As a senior, I have watched JMU grow over the past four years. Actually, explode would be a more fitting word for the vast changes, renovations, and expansions that have taken place on campus over the years—and within even just the past year alone. With an incoming freshman class of 4,300 and 880 new transfer students, there are currently upwards of 20,000 students on campus daily. But when even the line for pizza at Topio’s (the option with typically the shortest line) in Duke’s extends almost to the entrance, you might feel like one of a million rather than a measly 20,000—a feeling we are particularly vulnerable to as fresh-faced first years. But, would you believe me if I said that a snow leopard with a blue tongue helped me combat those exact freshman year blues?

It all started on the first fall day of my freshman year. It’s always a wonderful day when you realize the weeks of backpack-shaped sweat stains on your back are through, and sweater weather is upon you. That day, like any other day, I woke up and peered into my closet to put together an outfit, excited at the prospect of finally slipping back into cozy autumn attire.

Normally, putting together an outfit is my favorite part of the day; I love to express myself through my clothing. But, since my arrival at Ikenberry Hall on move-in day, I had been trying to dress like the typical JMU student. I suppressed my need for self-expression and opted for wearing what everyone else wore in order to seem less like a freshman, and moreover, to blend in with the rest of my peers. In high school, I had worn whatever I darn pleased, often mixing multiple patterns, sporting my mother’s old high school geography bee jacket, and tacky sweatshirts bought at Mt. Rushmore over the years. But as an incoming freshman, I was more concerned about fitting in.

Inspecting the contents of my closet that morning, and gazing upon all of the awesome tacky sweaters, the velvet pants, and the leather jacket, I felt conflicted. I wanted so badly to wear the clothes that made me feel most like myself, but felt that I couldn’t–or shouldn’t– for fear of seeming different. Standing there in front of the sliding doors of my Village-style, wooden closet, I had an epiphany: Weren’t there upwards of 20,000 students going to this school? Did I really expect to please all of them? Weren’t there probably other students on this campus that dressed like me, or chose to express their style similarly? Feeling like an idiot, I grabbed the first tacky sweatshirt in sight, a black crew neck with an enormous blue-tongued snow leopard’s face down the front, and ran with it, desperate to make up for lost time.

I will always remember that day as the first day I decided to be myself at JMU—the day I began to fit in because I was no longer trying to be something I wasn’t. Now, I’m not saying that wearing an ugly thrift store find changed my entire college experience, but it was one of my first steps of many toward my own self-acceptance in my new environment. Although one can feel lost at sea on such a large campus, being yourself will give you the clarity of mind necessary to truly grow and thrive, try new things, and ultimately find your own personal niche in the JMU community.

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