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The Quad: Facing ‘safer at home’ orders, students explore their own definitions of home

(Shari Wei/Daily Bruin, based upon community submissions)

By Kayleigh Ruller

June 10, 2020 6:30 p.m.

If home is where the heart is, then I have many, many homes.

Since quarantine began, I have longed for crowds of people and picnics on a bustling Janss Steps. However, I’ve simultaneously found comfort in the stillness and solitude of my suburban backyard. For some, home has become a marker of comfort and security – reminding us that, at the end of the day, we’re “safer at home.”

But I began to wonder: Could this word, with so many implications and connotations, mean the same thing to everyone?

In an attempt to answer this, I set out to ask all types of students – from in-state locals to international students, and graduating seniors to resident assistants – what home means to them to try to better understand the word and all of its complex, unconventional, dividing and unifying definitions.

To begin with, I found that along with this question of home, each student faces a corresponding question of how UCLA was or still is a part of their journey to define it.

Adin Ryssdal, a first-year political science student, said UCLA is “a home,” but not “the home” he considers La Cañada Flintridge, California, to be.

Given his mere two quarters at UCLA, this dichotomy between “a home” and “the home” is a product of not feeling completely set at UCLA, Ryssdal said. Ryssdal acknowledged that a sense of social belonging, which could make UCLA “the home,” comes with time and experience – two things Ryssdal and most first-years don’t quite have.

Ryssdal longed for a common space during his first year – a couch, room or table where roommates or friends could gather and decompress. Ryssdal felt that unlike the kitchen counter he and his high school friends in La Cañada would tell stories around for hours, his dorm experience lacked an essence of community gathering compared to other dorm styles.

Similarly, resident assistant and third-year statistics student Andy Shen also spoke about the struggle of cultivating a sense of community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Definitions of home drastically change when we have situations like these, because … the amount of interaction you get is limited,” Shen said. “You don’t get that wider community interaction that you would call home.”

Community and belonging seemed out of reach when the year was cut short by a quarter, Shen said. Nevertheless, Shen believes in the power of optimism during this time, and even more in the power of looking out for one another and of checking in with friends during times of need.

Ideas of home like Shen’s remind us that, for many people, what constitutes a home extends beyond what any four walls could contain. It reminds us that our relationships and obligations to one another extend beyond any physical space, too.

Ruthie Glauber, a second-year environmental science student, is a personification of Shen’s message about keeping friends close.

Understanding that places are often temporary, Glauber said that she doesn’t emotionally attach herself to places; instead, she values the connections to the people there.

Glauber’s belief about the impermanence of places stems from the frequent and drastic relocations she has experienced throughout her life. She was born in Tennessee, but has lived in Belgium, France, Amsterdam and London. Halfway through her senior year of high school, her parents relocated to Seattle, and Glauber made a temporary home out of her boarding school before moving to Los Angeles.

Now, amid the pandemic, Glauber and her family have freshly moved to Arizona. However, Glauber continues to call UCLA home with pride.

“The fact that I got to pick UCLA and choose to move to California … is a huge aspect of me being able to call it my own home,” Glauber said. “Because I wanted it to be, not because I was forced to.”

For the first time in her life, Glauber had the authority and privilege to claim a place as her own. However, she hasn’t forgotten the places, or people, before UCLA: She transports a little of each place with her by carrying scrapbooks of nostalgic photos and prioritizing catching up with friends around the world.

The presence of friends seems to be a common thread when designating a place as home. As a result, the absence of friends disrupts what many students would have called home a few months ago.

Fourth-year geography and environmental studies student Hailey Mylett, who is a few weeks away from graduating, knows this absence a bit too well.

“I felt really at home at my apartment in Westwood when my friends lived there, but now that it’s empty, it doesn’t really feel like home anymore,” Mylett said.

Mylett just returned to LA from Cleveland, a place she is deeply proud to be from: It holds her father’s side of the family, high school best friends and Cavaliers games, all of which Mylett considers to be crucial aspects of home.

“It’s a little community we have, especially in my little town of Rocky River,” Mylett said.

But after being physically separated from her hometown, Mylett transitioned back to her Westwood apartment with difficulty. Without roommates, in-person classes or post-graduation plans, she regretted leaving her family in Ohio.

“I freaked out a little bit. … I almost felt trapped,” Mylett said.

Nevertheless, this initial discomfort led her to a realization of sorts. Mylett said she understands her future will hold many difficult transitions, like this one, and is accepting that living with others isn’t a permanent reality. She also said that she is making the best of this uncomfortable learning experience by seeking normalcy.

Of course, normalcy looks different for different people. For Mylett, it is the comfort of having a morning routine that she can take with her wherever she goes – from Cleveland to LA and to any future destination.

As quarantine requires students like Mylett to adapt to home in a new context, it also reminds other students, like second-year neuroscience student Ananya Shankar, that the challenge of acclimating to new environments is no new feat.

Shankar is an international student from south India, a home that offered her 18 years of friendship and support.

“These were the kind of people I could say and do anything with … and leaving that was the hardest thing ever,” Shankar said.

Ultimately, by expanding her social circle, stepping outside of her comfort zone and practicing acts of kindness at UCLA, Shankar has cultivated a home in the United States – one she didn’t want to leave once the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

In fact, Shankar didn’t leave for India. However, this wasn’t her choice – she couldn’t leave.

“They blocked the borders for all (Overseas Citizens of India) a few days before I could fly out,” Shankar said.

Supported by her UCLA community, Shankar lived temporarily in the houses of several family members and friends over the last few months. She first stayed in San Diego with a friend, then in San Jose with her old roommate and finally in Seattle with her aunt.

Despite all this moving around, Shankar emphasized that her experience as an international student was influential in shaping how she views the process of making new places her home. In this way, not only has Shankar grown from previous changes, but she is equipped for them in the future as well.

Abbey Saeger, a second-year cognitive science student, faces a similar situation – she has been with her girlfriend’s family in Sacramento for most of the quarantine. However, Saeger said she grew up in two different homes just outside of Dallas instead of one.

“I’ve never had just one home … because my parents have been divorced forever,” Saeger said. “When I moved across the country (to UCLA), it was just another home.”

Now, Saeger said she has a fourth home in Sacramento, except this time it is not a place, but a person: her girlfriend, Jaime.

“I’ve never really felt like anyone was home before … and that definitely shifted when I met her,” Saeger said.

According to the many UCLA students I spoke with, home may not be a permanent house or even a house at all. Rather, home is an ever-changing combination of comfort, normalcy and most importantly, people.

Though what home means to me may not be what home means to you or to any of these other students, one aspect of home remains the same for all of us: It moves us to believe that we belong.

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