By: Joe Zoyhofski
New York is my campus, not my home.
That’s how I felt when I first trekked across campus and saw our school’s motto boasted outside McGinley. It was my first day of college, and I’d just finished moving into my dorm. I was in the nation’s largest city, but I’d never felt more alone. No family. No friends.
New York is neither my home nor my hometown. I’m from Buffalo. While these two cities share the same state, there’s not much else they have in common. Like most rust belt residents, Buffalonians suffered when the steel plants shut their doors. Since the seventies, the city has lost two thirds of its jobs and a third of its people. It never really recovered. Those that stayed created a community of people committed to helping each other. Everyone in Buffalo has a story about helping a stranger whose car got stuck during a snowstorm, and the community certainly lives up to its reputation for being “The City of Good Neighbors”… even if it isn’t the city of good fortune.
My parents sacrificed a significant amount of money and time so I could attend St. Francis, a private high school about forty minutes away from my house. A Catholic education is the kind of opportunity not everyone gets, so I tried to make the most of my experience. I played soccer and held leadership positions in Campus Ministry and Spanish club. Staying after school meant missing the bus, so someone had to pick me up after practice every day. Sometimes, all I’d have time for was a pop-tart in the car between a soccer match and a service project. But most nights, Mom magically managed to prepare a home-cooked meal– even after getting groceries, taking my grandpa to dialysis, and picking my brother and I up from different schools. She’s a great cook– although I especially cherished these dinners because they were usually the only time all day my whole family was together.
Then came college.
After seeing our school’s motto, I proceeded through the double doors into the cafeteria. I watched workers in the kitchen while I waited in line for pulled pork and potatoes to be plunked on my plate. It felt like I was touring a food factory where meals were mass-produced in industrial ovens by cooks I would not meet at any point during my visit. The experience seemed impersonal, and the food was okay but not the same as a home-cooked dinner. Worse than what I ate, however, was how I ate: alone.
As the week progressed, I made friends. One afternoon, I sat with a friend and his older sister, who lived off campus. I asked her if she felt more at-home living in her own apartment instead of an on-campus dorm.
“I guess,” she replied while picking at her food. “I still miss home, though, you know?” I joked that at least she won’t miss homecooking now that she can cook whenever she wants, but she said she doesn’t cook as often as she’d like to. “Seems silly spending so much money making a meal jus' for me,” she added.
By the end of the week, I decided to venture into Manhattan to eat. As for reading the subway map, my friend and I were illiterate, so we split an Uber instead. Our driver, Baljit, told us that he grew up Guinea. He now lives in Queens. Curious to see how Baljit learned to feel at home half a world away from his homeland, I asked him about his experience moving to New York.
“People always gonna tell you thacha don’t belong, and part of you will always believe them,” he told me. “But you’ll find your place. Eventually. Because you and I, we’re not quitters– we’re dreamers.”
“Dreamers?” I replied. “So what’s your dream?”
“To keep my apartment long enough to raise a family there. That’s why I drive for Uber all night afta work. Time is money, and I can’t afford to waste either.” Baljit was proud of his apartment, even though he hardly spent any time there. He spoke about someday having children and teaching them to cook Guinean food. “It’s like French food, but better,” he assured me, insisting I try some if I get the chance.
I’ve thought a lot about my dream since then. New York is not my hometown, and it never will be. I still miss the comradery and community of the City of Good Neighbors. I still miss sharing dinner with my family after a tough day. And I still miss Mom’s cooking. That’ll never change. But (I hope) I can change how at-home students like me feel at Fordham. I want people to know that, wherever they're from, they can still be welcomed into someone's home to share homecooked meals. I want to make new friends and try new food while having conversations like the one I had with Baljit. Because, the thing is–
It shouldn’t be this hard to have a home-cooked meal.
I dream of a world where it doesn’t have to be.