Madison Polkowitz / Gavel Media

Authentic Eagles: Casey O'Neill on Wander-Loathing

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working toward being more authentic individuals.

Casey O'Neill, MCAS '19

Picture this: 20 pounds lighter, a peppier step, a ripe and unburdened ego. Four years ago, I was on top of worlds, unashamedly skimming my fingers across lockers as I walked down the semi-cluttered hall of my suburban Philadelphia high school, humming an unimportant tune. What self-respecting 18-year-old hums? A naïve one.

About this time, late-April, I had just returned home from an exchange program through my high school. Partnered with students from a small town north of London, 20 other classmates and I traveled to Great Britain to meet a legal drink and “cultural immersion.” Near alcohol poisoning aside, I had a blast. Though not my first time out of the country nor my first time to the British Isles, it was my first trip without family—my first jaunt into independence.

It was the first time I truly bonded with people in high school outside of a shared team or group project interest. When I came home from the trip, my parents were convinced I’d caught the travel bug. I, too, was convinced, as my friends and I immediately began planning a backpacking trip through Europe for the following summer. But I don’t think travel was the bug I’d caught. Still, I appropriately medicated myself for the wander-lustful ailment with plane tickets, hostel reservations, and travel guides.

There was, however, a minor roadblock to our ambitious plans: college. I had to go to college. We all did. It was the smart thing to do. The right thing. But I dreaded leaving my friends. They were properly silly, fiercely loyal, and kind, always kind. No new friends could possibly be so silly, so loyal, nor so kind. Nevertheless, come August, my family loaded the car and to Boston we drove.

Move-in went as most move-ins go—blurred, flustered, and teary. And as soon as my parents U-turned the car back down I-95, marking the beginning of my college career, I wished it over. Rather, I wished it different. I wanted the summer to come so that I could jet off with my high school friends again.

Though my upsetment thawed by my making genuine friendships and dancing with the provocateur of academia, I still longed for something different. I wanted a reckless abandon roving with my friends from home. I didn’t want Gasson in the sunlight, I wanted Rome in the rain. I wished so fervently, for so long that it came true; freshman year was over and my backpacking trip had arrived. I was so excited. This would be it. I would regain the gliding gait that my happier self sported. This trip would reset my balance, bring back the equilibrium I’d lost upon starting college.

I did glide in Hungary and belly laugh in Bratislava. But things were different. As they would be after a year apart at separate colleges. As they should be after a year apart at separate colleges. Overly ambitious and under-funded, myself and four friends puttered around a dozen cities, mocking tourists and being mocked as tourists. Fun was had and drinks were spilled, but my misgivings about Boston College and my experiences there still lingered. Nothing was miraculously fixed. Must’ve been Europe, right? It was the continent’s lack of healing properties, no? And so, I looked on to my next destination: Nicaragua.

In a scramble to join everything and anything my freshman year, I had applied to the Arrupe Immersion Program. I was accepted to the Nicaragua trip that would take place over winter break of my sophomore year. It accompanied a year-long reflection group to tackle the questions of community, poverty, and spirituality. Maybe this was the weight that my trip to Europe was lacking. I needed to encounter the spiritual wealth of the financially deprived to find myself. If I wasn’t so desperate to make changes in my life, I would have recognized just how problematic that thought was.

The community of the reflection group was spirited, passionate, and welcoming. I felt heard though I was adverse to conversations on God and Catholicism. It cushioned the blows of first semester sophomore year—a harder academic load, a lagging ambition, and a torn ACL. I relished in the connection and thought it was working, helping me along to find my happiness on the Heights. And the trip was still to come! Managua, Esteli, and Miraflor would bring me the extra length to realize what paths I needed to take, conversation partners I needed to pursue, and goals I needed to prioritize. This trip would be the thing that secured my clarity.

