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UA changed me and I didn’t even know it

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This is what I thought I knew four years ago: I would hate UA, but it would be better than not leaving my hometown. I would never willingly go to a football game. I would never know the answer to the often-asked (particularly because I had just come into my queerness), “Why would you go to school in Alabama of all places?” I would get my degree, leave and never look back.

There are some things I was right about, too: I would love sitting outside enjoying the beauty of our campus. I would remedy my one regret from high school and get involved in everything I possibly could. I would no longer be silent for other people’s comfort.

I still feel like I could have done more while I was here, but there’s only one thing I really wish I could go back and change. I spent so much time focusing on the fact that I never wanted to be here in the first place that I lost sight of all of the ways I was falling in love with UA. I spent so much time trying to change things (things that still desperately need to be changed, for the safety and well-being of all students) that I couldn’t see all of the things I would never give up. I spent so much time focusing on what I could do for UA that I couldn’t see all of the things UA was doing for me.

I am a very different person than when I came here. Yes, some of that simply has to do with getting older, but my experiences here have given me skills that I will take with me for the rest of my life. Some of these skills I wish I had never had to learn, like how to tell authority figures that they were pretending I did not actually exist because of my queer identity, or how to talk about the need for policies protecting marginalized communities in a way that emphasizes profitability (by keeping UA competitive with other universities, by increasing retention, etc.) rather than the well-being of members of our UA family.

More than these skills, I have gained self-confidence. I had barely come out to myself, let alone anyone else, the year before I came to UA. I spent a large portion of my first semester here crying and alone in my room. I knew absolutely no one except my randomly assigned roommates and one or two people I met at Bama Bound, and I was 20 hours away from home. I had spent so much of my life faking things that I didn’t even know anymore when I was being my authentic self. After getting involved on campus and getting lots of great advice from mentors and professors, I know exactly who I am. I may have no idea what I’m doing or where my life is heading, but I know that I can be myself while I figure it out.

This is what I know after four years at UA: I love this school, and Tuscaloosa feels more like my hometown than where I was raised. In a sense, I was born here, because this is where I figured out how to unapologetically be me. I still don’t understand football, but there’s nothing like standing in Bryant-Denny singing “Sweet Home Alabama” or cheering. I know exactly why I ended up here in Alabama. I needed to learn that change is a process. I needed to learn that effecting change will affect you. I will get my degree, and I will leave, but I will be proudly saying “Roll Tide!” wherever I go.

Kaylyn Johnson was the president of Spectrum.

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UA changed me and I didn’t even know it