Editor’s Note: Throughout the year, West Virginia University tells the stories of its students – the trials, triumphs and transitions that accompany college life. This piece explores how students adjust to living in Morgantown and how they handle the responsibility and freedom that come with being a college student.

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Freshman Matt Rector stood in the stands at Milan Puskar Stadium, being jostled by the screaming fans who had turned out to see the Mountaineers take on the Liberty Flames.

Rector sighed.

He didn’t get it. Even though he was wearing blue and gold, even though West Virginia University was the only school he’d applied to – the only one he’d even considered – he was having trouble rousing that kind of rabid, paint-on-the-face school spirit his friends had found.

He’d been a high school football player, a running back and linebacker for the Herbert Hoover High School Huskies. He was used to being on the field, not looking down upon it. He was used to hearing the cheers, not starting them. This kind of adulation seemed so foreign.

Rector left in the fourth quarter before time ran out, when it was pretty clear WVU was going to win. But as he cut across the parking lots, he could still hear the crowd.

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue ridge mountains
Shenandoah river –

He grinned. His high school football team sang this song on the bus on the way home from victories. A teacher at his grade school once made her students memorize the lyrics and belt them out in front of the class.

This, he got.

He knew every word.

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia . . .

Decisions, decisions

College is huge. For many newly-minted high school graduates, which one they choose is the first adult decision of their lives. School becomes the place they want to be, not the place they must be based on state laws and geography.

So picking the right one has real consequences.

Parents tend to dabble in the world of logic and lists: Will the college be close to home or hundreds of miles away? Will it be big or small? Public or private? Rural or urban? Reasonable or expensive?

But for their children, there remains an intangible factor in choosing the right college, an instinct, something that whispers: This is where I belong.

And that’s a lot more complicated than pros and cons.

Some find it lurking in family tradition. Their grandparents and parents, uncles and aunts, cousins and siblings have all been Mountaineers, and they want to be, too.

Others find it in football, when thousands of people gather in one place to cheer on a single team and sing a familiar song in unison.

But for many, belonging is a process, a series of deliberate acts that lead them to a point where they can finally say: This is home.

Better than average

Sophomore exercise physiology major Brett Phillips loves the PRT.

It’s like a social experiment: Cram a dozen or more kids into a minibus-sized car for a slow ride up the mountain and watch how they interact.

Or how they don’t.

“They sit there and fake play on their cell phones so they look busy,” Phillips says.

He’s incredulous.

“Put your iPods and cell phones away and experience the fact that you’re here with 30,000 other people.”

OK, so 30,000 is a bit of an exaggeration, but Phillips is trying to make a point. He’s from Grafton, a small, insular town about 45 minutes south of Morgantown. Most of his classmates, he says, were content to simmer in that familiarity, even after going away to college. Some didn’t bother to make new friends, because they had each other. Others didn’t bother to strive for anything more than an average college experience, because average was all they needed to get by.

So early on in his freshman year, Phillips made himself a promise: He was going to be better than average.

“I want to always walk through the Mountainlair or down the street and see someone I know,” he says. He wasn’t going to achieve that sitting in his dorm room.

So he joined Club Tennis. He scheduled yoga and bowling classes, where students are forced to interact. He became an Adventure West Virginia orientation leader and a resident assistant, where he knew he’d meet new people and encourage them to take the same bold steps into college life that he had. (And where he could force them to play ice breakers with rubber chickens, which, he claims, is an excellent way to bond.)

He can’t think of one social opportunity he’s been offered that he’s turned down. Sometimes, it’s exhausting. His proverbial plate is past full. Sometimes he wonders if it needs rearranging, if research opportunities need more room than social ones, if Tennis needs to be shoved off altogether.

But he figures the tough choices that come with accomplishment are better than the sleepy, contentment that he may have gotten if he’d stayed inside of the familiar bubble his small town provided him.

“In high school, I didn’t always feel like I fit in,” Phillips says. “But this isn’t high school. You don’t have to be any one way. There are so many clubs and organizations. If you look, you’ll find security, you’ll find who is like you. I did, but only because I always searched for it.”

Even on the PRT.

Last semester, while waiting in line, Phillips spied a girl he recognized from his classes. When they ended up in the same car, he grinned at her and introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Brett” he said. “I see you everywhere.”

It’s all academic

Her project isn’t working.

Molly Simis is supposed to be conducting a population genetic survey of dwarf dogwoods. But every time she thinks she’s close to gathering all of the data, something goes wrong and she has to start over.

“It’s the nature of molecular biology,” she says with a shrug. “It’s hard to figure out what went wrong. But I still love it.”

Simis is a senior biology and environmental geoscience double major (with a geography minor) from Fairmont who’s weighing a job in natural resource management against graduate school, so this research she’s conducting matters. But whether she gets results or she doesn’t, the research gave her something worth taking with her when she leaves WVU’s campus.

It gave her a place to belong.

As far as Simis is concerned, she had it easy. Her transition to college was aided by the presence of her older sister who, at the time, was a WVU senior who dispensed sage social and academic advice.

But there comes a moment when you have to stop living someone else’s experience and begin living your own. For Simis, it happened the summer after freshman year, when she stayed on campus to work in an agricultural sciences lab.

For a moment, Morgantown was silent. It was hers. She felt like a native, watching the city shrink in May, when students packed their cars and drove away, and then watching it bloat again in August, when they returned.

She got to see what they didn’t when they were gone.

“It snuck up on me,” she says. “When I said “home,” I realized I wasn’t talking about Fairmont anymore.”

The experience – and the encouragement and kindness of her professors – made her want to leave a legacy for WVU. So she applied for and received a grant to create Mountaineer Undergraduate Research Review, the only undergraduate research journal on West Virginia University’s campus. It’s a place where young researchers can flaunt their work, and where Simis can leave her mark.

Between that and her work with the Honors Student Association (she’s the current chair), she’s managed, like Phillips, to meet enough people that she’s achieved that goal of glimpsing familiar faces wherever she goes on campus.

Sometimes even Phillips himself.

She laughs.

“I just saw him on the PRT!”

Come together

Matt Rector hasn’t said it yet. He hasn’t called Morgantown home.

For him, home is still in Pinch, a small town outside of Charleston.

But his affection for WVU is growing. He stays through the end of football games now to sing “Country Roads” with friends and fans. He’s stopped eating Burger King from the Mountainlair every weekend and started wandering downtown for food. He can name the city streets, get to where he’s going without getting lost. He can climb the 86 steps (he counted) from the Life Sciences Building to Woodburn Circle without stopping to catch his breath.

And someday, maybe when he’s returning from a long weekend in Pinch, maybe when he’s leaving a friend’s apartment or walking back from a football game, he’ll see someone he knows and he’ll tell them he’s going home.

And he’ll mean Morgantown.

By April Johnston
Senior Writer
WVU News & Information Services

-WVU-

aj/12/14/09

How has Morgantown become like home to you?

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