The City That Raised Us: The Graduated Class of 2023 Reflects On Leaving New York City For College

A discussion on a variety of experiences and emotions on our minds.


Nora Sissenich

Ella Smith will be attending college in Evanston, Illinois this fall. Upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park (pictured here) is among the places she’ll miss in New York City, a site of many long walks, birthday parties, and childhood experiences.

When I was applying to colleges, there was one thing I was sure about: I would not be applying to colleges in New York City. Though I love New York City, the prospect of spending the next four years in a place I was already so familiar with felt stifling. I wanted a change, the chance to explore a new place beyond the city I’d grown up in. As college looms ahead this fall, no longer a speck on the horizon but a monument materializing as time hurtles forward, I, and many other graduated class of 2023 seniors (now alumni!), are reckoning with what it means to no longer live in the city we’ve known for all (or most) of our lives. 

It hits you in little ways — when you pass by the playground a couple of blocks away from your house and realize it doesn’t look nearly as big as it used to feel; when you pass by your old elementary school and realize it feels like a lifetime has passed since; when you start to count your “lasts” — the last few subway rides to school, your last practices with a team, the last few times grabbing lunch from your favorite food truck — and previously trivial things don’t seem so unimportant now. 

“I’m definitely going to miss New York. It’s really my favorite place in the world,” said Lucas Melendez ’23. “It’s a huge city, and there are so many things I haven’t gotten to do and experience. I’m trying to make the most of it while I can.”

As New York kids, our experience might not mirror that of small-town kids eager to escape the narrow confines of a town they’ve outgrown for the big city. But the desires for change, new prospects, and new experiences are often similar.

For Ella Smith, a graduated senior at the High School for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at City College, the college application process was one of opening herself up to change. Initially, during the COVID-19 lockdown, she could only see herself attending college in New York City. But as the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown ended and her desires for freedom and change grew, she was drawn to other possibilities, and location played a much smaller role in her decision-making. Now, Smith is looking forward to attending Northwestern University in Illinois this fall. Though she doesn’t expect the change to be seamless, she’s confident it will help her flourish. “Going outside of New York City might be hard for me, but it also might be something I need to do to grow as a person,” she said.

“I feel like if I stayed in New York City, I’d do the same things I’ve always done,” Smith said. “I’m excited to try new things.”

Smith isn’t afraid of leaving, but she’s anxious to make the most of her final months before college. “Now, whenever I go to a museum or a movie theater, I start to think about all the other movie theaters I have to go to, all the museums I need to go to, all the parks I need to visit,” she said. 

Walking, instead of taking the subway, is one way Smith is trying to experience as much of the city as possible. She has found that traveling through less familiar neighborhoods on foot has helped her get to know the city a little better. “The other day, I was on a long walk from 23rd Street to 96th Street, and I saw buildings I had never seen before, because I mostly spend my time underground when I’m getting to places downtown,” Smith said.

For some students, going off to college is more than being a couple of hours away from home via Amtrak or bus. Though he wasn’t set on it from the start, Melendez had “always toyed with the idea of going abroad.” This fall, he will be attending college in London. 

Despite the distance, Melendez is enthusiastic about his next four years. “I sort of feel like I should be more afraid,” he said. “But mostly I’m really excited. And also, worst-case scenario, it’s only a few years. It’s a time in my life where I’m more comfortable making mistakes.” For Melendez, attending college abroad will allow him to gain new experiences and explore the vast possibilities available to him.

Though Melendez isn’t concerned about adjusting to British culture or living an ocean away, he does have some other pressing anxieties: “I’m really worried about getting good pizza,” he said. “I already have a list of places in London. I’ll have to try them.”

Beverly Christy is a native New Yorker and rising sophomore at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. This time last year, she found herself experiencing a similar mix of apprehension, anxiety, and excitement. Though at first, she could only picture herself attending college in an urban setting, she has come to love the small-town college experience at Bryn Mawr. 

“When I first got into college and it dawned on me that I would no longer be in the city, I was slightly disappointed. It took some getting used to not being able to just hop on the subway to get somewhere, but I have adjusted, and I now love small-town living,” Christy said. She now encourages younger students to keep their possibilities open. “My biggest piece of advice would be to keep an open mind about smaller towns,” she said. “It can be nerve-wracking to learn a new form of transportation like a commuter rail, but it is much easier than learning the subway. Even for people going to colleges in other cities, learning how to get around is easier than you think!” 

The New York Public Library’s main branch is an important landmark for Anna Vasyukevich ’23. It’s a place where she spent hours studying for Regents and AP exams and relaxing with friends in the adjacent Bryant Park. “You can really witness a lot of the city from there,” she said. “That place represents New York City for me, and I definitely feel like I’m going to miss it a lot.” 

Vasyukevich, who will be attending college just outside of Washington D.C. this fall, is slowly coming to terms with what it means to attend college hours away from her home city. At times, the change feels small, but in some moments, it feels massive. “In a way, it kind of feels like I’m just doing high school all over again,” she said. “But occasionally, when I look for stuff for my dorm or my parents talk about the plans they’ll have without me, it sinks in that many of the experiences that my family especially will have, I won’t be there for them. I’ve been with them my entire life,” she said. “That’s the biggest change.”

Regardless of where her future takes her, Vasyukevich hopes to never feel like a stranger in her own city. “New York is a city that a lot of people look forward to going to, but for me, it’s all very mundane,” she explained. “I don’t want to come back in many months and have things like the Empire State Building or Grand Central Station feel super new to me. I don’t want to feel out of place in a city that is my home.”

“I’m definitely going to miss New York. It’s really my favorite place in the world,” said Lucas Melendez ’23. “It’s a huge city, and there are so many things I haven’t gotten to do and experience. I’m trying to make the most of it while I can.”