Author: Erica

Iced Hazelnut Lattes

Erica.

When I was thirteen, the local Starbucks sat on the perimeter of my accessible world. With no driver’s license and no reason to leave the house every day (homeschooling felt restrictive sometimes), it was the most exhilarating escape from school and home. Walking a mile just to sit at a table and drink a strawberries and cream Frappuccino was an adventure, and at age thirteen, my life needed adventure.

As time went on, Starbucks served not only to put distance in my life but to bridge it. Becoming friends with Allison in high school meant a 3000-mile friendship filled with copious texting and seeing each other only a few times a year; this scarcity brought along the sense of responsibility to fill every minute with excitement, but the frantic darting from museum to museum in New York and Los Angeles drained even our eager souls. And so we often dipped into the local Starbucks, sitting down with green tea lattes, charging our phones, and talking about the more serious things that never came up while paddle boarding or mini golfing.

But as college rolled around so did friends in closer proximity, and instead of going to coffee shops to chat, I spent Saturday mornings studying with them, together, but separately. Three cups of coffee and a few bagels on the table, we pored over textbooks, each listening to his own Spotify playlist, on the coffee shop patio as Lake Austin lapped on the boards beneath our feet.

I, on occasion, expanded my limits to outside Austin: one Tuesday morning last semester, my cousin and I ended up in a coffee shop in Waco, Texas, a hundred miles from the physics class I was supposed to be in at the time. Fatigued by school, we had impulsively bought bus tickets the night before, hit the road at six am, and there we were, drinking iced chai and planning out our adventures for the day.

As I write this, I am in my seventh coffee shop in the past couple of weeks, and as you read this, I may very well be on my fifteenth. This summer, in all its quiet, uneventful glory, has brought about mornings of opportunities to find the best coffee in Austin. My Moleskine journal is slowly filling up, Jack Johnson’s music has made more frequent appearances on my Spotify, and here I am, scouting out more new coffee shops to house the adventures and memories that this next semester holds.

 

I am continually in awe of the ability of coffee shops to provide an escape from reality amidst reality—the bustle of conversation between cashier and customer not breaking the peace but rather facilitating it. There’s something to be appreciated about these forty different personal bubbles existing at the same time; those typing away on their Macs and those eating their bagels and those sitting with friends and those scribbling away in their journals not infringing upon each other’s space but somehow calmly coexisting.

If these coffee cups could talk, they’d tell of my lightest chats and heartiest laughs, the my rawest conversations and most-appreciated company. They’d tell of the best first dates, the most productive studying, the calmest journaling, and the most tranquil breaks from this harried life. They’d tell of the times I sat with an iced latte, baring my soul to another human, and the times I sat with the same type of latte, baring my soul to a piece of paper.

It’s amazing how much can come along with a cup of coffee.

The Quiet of Summer

Erica.

The last time I was on this yellow-brick road, I was dodging my way through crowds, swimming through the rush of students that poured out of every building at ten before the hour. But now it was barren—a single biker sped past me—and I could zig and zag all I wanted without a human obstacle in my way.

Here I was, back on campus for the summer, and everything was silent.

The most-coveted study spots on campus were devoid of human presence, and even the highly-populated stir fry line at the dining hall was only two people long. Compared to the bustling city within a city UT was between the months of August and May, summer here was a ghost town, and here I was, one of the ghosts.

If last semester was a mathematical function, it’d be a polynomial to the seventeenth degree—its haphazardly-fluctuating slope dependent on the number of lab reports and differential equations and chemistry problem sets due that week. It was sixteen weeks of half-finished to-do lists, running to and from academics, social obligations, emotions, and what have you, but it came and went, and like even the biggest of waves, after crashing, receded back into the sea.

I had spent the entire semester hoping for a break from the suffocating plethora of responsibilities and stress school had brought about. Summer, with my lack of concrete plans, was bound to bring it about, I was sure. And it did—my life did a complete one-eighty in the span of a month, but I soon realized that ironically, the complete stillness seemed even more suffocating than the busyness before.

The first several days were filled with sheer panic. My only class was at 3pm, and nearly everyone I knew had gone home for the summer—those who stayed were either working forty hours a week or slaving away in multiple summer classes. My once-filled schedule was now wide open, and my daily to-do list contained only a couple low-intensity items—a concept I was unfamiliar with. Where was the homework? The student orgs? The friends? The perpetual state of stress?

But here I am, halfway into summer, slowly adjusting to the slower pace of life that has been brought about. Every morning, every night, is a lesson in being content in the quiet, in finding a sense of fulfillment in every day without having written a lab report or slaving away in the library until three am. While the lack of constant human interaction is still often draining, my open days have provided more room for dredging up old hobbies and attempting new ambitions that during the semester I had pushed off, filing them under “things to do when I actually have time.”

