To my parents for not forcing me to attend a small school in upstate New York. If I told you every day for the next hundred years how grateful I am, it would never be enough.
To my brother, Jason, for opening my eyes to the Midwest. I owe the last four years to you.
And finally, to the class of 2018, and to the next generation of Wisconsin students, enjoy it.
As I walked into Grand Central for the first time in three months, I easily fell back into the quick pace that keeps this city pounding at all hours of the day. My eyes shifted to the astronomical figures decorating the ceiling and rested for a second on the celebratory “100” plastered on the windows. With my mind set on the perfect iced coffee to start my morning, I dodged a group of tourists who stopped to appreciate the main concourse in a way I did not. By the time the words “large iced coffee with half and half and one equal” escaped my lips, the masterpiece was sitting in front of me. There’s no time for small talk in New York City and no one ever asks how your day is going. Even a simple iced coffee is a business transaction.
Twenty minutes later I emerged from the subway onto an unusually quiet Park Avenue. My phone read 10:47 a.m., thirteen minutes early for my interview. I was two hours behind the morning rush of perfectly tailored suits and pencil skirts, and just ahead of the hurried lunch hour that would bring Park Avenue back to life. Well, lunch isn't an hour in the city, more like fifteen minutes to grab a pre-packaged sandwich at one of the four delis on any given block, or forty minutes waiting in line at this month’s trendy salad spot.
I triple checked the address for the hundredth time and circled the block until I was acceptably, but not eagerly, early. The office was casual compared to the giant concrete Credit Sussie compound across the street. Nestled on the second floor of a three-story walk-up, it was exactly what you would expect of a New York City start up. Crisp, young, and bright, with wooden floors and giant glass windows that I doubted anyone ever looked out. I caught a glimpse of Madison Square Park as we settled onto a leather couch at the front of the office. Green like that was hard to come by in New York City.
After “Tell me a little about yourself,” and “How do you see yourself fitting in at our company,” he asked me a question I could have answered in my sleep.
“So, why Wisconsin?”
“Well…” I went into autopilot and began to recite the textbook answer I had been giving for the last four years. “My brother went to Indiana, so the Midwest was never out of the question. I really wanted a big ra-ra school with a college town feel…”
Four days into freshmen year, it seemed like I had repeated my answer seventeen times. As first week introductions droned on, it did not take long for me to realize, somewhat thankfully, that most of my classmates were unaware of the stereotype that “I grew up in Westchester” immediately invoked in New York. A quick Google search of Armonk, New York would yield a population just close enough to New York City to consider it theirs, a school that ranked gold for best high schools in the nation, and a town that claimed to be middle class although we knew the Yankee players and Cantor-Fitzgerald executives really pushed us closer to upper.
Some of my peers would reach into the forgotten nook of their brain and dust off the word ‘Westchester,’ knowing they had heard it somewhere. Remembering The Clique book series, they would label me an ‘Alicia,’ equating my chocolate hair and dark brown eyes to Octavian Country Day’s gossip queen. No, OCD is not a real school, I would tell them. Yes, the Westchester Mall is actually a place.
Those without any preconceived notions would easily shuffle me into the Coastie category once they looked me over. My Uggs were no longer practical but a marker that I grew up in the Northeast, went to sleep away camp and temple, and that my dad was either a lawyer, doctor, or some other career I couldn’t quite explain.
Each class was the same and my first week of school was basically a lesson in Wisconsin geography, as I found myself nodding in acknowledgement as if I actually knew where Oshkosh, Wisconsin was. My stock line was that “I grew up in a small suburb about 40 miles north of the city.” I always referred to Manhattan as simply ‘the city,’ a habit that probably came off a bit pretentious. Sometimes I would throw in a fun fact like “I grew up in the town next to where Bill and Hillary Clinton live,” or “Ron Howard raised his family in my town.” My classmates’ eyes would glaze over. I knew they had stopped listening the moment they heard New York, images of the Empire State Building and Carrie Bradshaw surely swirling in their minds.
With almost 900 of my fellow New Yorkers already inhabiting the state I knew next to nothing about before my first visit to Madison, it was surprisingly easy to find my bubble. I had taken a leap of faith into the world of fried cheese curds and Badger red where people actually drove the speed limit, but I found my haven. Sorority recruitment was not even a question and if someone had put money on my chances of joining the house known for its out-of-state members, they would be rich. After three endless days of girl flirting, conversations worse than a Friday morning hangover, forced compliments about nail polish colors, and a hundred more questions about how this bubbly girl with an unmistakable New York accent could have possibly ended up in a ‘city’ where it was possible to get a sandwich for under five dollars, I found my home.
