In one of my earliest memories, I’m toddling around the concrete edges of the Girard Park duck pond, looking up at my father. He’s in his 20s, with a backpack slung over his shoulder. The specific details are as murky in my conscious as the water itself — littered with floating bits of Evangeline Maid bread. But the feeling of contentment I experienced in that place, in that moment, has never left me.
Which is perhaps why when he led me around that campus again 15 years later, I knew deep down it was not the right time to indulge my teenage wanderlust. My decision to attend college in the same community where I grew up had nothing to do with a lack of ambition, but instead, the deep connection I felt when walking in the shadows of those live oaks and humble red bricks.
Like so many people in Acadiana, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is not a place I was first introduced to on a college tour. It’s a familiar footpath, flooded with personal memories of childhood alligator spotting, cross country meets and science fairs. It’s the place my parents and so many of my aunts, uncles and cousins pursued degrees before me. From my first day of class, wandering across walkways honoring generations of graduates, I knew I was rooted in something bigger than myself.
My time as an undergraduate shaped me in ways that would never fit within the word count of one essay. Most significantly, however, I simultaneously discovered my life’s vocation and my life partner. I don’t know where I would be if I had not followed the mystical breadcrumbs leading me to that perfect place at that perfect time.
It’s a familiar trope, but the ink barely dried on my UL diploma before I packed up and drove north, chasing my big city dreams. As the dreams slowly materialized into realities, the distance never got easier. We soothed our homesick Cajun souls with our grandmothers’ gumbo recipes, FedExed king cakes and frozen boudin. I blared the Figs and Red Stick Ramblers albums on repeat, praying the warm, southern rhythms and lyrics about bayous and sugarcane could somehow melt the seemingly never-ending ice and snow.
It took 13 years and 10 changes of address to end up right back where I started. Now as an adjunct instructor in the UL communication department, my office is only a few doors down from the theater where my husband and I shared a first date. Our daughters revel in any opportunity to scoot around Cypress Lake or scatter oats for the Girard Park ducks. (Forgive me, Father, for all that bread.)
Upon my return, I have an even greater appreciation of this hallowed ground. Not only the nostalgia embedded in each stretch of sidewalk, but the university’s significance to the future of our local economy and the preservation of our precious South Louisiana culture.
Crossing the colorful sea of faces on St. Mary Boulevard between morning classes, I find myself getting the same adrenaline rush I’ve felt walking through crowded streets in Manhattan or Downtown D.C. Among the backpacks and earbuds is a tangible sense of purpose and potential. And there’s nothing like looking down at your own name inscribed on a weather-worn, vermilion brick to realize you are finally back home.
About the author: Marie Elizabeth Oliver is an independent journalist living in Lafayette. She previously worked as an editor at The Washington Post and Better Homes & Gardens. Her writing has been published by Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Parents, ELLEDecor and CNN.