For the next couple of months, being unable to hide behind the all-too-convenient excuse of “I’m too busy” means cracking open the C.S. Lewis book I bought months ago, filling out empty journals, and going to the gym more than once every two months. It means spending my mornings building the perfect Spotify playlist, and walking to the music building to play the piano for the first time since middle school. It means sitting outside in the warm night air, listening to the cicadas and hoping the raccoons wandering around the patio don’t carry rabies.

After a semester of running, literally and figuratively, from one commitment to the next, this summer I am learning how to be still.

An Open Letter to My Freshman-Year Roommate

By Erica.

To my roommate, who, as of two weeks ago, technically no longer holds that title,

I remember almost exactly a year ago, just after graduation, when my best friends were swarming you, badgering you with “make sure she eats three meals a day”, “make sure she stays hydrated”, “make sure she doesn’t do anything too stupid” comments. I laughed at the time—I was too used to Allison and Veronica’s motherly worrying—but little did I know that in the next twelve months, you’d go above that and beyond.

Deciding to room with you seemed like such a minute decision in the flurry of other important life changes last May. I was scared of moving away from home to a school where a measly 8% of students were out-of-state, and clinging on to the single person I knew at this fifty-thousand-student university seemed like the obvious move. Granted, even though we went to the same high school we were still acquaintances at best, and even the littlest things, like having the same Fiction Writing teacher senior year, made feeling at home in Austin a little bit easier.

Thank you for cultivating the immense amount of patience it took to live with me, from dealing with my nonstop morning alarms to my obnoxious household questions (from “do I need to refrigerate this avocado?” to “how do I boil water?”). You are undoubtedly the sole reason I never got food poisoning and could make tea whenever I felt under the weather.

Thank you for your unending selflessness—when everything in my life seemed to be crashing down on me and all I could do was sit on the floor and cry, you stopped studying to come back to our dorm and take me to get cream puffs, where you sat and listened to the same broken spiel of mine for the seventeenth time in the past week. When life knocked me down and I didn’t want to get up, you sat next to me, making sure I ate a reasonable amount, slept for a healthy number of hours, and told me everything was going to be alright—until I brushed myself off and stood up again.

Thank you for pushing your way into my friend groups, befriending my college best friends, getting to know my high school friends, and even entertaining my cousin when she came to visit. Thank you for always checking up on me, for making sure someone walked me home from parties, and for getting coffee for me when I needed it most.

Thank you for always being more than willing to help my friends and I with chemistry homework—suppressing the urge to strangle us when we didn’t understand orbital hybridization or dative bonding until the third time you explained it. And even though you weren’t even in physics, you still tried to help me with my problem sets and affirmed my complaints and frustrated yelling just to make me feel like I wasn’t the only one struggling.

Even when I reneged on our “we should go to the gym together on a regular basis” pact by the third week of college, you continued to go while I took naps instead. Even when I’d give up on being productive by 10pm, you’d stay up studying till far past midnight, and still wake up earlier than me the next day. I don’t know how you did it all, but you are and were the functioning young adult that I strive to one day become. Deciding to room with you may have seemed like a minute decision at the time, but it turned out to be one of the biggest things that shaped the beginning of my college career.

I’m going to miss that hour between turning off the lights and falling asleep, when we’d talk about everything and everyone that ever crossed our minds. I’m going to miss the consistent level of messiness we both had, and the always slightly-cluttered but homey dorm we came home to every night. It was a good nine months of you being my roommate, mom friend, and biggest support, and I would probably be a flaming pile of ashes without you.

My freshman year regrets are far and few, but the one that is always on the forefront of my mind is the fact that that I’m not living with you next year. And while our apartments will only be seven blocks apart, that’s seven blocks farther than we are now.

I’m now in a new dorm for the summer, waiting for a roommate to move in that isn’t you—referring to my room as ‘my room’ and not ‘our room’ is something I’m going to have to learn to get used to. But as we close out our first year of college, know that I am forever thankful for everything you’ve done for me since the day we checked in.

Your (former) roommate,
Erica

From Computer Screen to Lecture Hall

Erica.

6:20 alarm. Two flights of stairs. Desk. Laptop. Log into online classroom.

For more than seven years, this was my Monday to Thursday routine. For more than seven years, my class was a webpage, the teacher was a webcam, and my classmates were microphones. It was a school, yes, in the modern sense of the term, but it was no physically-established school with halls swarming with students. There was community, in the technological sense of the term, but it was some chaotic dichotomy of distant yet personal relationships that spanned counties and countries.

Every day, for four days a week, I’d sit at my Ikea-bought desk, gazing into a computer screen from 6:30am to 12:30pm, typing into a chat box and talking through a mic. When my six-hour stint was over, I’d get up, eat, sometimes shower, sometimes nap, only return to my laptop again, working on whatever essay or Latin homework I had that day.