Walking into Alpha Epsilon Phi on Bid Day was like being on the 5 p.m. direct flight to LaGuardia the day before Rosh Hashanah. I was somehow connected to about ninety percent of the girls in the room, whether my best home friend had dated their best camp friend’s ex-boyfriend, my brother had gone to college with their cousin’s fiancé, or our mothers took the same Pilates class every Saturday morning. As for the other ten percent, we quickly found common ground. Instead of fielding questions like “Have you ever been to a Broadway show,” (yes, duh), I was launched into conversations about mutual friends and where to get the best sushi in Westchester. Plus, everyone here knew that ‘bag’ was spelled, and pronounced, with an ‘a’ not an ‘e.’
I dug myself deep into this world, Little Tri-State Area you could call it. My mom had her reservations. I went to school almost one thousand miles away from home because I knew I grew up sheltered. I knew the entire world wasn’t 93.38 percent white like my hometown. I knew most people didn’t get new cars for their sixteenth birthdays, but I had somehow found my way back to familiarity.
“Do you speak to anyone who’s actually from Wisconsin,” my mom would ask on a daily basis.
The funny thing was, I did, more than she knew. She seemed to forget that there were 26,000 plus Wisconsin residents in my new home, unaware of the fact that I spent more than half my day conversing with people who were born into Badger families. It was almost like living a double life. By day, the New Yorker, the lone out-of-state student in discussion, the girl who drank soda, not pop, and who insisted it was called a water fountain, not a bubbler.
By sophomore year my mom had come to terms with the fact that University of Wisconsin was somehow not as far off from New York as we had anticipated. Chicago had become about as far out as I branched, which didn’t say much considering the North Shore was essentially Westchester implanted into the Midwest. She accepted my token Minnesota friend as appeasement though her resume boasted Jewish youth group involvement and enough years of sleep away camp for her to easily be confused as a Coastie.
Each time I walked into my sorority house, I felt more and more at home. The voice inside my head told me I was still stuck in the world I’d flown a thousand miles to leave behind, but slowly, I proved that voice wrong.
Madison became my first home away from home, Alpha Epsilon Phi my second, and then, I found my third. The School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I didn’t think I could find something else that made me feel so welcomed in a place where I was constantly reminded just how different I was, but I did. There was something about the atmosphere, the culture. I was no longer the loudest person in the room, nor the only one whose voice could be distinguished two blocks away. My peers were extroverts, they were interested in the world outside their bubble, and as I fell into their world, I began to look out. I realized that although I was surrounding myself with the familiar, I was becoming a Badger. I wasn’t just a Coastie, I was a Sconnie. I embraced the Midwest and I was proud of it.
The amazing thing about being a minority for the first time in your life is that it changes you. It brings out your stereotypical features and puts them on a stage for the world to see. Four years later, it’s still almost impossible to get through a first-time introduction without a comment about my accent, but I have learned to love this about myself. It gives me character; it’s who I am. I am a Coastie and I am a New Yorker, but Madison is also my home. New York may have raised me, but Wisconsin made me. The thought of moving back to New York entices me. But also, it terrifies me.
It terrifies me knowing that once I board the plane back to New York as a University of Wisconsin alum, everything will change. It will change just as it did four years ago. Yes, New York may be the same, but I am not.
I have grown to love the place where not giving someone money on the street doesn’t warrant a “Fuck you” but instead is greeted by a “God bless you, have a beautiful day.” You need armor to survive in New York, and if you’re there too long, the city will make you hard. But, the Midwest, it makes you nice. This isn’t nice like nice guys finish last. This is nice in the best way possible because those nice guys are the ones who are worth it.
It’s the place where your waiter actually listens when you delve into the story of your life, carefully detailing just how much you love avocado as you add it to your order. He listens because he knows that small connection may make your day that much better, not because he’s hoping it will bring a bigger tip, although it will.
Madison Square Park caught my eye again, the speck of green in a sea of gray. As I went on with my answer, trying to make him understand, I knew what he was thinking. It’s what all of my friends back in New York thought each time I told them just how much I had fallen in love with my temporary home. Why? Why did I leave the quiet suburb where I was just another brown haired Jewish girl, where the excitement of the city was only a quick 33 minute train ride away, where no one ever questioned the way I said ‘coffee’ or ‘drawer,’ and where every corner guaranteed a good slice of pizza to catapult myself into America’s Dairyland?
“When I visited Madison, I just fell in love,” I said, knowing I couldn’t convince him. It took me four years to realize it and I couldn’t conceivably begin to put it into one sentence. “There was something about the campus, something about the city and after that nothing else compared.”
As I trailed off, I let my mind wander. This office could quite possibly be my future. I may be returning to New York, but I am bringing the Midwest with me.
NYC Skyline picture -- Melissa Bromberg
Memorial Union Terrace picture -- Ava Paradise
Alpha Epsilon Phi Bid Day picture -- Jessica Lansing
Oversized Terrace Chair picture -- Samantha Wolfin