The people I celebrated my 19th birthday with were all people I’ve only known for four months—at most. Some of them I wouldn’t have considered good friends prior to Halloween. It was strange to me as I planned my birthday brunch and simultaneously texted and snapchatted friends from home, many of whom I’ve known for seven years or more. This was my first birthday since I turned 12 that I celebrated without those who I previously thought should know me best and understand me most. What’s four months to seven years?

But while I felt slightly displaced when I imagined the first birthday not seeing my family or any of my friends from home, sitting at the table amongst the people I’ve become close to in the last four months, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. This is not to say that I didn’t want to be celebrating with family and friends from home, but that in the time and place of that moment, I had all that I needed. I was surrounded by people who understood me just as much as people I’ve known for seven years. And this was a reassuring way to enter my last year as a teenager, as I reflect on my first birthday as a teenager.

I turned 13 wearing all clothes from Aeropostale, during the late-elementary and early-middle school years when the Aeropostale logo plastered on every single item was a status symbol. My hair was flat-ironed straight, because that was how I felt prettiest. There were only girls at my party. And while I’m still close with multiple friends from my 13th birthday party, I wouldn’t have been able to say that they understood me as well after four months as the friends I’ve made at Duke. Those friendships have lasted a long time, but they also took a relatively long time to form deeply.

The only similarity between my 13th birthday and my 19th was that on both days, it was snowing, which is atypical for both North Carolina and Maryland—where I’m from. The aspects of my party that I mentioned are not so atypical for a 13 year old girl’s birthday, but comparing this birthday to the one I just had does make me wonder why I was able to become closer with people at the beginning of college than at the beginning of middle school. It’s not because I have more free time than I did taking seventh grade honors classes. 

A lot of people say that college is a transitional phase where all of the people around you are going through similar difficulties of living away from home, but middle school is a transitional stage in a different way. It’s a window within which you’re supposed to transition from a child to a semi-independent young adult. All middle schoolers are going through hormonal changes, puberty and social stressors. But instead of these shared experiences bringing them closer together, these social and bodily changes seem to alienate people more than they seem to unite them. 

And despite what we like to think, we’re all still seeking validation, just through different means than we did in middle school. Aeropostale and Uggs have changed to Patagonia and Birkenstocks. Instead of who gets to sit at the popular table at lunch, it’s who seems to magically get on the frat email lists for parties and who is left scrambling for a pregame on a Saturday night. Body image issues are just as rampant at 19 as they were at 13, but the stakes seem higher. Now we run the risk of another night dancing alone at Shooters if we don’t look hot enough. Why do other people have enough energy to go hard at the gym and study for hours?

But I’m able to analyze these patterns in a way I wasn’t able to in middle school, and so are a lot of my friends. We’ve become more self-aware, and while we all still have insecurities, with added maturity we funnel this self-awareness into connecting with and helping people who feel the same way. Or in my case, we write cleverly-worded columns in hopes that other people will read them and validate what we feel and how we see the world. I think part of the reason I was able to make closer friends so soon was that a lot of us have had the time to recognize our need for validation and our desire to find a place to fit in. Now, instead of secretly pursuing these things the way we did in middle school, in a weird twist of self-security, we talk about them. 

Multiple upperclassmen and other first-years have told me about how going to CAPS helped them get through college struggles. They weren’t ashamed to tell the people around them because while it’s easy to feel alone, the knowledge that no one is as perfect as they seem is readily accessible. Just read one Opinion column. We’re still awkward, but this time around, we talk about it, we make jokes about our own awkwardness, and we’re a little more gentle and conscientious about not blatantly antagonizing people who aren’t like us. 

The factor that has made me feel so at home with the people here is the knowledge that all of us are human, and fewer of us try to hide it. Upperclassmen that I look up to and want to be more like look visibly cheered up by the smallest compliments. I hear more people talking about how they don’t understand how people get into so many hookups and relationships than people who brag about their hookups. In some ways, talking about and baring insecurities with the people around us has replaced bragging about them and putting other people down to cover them up (Read: Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens). This openness undoubtedly just takes years of reflection and a long processing period before we realize that talking about what we struggle with or what hurts us brings us closer to people more than it makes us feel more insecure. 

And in my last year as a teenager and onward, I hope I remember the value of being transparent. Because life gets harder and our insecurities don’t magically fade when we become working professionals and when we raise teenagers of our own. So here’s to 19. And here’s to more than 19 more years of learning how to feel at home with myself and making people feel at home around me. 

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "on the run from mediocrity" runs on alternate Fridays.