For nearly my entire high school career, I had been adamant that I wouldn’t go to college. Maybe I’d go to a trade school or take a few classes at a community college on the side while I worked. But I certainly wouldn’t be a four-year student.
Middle school and high school had been an uphill battle. It’s a system that was designed by committee so it would work well enough for most people. Anyone who didn’t fit? Fall in line, or you’re on your own.
I felt there was no place for me in higher education. I would always be the square peg trying to force itself into a round hole.
But then, on Sept. 20, 2022, I first set foot on the New College of Florida’s campus in Sarasota. I was met by two student admissions ambassadors. They spoke to me like I was a person, instead of a marketing demographic. They talked about the school as they led me around campus, filled with excitement and deep love for the school. They weren’t trying to sell me a degree, dorm room or intercollegiate sports. They were trying to tell me they had a place for me.
They had a place for me.
There’s a place for me.
The day I got my acceptance email, my mom ordered a shirt from New College’s online store. I didn’t know until Christmas. She held it up in front of her. It said “New College Mom.” I didn’t cry that day, but I’ve cried plenty of times since. My mom wanted me to go to college, but she saw my point of view, too. She knew there might not be a place for me. But I found it. She was so proud of me.
That joy turned into a source of unending stress on Jan. 6. With no warning, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he had appointed six new members to New College’s Board of Trustees, and they quickly got to work tearing down everything that made the college special. In some ways, literally.
For months, I kept alive the idea that I could stick it out. That the board could only do so much, and if I just waited for them to score their political points in the media, they’d grow bored of their march to the sea, the returns diminishing.
But with each successive hit — beloved President Patricia Okker ousted, the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) department dissolved, an unqualified interim president hired quickly, the dean of diversity fired without cause, faculty denied tenure without explanation and a new mascot no one asked for — that idea grew fainter and colder.
The breaking point was the commencement. New interim President Richard Corcoran stood at the back of the stage as students crossed to receive their diplomas. He didn’t shake their hands.
It took me many months to realize that I was clinging to a dying dream. In early May, I reached out to Hampshire College, a similar school in Massachusetts that had previously offered admission to New College students looking to transfer in the wake of its takeover. Their transfer and admissions departments were incredibly accommodating, helping me to apply and speak with various departments as fast as possible, despite the fact that their application deadline had long since passed.
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On June 8, my mom and I flew up to Massachusetts. We visited the area for a week, touring the campus, meeting with housing and academic advising and scouting out the area for grocery stores and Targets. While there, I was formally accepted.
Come September, I will have moved 1,000 miles away from the state I have called my home for as long as I can remember. I have shed tears over what has been taken from me, and what has and will be taken from those I leave behind.
I’m nonbinary, and the state has made it unsafe for me to live and learn here. I may not be able to safely use a bathroom, I may be denied health care, my community cannot express itself without fear of the state, and students cannot be taught about my community and what may in fact be their community, too.
The state has drawn a target on the back of New College, while at the same time making it easier to carry weapons in public. It is facilitating, whether knowingly or not, more violence in a pattern of anti-progressive violence that stretches back decades. I carry tourniquets and wound-packing gauze everywhere I go in fear of it.
The state of Florida and its current administration seem to regard the idea that there might be a place for someone like me within its jurisdiction as so offensive that it is willing to leverage the entire consolidated power of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government to destroy it.
What kind of state does that to its children? What kind of country lets it happen?
Will there be a place for kids like me when all is said and done?
Blaise Paine is a member of MediaWise’s Teen Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, and a graduating member of the Tampa Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council. They will be attending Hampshire College in Massachusetts as a freshman this fall. They are nonbinary and use they/she pronouns.