kellyIn a little less than three weeks from now, I will try not to trip on my flowing black robe as I walk across the stage in front of my peers, my family and my peers’ families. I will not, however, be wearing the new plastic gowns that made so much buzz a few months ago when the University announced their new eco-friendly graduation regalia. I will instead be sweating under the old-school polyester black robes that I wore two years ago, when I walked across a smaller stage 50 miles away at the 2012 Oxford Commencement ceremony.

I was already a college graduate by the time I entered my first class at the Emory College of Arts and Sciences in Atlanta. Although I have learned so much from Emory College – both inside and outside of the classroom – I experienced my stereotypical “Animal House,” character-building, YOLO-ing college years at Oxford College, that little grassy quadrangular campus nestled in the forests of Covington, Georgia.

Oxford was at once loveable and annoying, cliquish and welcoming, stifling and encouraging. By the end of my sophomore year, I felt caged by the Oxford experience; I was tired of everyday seeing the same faces, hearing the toll of Seney tower every fifteen minutes, smelling the smog from Lils cafeteria blowing into my Haygood window and tasting the same damn pasta marinara every day. I was eager for more opportunities, both sensory and educational.

But in a sense, Oxford was where I grew up and gelled into almost-adulthood. I remember at the end of freshmen orientation week remarking to a friend how so far college had been more like summer camp than an educational grind. Of course, I knew at the time that I had only experienced one week of orientation without any classes, but Oxford kind of always felt like a summer camp for fledgling adults. There, I feel like I learned how to make friends, how to lose friends and how to be a friend.  That little blight of green straddling the border of metro-Atlanta and rural Georgia holds countless memories for me and for hundreds of other students who will join me in the Emory Commencement ceremony.

My Oxford years were formative for me as a person, but my time at the Emory College campus in Atlanta shaped me as an adult. Here, I discovered my passion and drive for journalism. I also received a healthy smack of reality after the Emory Cuts, when I realized how much I would have to fight for, and promote change in, my newly chosen field. The journalism program nurtured my growing professional skills while strengthening my core values of the freedoms of speech, expression and opportunity. My senior honors thesis in journalism, about the civil rights history of a rural Georgia county, has led me to realize that I want to use my professional abilities to promote those freedoms.

When I went to the bookstore a few months ago to look at graduation announcements, I bristled when the regalia salesperson hinted that I may want to purchase new graduation robes since my Oxford ones would look a little bit different from most everyone else’s.

Although part of my indignation was about the price of an article of clothing I may never wear again, I was mostly astounded at the idea that I would not wear my Oxford College Associate of Arts degree with pride. I am an Oxford graduate, and will be an Emory University graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and history.

Living in Atlanta the past two years has, for me, meant living close to family since I grew up twenty miles away from Emory. While I still feel the same urge to escape that I felt at Oxford, I now understand the importance of home and stability. I don’t know whether I’m going to stay in Atlanta or move far away. I have no idea of what my future holds, and I’m scared but also thrilled about the prospect. I will be studying abroad this summer, but thinking about anything past that is like looking at the edge of a cliff for me.

But I am deeply thankful that, with the friends I’ve made at Oxford and in Atlanta and with a family that will always have my back, I know I will make that jump with a pretty fat parachute to soften the fall.

Mary Claire Kelly is from Tucker, Ga. She is graduating with a BA in Journalism and History.