

But over time, my continued practice and effort started to have positive effects.  As I went into my second semester in community college, I wasn't constantly teetering on the edge of panic, and I started to notice positive things happening despite my social stress.  People around me didn't seem bothered by me.  People sat by me in class.  People smiled at me.  People tried to talk to me.  I started to feel a spark of human connection and see that people could be kind and decent even when they didn't share my beliefs and even when they had no agenda and nothing to gain from it.  It confused me because it didn't fit the narrative I grew up with, but it also gave me a vague sense of hope about the life I might be able have as an adult out on my own.

Meanwhile, I was ramping up to transfer to a conservative Christian university far from home, in a place where I didn't know a single person.  It sounds like a big deal, except that I really had almost nothing that I was leaving behind--really, just one close friend that I had made several years before and that I'd been able to confide in, a person who was similarly sheltered and homeschooled.  The thought of a fresh start somewhere was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.  I figured that the culture of the Christian university campus would feel at least a little familiar, and that having my own room on campus to hide in would be a welcome relief.   I made sure to request an international roommate so that my weirdness--my odd clothing style, my poor conversational ability, and my nearly-total ignorance of my peer group's slang, movies, music, etc.--wouldn't be as obvious.

In the environment of gender-segregated dorms, no alcohol, no sex, no drugs, and no dancing, there wasn't too much around me to shock me at my Christian university.  Instead, it was the little things that made life challenging.  One of my daily challenges was dealing with the shared dorm bathroom, where there were always at least a couple other people milling around.  Even though it was set up so that there was no need for public nudity, I didn't have any idea how to pee or shower in a shared space.  I couldn't stand around casually wrapped in a towel doing my hair and makeup and chatting with the other girls, not a chance.  I couldn't even pee while other people were listening.  This was a completely foreign experience to me and one that took me months to get used to.

For the first semester, my life on campus consisted of going to class, doing homework in my room, and hanging out in my room, which was luckily often empty since my Chinese roommate, despite having just arrived in the country, already had a life and friends.  It sounds like a recipe for homesickness, but this is something that I never experienced the whole time I was in college.  Instead, I was the happiest I'd ever been (really, it was just that I was less severely depressed, but at the time it felt like happiness in comparison to the previous years).  Even though I had no idea about how to connect with the other girls in my dorm and was too anxious to really try, I saw that they were nice people and I felt like the future was full of possibilities.

Things started to change after a few months, thanks to a couple good dorm events that brought me out of my room.  This proved to be just enough for one of the outgoing girls in the dorm to seek me out later and start to pry into my little closed-clam-shell of a life.  Friendship with just one outgoing person in the dorm served as a bridge to making more connections and boosted my confidence to attend other school events.   Although at first I just drifted along trying not to cause anyone any trouble by having opinions or problems, during the next few years I was able to start figuring out more about who I was, what my interests were, and where my place in the social scene of life was.

Figuring out my place in life turned out to be much more complicated than simply getting past the worst of my anxiety though.  Even though I was several years older than my dormmates and classmates, I had years of catching up to do, learning about things like cliques, gossip, power dynamics, the art of self-deprecation/teasing/complimenting, and how people seem to group themselves based on life habits, clothing choices, and hobbies.  It's hard to explain, but I simultaneously felt I was decades older than my peers, and also much much younger, which meant that I either felt like I was taking someone under my wing or basking in their glory.  I had no idea how to connect to someone as an equal, and I didn't even start to learn that until I was about to graduate from college.

Looking back now at my transition from homeschool to college life over a decade ago, I feel a sense of pride in how much I grew and changed in a few short years.  I finished college able to relax in class and chat comfortably with friends.  I no longer hid away in my room all the time.  I stretched myself.  I attended dorm events.  I cheered with enthusiasm at sports games.  I worked out at the school gym.  I went to parties.  I dated.  I asked out a guy.  I got away with breaking the campus rules about gender segregation and alcohol.  Years of pushing through my anxiety paid off, and I finished college feeling ready to tackle life and live on my own as a working adult.

Given my set of issues, I can't imagine how I would have transitioned to adulthood any other way. The most important things I learned in college were not academic, but instead life and social skills that paved the way for me to have a satisfying life today.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ex-Homeschooler Fashion

As a former fundamentalist homeschooled kid, one of many aspects of life that I've had to do a lot of catch up in is fashion.  I grew up choosing clothing based solely on modesty, which in my circles meant that I was shopping in clothing sections meant for the elderly and basically wearing fabric sacks.  Often, I had to make things for myself when even the grandmotherly clothing options failed me.  Everything I wore was at least 4 sizes too big and several inches too short, and I had no idea about choosing colors that complemented my skin tone, no idea about hair, no idea about makeup, no idea about skin and nail care.

There are many wonderful people in the world who spend their time/energy/money on more important and lasting concerns than on their appearance, and I have a lot of respect for them, but this wasn't a choice that I had made for myself.  I had no choice in the matter, because my family and the fundamentalist homeschooling culture around me told me that trying to look attractive was vain, selfish, and worst of all, would cause men around me to sin.  So I continued to hide in my sacks, feeling like one of the least attractive people on earth, and feeling shame for caring about being unattractive.

During some particularly low times in my late teens, I felt that my hideousness was a punishment from God because my dad wasn't a "godly" man according to the standards of the homeschooling church we attended in my teens.  I kept running into verses in the Old Testament (Job 42:15 as one example) about how God blessed godly men with beautiful daughters, and I couldn't help but wonder if it was my dad's fault that I was so ugly.

So, when I finally started to escape from these soul-crushing beliefs in my early twenties, one of the first hurdles to overcome was my belief that it was wrong to put effort into looking attractive.  As I spent less time with people in our homeschooling church and more time with "worldly" people, I started to realize the irony that my "modest" clothing was actually drawing far more attention to me than "wordly" clothes would.  Step by step, through practice, I started to get more comfortable wearing more fitted, age-appropriate clothes with more skin showing.  I started to feel more at home in my body instead of wishing I could jump out of it and run away screaming.  I started to feel a small mood and confidence boost when I made an effort to be pretty, instead of a constant sense of shame.

It just takes a few sentences to describe it, but this process took many years.  And that was just to alter my perspective!  Over a decade later, through the body ups and downs of two pregnancies, I'm continuing to try to fill in the gaps and learn how to dress for my body and skin type, how to style my hair, how to apply makeup, and how to accessorize.

Something I never imagined that I'd do, but that I now absolutely love, is using a personal stylist through a service called StitchFix.  I've signed up to receive a box of 5 clothing items every few months, chosen for me by a stylist based on my size and tastes and needs.  I was very skeptical at first because I have so much trouble finding clothing that I like and that fits me well, but I decided to give it a try because the most I had to lose was a $20 styling fee if I decided to return everything.  I'm so glad I tried it, because every box I receive has hugely improved my wardrobe, helped me learn more about dressing my body type, and taught me more about what pieces pair well together.  I'm particularly impressed with the jeans my stylist has sent me--after many frustrating hours trying on probably over a hundred pairs of jeans in the last decade, I just pull these jeans out of the StitchFix box on my doorstep and OMG PERFECT FIT!!

I know there are many of you who have also had to learn so much very late in life about taking care of your appearance, and I wish we could high-five each other about how far we've come.  If there are some of you that think you might benefit from StitchFix as much as I have, so here's my referral link if you are interested in trying it:  https://www.stitchfix.com/referral/4805456.  (Thank you in advance if you use my link to sign up--I'll get a $25 referral credit to feed my new fashion habit).