“What is a Batavia, NY”? were among the many questions, family members, friends, and colleagues had asked me as I began to prepare for the move from the glamorous city of Chicago to a region where there were more cows than people.
For most of my life Chicago was home. The people, the culture, the food, the music, and other key characteristics that define our great city, was an everyday experience I had come to know since I was born. For goodness sakes, I was born in 1993, a year the Chicago Bulls accomplished their first three-peat. If Basketball was our religion, Michael Jordan would be God himself. I had made good memories here, met interesting people, and lived a steady life.
So why leave?
When people from this region would find out about my Chicago origins, I was always asked by default “Why Leave?” “Why Batavia?”
For me, it was simple. I had grown tiresome of the fast-paced lifestyle that had encumbered my ability to be more flexible as it pertained to seeking opportunity. There was also the reality of friends moving across the country for academic and professional reasons, collapsing my social circle at home. Working in a hospital call-center, albeit with zealous colleagues whom I heap nothing but praise on to this day (except for one individual), was not something I envisioned for myself when younger. If anything, compared to previous years spent travelling across the country campaigning for politicians, this was a rather tedious tenure. While there were several enjoyable conversations with patients and physicians alike, I was beginning to grow weary of my long-term prospects and thus sought an opportunity to change course. In late summer 2017, I began a vigorous search for community colleges with on-campus accommodation housing and respectable tuition fees. At the end of this search were two colleges, GCC being one of them. On November 3, 2017, by way of a 12-hour Amtrak journey I made my way from the city Michael Jordan made famous to Rochester, N.Y. Assisted by my former advisor Lourdes Abaunza, I would register for Spring 2019 classes, spurring a new relationship with this community.
I remember my first day arriving on a cold and wet January vividly. Upon exiting my ride-share, I was introduced to the harsh Western New York weather with heaps of rain pouring down upon my face and luggage. I hurriedly grabbed my bags and began a brief sprint to a room beneath the safety office at College Village. I would be given my keys and a packet for new residents, including an itinerary of weekend activities. Escorted by a tall and lanky Resident Assistant known as Matt, I would find myself standing in the middle of my new home, miles away from the comfortable settings that had become familiar to me. The experience was foreign to me. The absence of 24/7 buses and trains with sprawling downtown buildings that made the city glow, was foreign to me. However, I soon became accustomed with my new surroundings. Learning about the region and inhabitants served as a history lesson. People I saw as strangers would become friends, some of them lifelong.
Getting acclimated to a classroom setting was an entirely different set of challenges. I recall my first class. Math 091 taught by Professor Mark Siena. I remember arriving 25 minutes before class began at 7:45 am. Awaken by the sound of my alarm at 6:30 am, I began to get ready for my first day of school in nearly five years since dropping out of high school. As the semester persisted, I would eventually find my place academically and socially. While there was hesitation to return, I did the following fall. It has not been easy being in Batavia. My race and sexual orientation as a gay man has proved to be an issue for some people. However, my brash and abrasive attitude gave it back in kind. Regardless of those struggles, there is some virtue during my time here. It is a theme I have kept coming back to recently.
Resilience has been a major theme in my life. I was born and grew up in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Left with a single mother at home who herself combated the issues of education and poverty as a child, me and my other siblings did not have the proverbial “silver spoon” by any stretch of one’s imagination. What we were given in place of the materialistic possessions not affordable to us, was education. My mother did not have the privilege of finishing her education, thus, she worked hard to ensure we would be the generation of our family to break the glass ceiling of the issues that afflicted my mother’s generation. When I left high school, she was obviously disappointed. I was always seen as the “one with potential” and for that to occur was an emotional hardship for the both of us. However, as life would continue for me, I would find myself in the company of high-profile politicians, working on their campaigns. Meeting President Obama was a turning point in my life as I began to realize the potential I truly had. How to revive and sustain it? Well, I set out to try. In 2016, I obtained my GED and the following year returned to work. It was during this time I began to be honest with myself and future ambitions.
When I was six-years old, my first Presidential Election was George Bush vs Al Gore and while not old enough to properly comprehend the events of that evening it left a small child on Chicago’s south-side awestruck. That feeling never left and would manifest itself over the course of my life. I wanted to be a politician. Which office would I hope to occupy? Senator does sound tempting. However, in order to attain that level of power and prestige, one must obtain an education. A conscious choice I made when arriving at Genesee Community College. Since being here I have been active in various clubs and organizations, winning numerous awards for academic and extracurricular achievement. At present I am working on a lengthy thesis paper, a project that I have come to appreciate for its rigor and challenge.
As for what is next upon departing Batavia? I go back home and then to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, studying Political Science. I will not lie. I am hopeful for the future, but somewhat demurred that as this process continues, I will not get any younger. Comical, I know, however it does present a concern of how long I wish to be in academia. Time will tell. For now, I am excited at the prospects of what my new institution will offer.
As I prepare to graduate, I would like to take this time to thank the various professors, faculty and friends for imparting on me wisdom, advice, and friendship through the good times and rather questionable times. More importantly, I am thankful for the opportunity to understand the culture and way of living in this community. I have always believed that getting outside your comfort zone presents an opportunity to grow, and I feel that I have. My advice to those who are younger: Do not be afraid to take risks. The outside world can be intimidating, however, never turn down an opportunity to grow. Whether that process occurs through incidents of failure and frustration, learn to appreciate the journey.
I learned a valuable lesson from two mentors of mine who passed away a few years ago. Life is a like a train station, we all arrive and depart from stops—those stops being certain chapters in our lives. So, enjoy those “stops” along the way and more importantly, appreciate the people you encounter as you venture toward greater opportunities that await you.
Thanks to the many people who left an invaluable mark on me during my time at GCC.
As conductors on Chicago trains say “Doors Closing. Next stop is…”
Dennis Austin is a graduating Sophomore from Genesee Community College. He will enroll at the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus in January.