Those seven years flew and dragged along, some years going better than others. But eventually I completed all my classical language requirements, eventually I finished six years and twelve classes of great texts, and eventually I wrote the final sentence of my 40-page senior thesis. And less than three months after donning a cap and gown, I tumbled into the world of four-hundred-people chemistry lectures in a school 200 times larger than the one I left.

There are the obvious differences. Having to change into presentable clothing, pack a backpack, and walk to class is a routine I had never adapted before. Class material was no longer presented on a PowerPoint on a screen a foot from my face, and instead during every Differential Equations class I sit, in the very back row (due to my constant just-in-the-nick-of-time arrivals), on the edge of my seat, blinking furiously, begging my brain to decipher what Greek letters my professor is scribbling down before he erases it and starts a new proof.

But while getting ready in the morning takes longer and reading whiteboards has become harder, the general thrill of school has increased. While high school was engaging in its own right and while discussing Greek epics and studying organic chemistry over Skype calls was undoubtedly unique, the end of high school brought along triteness and the longing for something new. The move to UT certainly provided the shift in atmosphere and sense of vibrancy that my life needed.

There are the friendly faces, always willing to study together, to argue over the humanistic architectural factors of the student union, and to share in frustration about not knowing how to calculate the eigenvectors of matrices with repeated roots. There are the many study spaces, from the main library, to the gym, to the picnic benches, to the coffee shops along the river—no longer am I confined to my desk and dining table and local Starbucks. There are the classes that only spur on my excitement to become a civil engineer—while I appreciated the seven years of Latin I took growing up, my excitement about my upcoming classes in concrete materials, reinforced concrete design, and advanced concrete design is incomparably greater.

Admittedly, I don’t know how to be anything but a student. While the setting of my academic career has changed from being at home to the internet to now a public university, the themes are still the same. Classes, homework, and tests have ruled my priorities since as long as I can remember, and school has always been one of the few loves in my life. But learning feels more personal, more tangible, more exciting, and more relevant to my aspirations than high school was. Maybe this academic high is only temporary, and maybe I can only tell myself so much that being an engineering major will not demolish my morale and happiness until it turns into reality, but until then, here’s to the next 3 (4? 5? 6? 7?) years of school.

Where The Heart Is

by Erica.

The skyscrapers of downtown LA twinkled on the left, Universal Studios on the right, and the houses below us flickered like fireflies as the people inside them headed to sleep. As my friend and I leaned against the guardrail, our eyes flitting around the valley below, we talked about leaving the city we grew up in, the food that we’d miss, the people that we’d remember, and every other memory that filled the ten years that we’d been friends. As the people in the valley below were only ending their days, here we were, on the side of the mountain, preparing to end a period of our lives that we held dear.

It was 1am on Wednesday, August 17th, and my flight to Texas was in 5 hours.

My summer before college went, in many ways, exactly how I’d imagined (and better). I went on a spur-of-the-moment road trip with one of my closest friends, drove around southern California with my cousin, ate at my favorite SoCal restaurants, all-in-all taking a plethora of good pictures and making a bevy of great memories with the people whom I loved the most.

Leaving California seemed, at the time, impossible. Leaving California was a decision that I questioned during every goodbye last summer, during every tight hug and drive away from the people and places and communities that I treasured the most. I loved the beaches, the traffic, the weather, the palm trees, and every place I had set foot in in the past seventeen years. I loved home.

The first several weeks in Austin were undoubtedly rough. The classes were interesting and the friends were nice, but the comfort of home seemed so absent in the fifty-thousand-student campus I now lived in. But just as VPSA was about finding ways to build friendships that transcended state lines, soon I realized college was about finding ways to ensure that home lives on from a thousand miles away.

It’s a process. It takes small moments, like my middle-school best friend—perhaps one of the people I associate ‘growing up’ with the most—coming to visit me at my new school, where I introduced her to my new friends, city, and life. As she sat and chatted with my college friends as if she too was a part of my new life, I began to understand that the geographical location did not matter as much as the people and memories that were attached to it. As the blend of the old and new continued, I began to find pieces of my old friends in my new friends—in the way they laughed, the things they found excitement in, and their shared love of endlessly roasting me.

But it’s still a process. It takes FaceTimes, Skype calls, texts, Snapchats, and every other form of interaction possible to bridge the distance that college has so brashly established. Some days I feel more at home in Austin than others, some days I wish I was back in Los Angeles more than others. Choosing to stay the summer in Texas instead of at home is a decision I pray I won’t be saddened by too much.

Making the trip back to LA will only continue to become harder. After this summer is sophomore year, then studying abroad, then who knows what kinds of internships, jobs, and opportunities will come my way. Perhaps they will land me back in California, perhaps they will keep me in Texas, or perhaps they will bring me to places I couldn’t even imagine. And so, life chugs on, ever moving forwards and upwards, occasionally making space to fly home for a moment, only bringing me back to Austin again.

