Me in front of the chapel hill old well

I loved my time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I can’t imagine spending these fast-paced, formative years anywhere else. But I was not a Tar Heel “born and bred.”

When people learn that I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, they ask (without fail) how I ended up at a school thousands of miles away saturated with North Carolinians and basketball fanatics. It’s certainly not an intuitive transition— I was the first student in the history of my high school to attend UNC Chapel Hill. The vast majority of kids go to one of the Texas public universities or, in a stretch, a school in Oklahoma.

As it happens, I wasn’t originally trying to leave Texas.

I love my hometown, and I was hoping to continue enjoying it by attending Rice University in the heart of Houston. In retrospect, this was quite silly of me. Rice was the first university that I toured and, enamored by the campus and freedoms that college offered, I applied early-decision to Rice shortly after visiting. I didn’t even know what I wanted in a college and certainly wasn’t the type who wanted to be super close to home. In fact, I’m the adventurer of the family. I’m the last one anyone expected to attend school only a few miles from my parents’ house.

Nonetheless, I found Rice University to be beautiful and full of opportunity. I knew it was an excellent school and, as the valedictorian of my class, I had reason to believe that I might be accepted.

Rice did not accept me.

My first application won me my first rejection letter, and I was devastated. I read the letter over and over. I tried to find a Rice acceptance letter online so I could read it, too. I don’t know why. Maybe because it would just be one less thing I’d miss out on.

I applied to nine schools, some in Texas and some in other parts of the country.

As of the day I was rejected from Rice, I had been accepted to a couple Texas public universities and was waiting to hear from the rest of the schools. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t get to go to college. I was worried I wouldn’t get to go to a college that I loved like Rice.

I know, such a first world problem.

A couple weeks went by. It was winter break and I distracted myself by hanging with the friends who would soon be scattered across the country.

Application deadlines were approaching— January first was the deadline for the Common Application, which I had already filled out and used to apply to a few schools.

On New Year’s Eve, I sat down with my laptop to ponder my future.

Still upset about the Rice rejection letter, I looked up the US News and World Report list of top universities and started scrolling through them gloomily. If I couldn’t get into Rice, what other schools could I not get into? What if I wasn’t as strong as an applicant as I thought I was?

I don’t know why UNC-Chapel Hill caught my eye. I think I automatically ignored universities in particularly chilly locations because, as a Texan, I despised the cold. UNC-Chapel Hill was one of the first universities on the list that was in an acceptably warm location that was available through the Common Application. A quick google search showed me the gorgeous campus and many raving reviews about the adorable and fun college town named Chapel Hill. I had never even heard of this school before, and I had no idea what the hell a Tar Heel was. But that night, I applied.

From there, everything just fell into place.

I was accepted almost everywhere I applied. I didn’t expect to get into UNC-Chapel Hill because the acceptance rate for out-of-state students was so low, but somehow, I was accepted.

I remember my dad being particularly excited. I think my mom was worried I’d move far away.

At my birthday dinner in early April, I still wasn’t sure which school I was going to. My friends sat around chatting about the offers they had accepted, which dorms they wanted to live in, and how they would embrace their new homes for the next four years. Meanwhile, I had barely eliminated any of my options. May 1 was the last day to accept offers, and I knew I wasn’t getting any closer to a decision by googling pictures of the college campuses.

I started touring campuses like crazy. I even skipped the beach weekend festivities after my senior prom to visit a college. Each school was pretty and alluring in its own way, and I wrote down the pros and cons after each visit. None of the universities seemed like bad options, but none were particularly outstanding. Not until I visited the very last one.

I’m not sure what to say from here. When I visited UNC-Chapel Hill, it was obvious that I had found the perfect school. I loved the campus and the town that it lived in. I loved the people I met and the cultural climate. I loved the cherry blossoms and the Old Well and the vast libraries and the giant oak trees. I loved it without trying to. I loved it more than Rice.

Now I’m a senior about a month away from walking across a stage in my cap and gown. I’m sappy and sentimental about the whole thing. I walk by my old dorms from time to time and find myself swooning, painfully nostalgic.

I bought my gown this week and just sat on a bench outside the library and looked at it. I know I could have bought a gown at any school, but somehow I was distinctly glad I was holding a bundle of Carolina blue. No one knew it at the time, but Rice mailed me a winning lottery ticket.