HOELSCHER: Happy birthday, you’re an adult now

As a first-year student having just celebrated my first birthday in college, I finally feel like a grown-up.
Graphic depicting sad girl in front of computer with birthday decorations in background (Hustler Multimedia/Amanda Dai)
Graphic depicting sad girl in front of computer with birthday decorations in background (Hustler Multimedia/Amanda Dai)
Amanda Dai

Most Vanderbilt students have already turned 18 before they move onto campus as a first-year. These 18 candles were blown out either in high school or the summer after senior year before venturing out into the world for the first time. Your 18th birthday is a celebration of a seemingly endless list of new and surprising privileges: the ability to vote, buy a gun, adopt a child and get a tattoo.

The 18 completed orbits around the Sun supposedly welcomes an individual into adulthood, despite the inability to buy alcohol for three more years and a prefrontal cortex that isn’t fully developed until the age of 25. Debates over when people officially step over the bridge from adolescence into adulthood have been centered around turning 18 and 21 for decades now, although there’s really no guidance for when we begin to feel mature ourselves. Are you an adult when you leave home for the first time — when the government views you as an independent or when you decide you feel grown-up enough? The idea of feeling like a grown-up at age 19 had never crossed my mind until I woke up on the day of my 19th birthday and remembered suddenly that my parents were no longer down the hall as they always had been. 

Growing up had nothing to do with turning a specific age. Instead, it was the feeling of being completely detached from my childhood routines. Having been away from home for five full months now, my birthday was just the cherry on top to remind me that I was finally independent. 

In the weeks leading up to it, thinking about celebrating my first birthday in college was the dictionary definition of anticlimactic. Rather than an exciting build up to my supposed special day, the days on the calendar tiptoed forward until I realized that the date I was typing at the top of my lecture notes vaguely resembled my computer password and my typically Type B roommate was suddenly very interested in the breakdown of my weekend plans. The countdown texts I had been receiving from family members for weeks on end had finally come to a halt and were replaced instead by requests to FaceTime and interrogations of whether or not I had visited the mailroom that day. It was an incredibly weird series of events that were drastically different from the celebrations at home where I was surrounded by the same friends and family for as long as I can remember. 

Being in college didn’t necessarily mean that I felt less loved on my birthday than I had before. From the moment I woke up to the moment I shut my eyes for a good night’s rest, my phone buzzed with notifications from old friends, Instagram story collages and even emails from the colleges I didn’t end up attending. However, even with this constant stream of notifications, I couldn’t help but feel sad about how fast time was passing by.

The foreign feelings didn’t end with dates on the calendar and phone calls. My parents didn’t have to beg me not to snoop through their closet in an attempt to spoil my own birthday gifts. The package sitting on my desk had been pleading me to open it early since I first picked it up from the mailroom, but it no longer felt fun to spoil the surprise when I wasn’t specifically told not to.

I didn’t necessarily feel like an adult because my birthday presents have turned into checks rather than American Girl dolls and gift cards for new shoes over Bath & Body Works shower gel sets. It’s not the fact that for the first time I’m walking to the 21st Ave. Starbucks to get my free birthday drink, rather than driving through on the way to school. I love my newfound freedom and I love being in college, but it has been jarring to watch the traditions I’ve kept up with my entire life vanish before my eyes.

I’ve always known that coming to college would be about crafting new traditions, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying when it came time to make them. My 19th birthday plans didn’t factor into my college decision, but looking back, all of the reasons for picking Vanderbilt are suddenly making sense. I now recall that it was here that I truly felt like I could create a home away from home. Having just celebrated my first college birthday, I feel like I’m finally settling into this new chapter.

My roommate stayed up nearly all night to decorate our door and left space for our floormates to write me sweet birthday messages. One of my other friends took me to get our nails done and another offered to take care of the Uber when we went out that weekend. 

Even with the longing for my childhood memories being my first college birthday, the magic of my special day was kept alive by the friends that I’ve made here at Vanderbilt. Despite the ups and downs of being away from my hometown, I am forever grateful for those relationships and how I have come to appreciate them through the celebration of my 19th birthday.

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About the Contributor
Abby Hoelscher
Abby Hoelscher, Deputy Photography Director
Abby Hoelscher (‘27) is from St. Louis and is an aspiring elementary teacher currently studying in Peabody College. Outside of writing, she enjoys performing, learning Taylor Swift songs in American Sign Language and trying the seasonal lattes from the campus coffee shops. She can be reached at [email protected].
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2 months ago

Really enjoyed this authentic perspective!

2 months ago

Love this Abby!!

2 months ago


George Albu
2 months ago

Really impactful piece, Abby. Great job!