 

During my last weekend at home this past summer, on the night of my going-away party, the overwhelming number of well-wishes and sentimental gifts drove me to text Allison and beg her to reassure me that everything was going to be okay.

“It seems like you’re leaving behind a lot,” she told me, “but that’s also because you can’t even imagine the things you’re going to experience in Austin. You literally can’t think of all the opportunities, the internships that will ignite passion in you, the friends that will stick by your side for the rest of your life, and the memories that will undoubtedly be some of your greatest.”

Freshman year is coming to a close, and I am over a thousand miles from where I was a year ago, but somehow, I feel at home.

Road Trips, Airbnbs, and Dallas, Texas

Erica.
My friends and I started talking about spring break at the end of last semester, but compromising between four people only led to two months of disagreement. Flying was too expensive, the beach was too cliché, camping sounded too much like a Dante’s Inferno experience, and all in all, neither one of us had the same idea of what we wanted to do for a week in March. After finally settling on a camping trip and then me quickly realizing I would want nothing more than to not go camping, we settled on visiting the second-most exciting city in the state (due to already living in the first): Dallas.

We decided to leave campus promptly at 9am on the first day of break. By 8:45, two of the four of us were packed and ready in our respective dorm rooms, eagerly awaiting a “I’m outside” text from our friend with the car. But the minutes passed without evidence of life from the other two, so just before 9 we called and texted, only to be met with one “sorry, I just woke up,” and one “sorry, I haven’t left my house yet, but I’ll be there in an hour”. Eventually, only an hour and a half off schedule, we hit the road, the four of us eighteen and nineteen year olds and no parental supervision–truly a dream come true.

The drive there seemed eerily reminiscent of long drives with my siblings on family vacations: there was the same, if not amplified, level of bickering and name-calling, only the roasts were more well-crafted and the crying was less common. Without the safety net of the “I’m telling Mom” card, mutual dragging ensued, with everyone and the entirety of our seven-month-long friendships being fair game. Without parents to keep us on reasonable eating habits, we were excited to eat anything and everything we were craving, but by day 2 I was ready to break down into tears if someone told me I had to eat another donut. Maybe my sugar tolerance had dropped to a reasonable level or maybe donuts and kolaches weren’t actually good for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but the reality of getting to eat whatever we wanted seemed less fun than the prospect of it.

Due to none of us being old enough to get a hotel room, we ended up at a charming apartment via Airbnb in the middle of downtown. There was something about the fifteen-foot ceilings and free range of the apartment that amped up the “look at us, we’re kind of adults” feel and made the problems stemming from lack of comfortable sleeping arrangements, poor window insulation, and lack of hairdryer seem minuscule. Apartments were more exciting than dorm rooms, and the full-size fridge and multiple couches made it feel like a luxury vacation.

At other times, it felt like a family vacation with four overgrown kids with drivers’ licenses and high school diplomas. The childlike enthusiasm was still rampant, but geared towards historical events and live music instead of carousels and ice cream parlors. One friend was giddy with excitement about spending hours at the museum on Kennedy’s assassination, buying a JFK shirt from the gift shop, immediately putting it on after we left the museum, and continuing to wear it to bed for the rest of the trip. Another friend beamed ear to ear about finding a restaurant with live jazz, sitting in fascination for hours and and basking in the music as the rest of us exchanged dying glances. It became routine to stop and stare in awe at well-designed buildings and remark on impressively-designed highway systems–cities were like zoos for the civil engineering majors in the group, the jungle-animal enclosure being replaced by a concrete jungle. Every time we’d come across some poorly engineered aspect of the city, someone would remark about how someday, somehow, they’d build something better.

So for several days we went around Dallas, visiting a bevy of museums, eating at the most Texas of places, listening to live music, sitting in pretty parks, and taking enough pictures to stockpile for Instagram posts and Facebook profile pictures. And every night, drained and finished with the excitement of the day, we’d get back to the apartment, crash on the couch, and watch movies and TV shows until 1am. And that was spring break.

Trips like this always seemed like a “when I grow up” kind of thing. “When I have money.” When I’m older.” “When I can do things on my own.” And even though we still can’t check into hotels or have a particularly large amount of money to spend, those ‘when’s are slowly becoming nows, with every school break and lump of money that comes along. Even though this spring break we could only make it several hours away from home, with more time and planning, soon our lives will point to bigger adventures in farther places. Maybe Chicago, maybe Boston, and maybe even overseas. More breaks are yet to come, studying abroad is becoming more of an option, and who knows where it will all lead.

There’s something about new cities, new skylines, and new places to be that makes traveling exciting–and with the addition of new friends, adventure seems limitless. This spring break wasn’t the family vacation I was used to, but nevertheless, it was a memorable sort of vacation with a different sort of family.