Recently I returned to my alma mater, Westminster College, for the first time in about two years. To understand why this is important, it helps to understand my relationship with the college. I never went back for homecoming. I never donated, not even for my senior class “gift”. I have put every letter they sent to me through my paper shredder and told the phone brigade not to contact me. I’m not what you’d call a normal alumni.
My relationship with Westminster began at the age of nine when I attended my first swim camp there. I attended camp for eight more years, looking forward to each week as the highlight of my entire summer. I fell in love with that place. The creek, the pool, even the dorms we stayed in. When I applied to schools, there was never really any doubt. My high school friends used to laugh at me when I got recruiting letters from other schools. “Come on man, we all know you’re going to Westminster!” They sure were right about that!
Westminster turned out to be different from what I expected. I loved my classes and my education, but by the middle of my sophomore year something felt…off. As a swimmer, I wasn’t progressing how I should have. The team was cruel and full of cliques. I was part of a recruiting class of just four men for the Westminster swim team, bu by the middle of my freshman season we were down to three. At the end of my sophomore year I was the only one left. I still feel like I missed out on part of the college experience – I didn’t make any friends for life out of my classmates.
The swim team is often called a “cult” at Westminster, and this isn’t far from the truth. They are an insular group all but incomprehensible from the outside. The truth is, that swim team hasn’t moved on much from high school. They pick people apart like lunch room bullies.
Going back to New Wilmington and walking around the campus after all that time, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. Not much has changed on the surface. The dorms are co-ed now, and the weight room is new, but it still has the same feel. The aloofness of the upper-middle class student body is still there. The field house still smells like summer camp to me, and even the new digital scoreboard didn’t change the pool much. As I walked, I replayed moments in my head. My first fight, in my old townhouse. Theater 308 in the Eichenauer dorms. Walking down the sidewalk to my first college party. My apartment above Mr. McKinley’s laundromat.
You don’t spend four years someplace without developing a certain attachment to it. My years at Westminster will never be remembered as the best years of my life, but I can’t say I didn’t have any fun there. I enjoyed my classes, but largely kept to myself. I didn’t hang out at Mugsies. I wasn’t in a fraternity and people never said hello to me as I crossed campus (“you’ll always see someone you know!” is something they rave about in the campus tours given to prospective students). I guess I still feel a little bit…tricked by the place. The closeness was never there for me. I’ll never be one of those alumni who looks back fondly on their college experience, or visits to see how much the place has changed twenty years down the line. I don’t really care.
If I had to make the decision again, I wouldn’t change anything. Westminster taught me life’s lessons the hard way, and I needed those lessons, but in hindsight it could’ve been so much more. While it will always be a kind of home, walking around the campus I knew I didn’t belong there anymore. Maybe I never did.