A vain idea that was. Our trip to Nicaragua was neither fulfilling nor clarifying. It was heartbreaking. We traveled from community center to Jesuit cohort to NGO to learn of the poverty and hunger-alleviating, faith and peacebuilding efforts. We were tourists in a hunger desert. We allowed the impoverished to feed us. I felt all sorts of wrong during and after our trip to Central America. What I thought would grant me direction and appreciation immobilized me, unsure of what to do that could reverberate positively on the lives I’d encountered in Nicaragua.

When we arrived home, I regretted the trip. I didn’t like the capacity under which we traveled. I ended up feeling only distance despite my original intention in joining Arrupe for connection and camaraderie.

The rest of my sophomore year continued with an unsatisfied even-keel. I loved my friends—from home and BC. I had garnered mentors. My classes were ever-engaging. But that god forsaken something that I had felt missing since I arrived at BC was still unidentifiable and nowhere to be found. Arrupe had left me swimming in uncertainty and moderate self-loathing.

When the school year ended, I went home to recollect and look myself in as many mirrors as possible to figure out who I was, what I wanted, and what the world needed me to be. It was a long summer that begged an honest reflection on what my “wanderlust” really was. The travel bug that I had caught two years before was masquerading as such. What I was really after was connection—human connection.

At BC, I was homesick for it. Despite the many hands that reached out to me, offering solidarity, compassion, and friendship, I didn’t notice. I was too busy looking back at my high school trip to the U.K. and the friends who I experienced it with or forward to the next thing, the next trip. I didn’t see what or who or how great of opportunities that were in front of me. I fixated, expecting Europe and Nicaragua to fix me. But they weren’t the answer, no matter how cheap of flights I found or how hard I tried to believe in God.

Much of first semester junior year was spent trying on my new mindset for size. It fit well. I was out of a dorm room, freed from perpetually public restrooms. I had a growing field of friends. I held leadership roles. It was a semester filled with welcome commotion. But the biggest trip I was to take laid ahead or, rather, south. Southern Hemisphere south. When it came time to study abroad in Melbourne, Australia in the spring semester, I was scared.

I had planned this trip before I went to Nicaragua. Its skeleton was weighted by the expectations of a disoriented me. Would I treat this trip the same as I had the others? Would the experience suffocate me from the pressure? Still convinced of my travel sickness, I had decided to go to Vietnam on my own before the semester began.

Despite the spiraling echo of insecurities that clouded my mind, I got on the plane. On the horribly long flights, I wrote on the first page of my journal, “YOU’RE NEVER REALLY ALONE.” This mantra helped me a great deal throughout the first few days in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Ha Long Bay’s clear waters and freckled islands. On several occasions, I convinced myself of an introversion I didn’t have, secluding myself to early nights and solo meals.

But one night, begrudged in a bunk bed resolved to sleep at 9:00pm, I tore myself out of bed and into the hectic Hanoi streets. I ate, I drank, I spoke with people from New Zealand, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Canada. I then recognized how I had confused the two—traveling and friendship—in the first place. If you’re lucky, one can foster the other.

I left Vietnam, reinvigorated by the interactions, humbled by the disparities, and excited to reach Australia. Melbourne followed a similar suit with an increased multiculturalism, exuberant characters, and beautiful landscapes. I studied little, made dear friends, and never got used to looking the opposite direction when crossing the road. I loved my time down under. I got made fun of for saying so. When the time came, I was devastated to leave, but ready to return home with a confidence and knowledge of self that I had never known.

I welcomed the immobility of first semester, senior year. Yes, I was somersaulting toward a steep exit, but I didn’t know where that would be. I didn’t know my next “trip,” and that was such a relief. For the first time in my college career, I didn’t have plane tickets bought or beds booked. I had the jump down from my lofted 2150 bed and my walk to main campus, and I loved that.

But, with second semester, the assembly line picked back up and I found myself barreling toward another a trip, another plane ticket. This time to San Antonio, Texas. I was offered a placement with Teach for America in San Antonio. Even when I wanted static, I got waves. This time, however, I wasn’t—I’m not—afraid. I know what bug ails me. I know what expectations to have and what change I want to be a part of. No trip gave me that.

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