Laura Hedrick

Year of Entry: 2003 Age at Entry: 15 Hometown: Moreno Valley, California

Not A Choice, But A Necessity

Laura Hedrick

When I first received the invitation to apply to the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, I threw it out. I was 15, apprenticing in a regional ballet company, and while high school had been far too easy, I had credited this to the school being substandard rather than any giftedness on my own part. I had learned to compensate for my boredom by loading my calendar to the bursting point: tutoring other students (some in classes I had not yet taken myself) as well as ballet rehearsals, classes, and teaching. At this time, living in a part of Southern California which was much more tumbleweed than concrete, my world and my paradigm seemed sound. I had a happy family. Things had been changing, but the change was subtle, and I was naïve. One month later, when I received an invitation to PEG’s Prospective Student Overnight, I laughed and yet again, threw it out. The invitation had reached me precisely one day before the start of the event taking place on the other side of the country. While not feasible, it was as this point that I began to least consider the idea of early college. In the following months, the change I’d been too naïve to notice had become apparent. The façade of our financial stability had fully crumbled, and I’d seen the proverbial writing on the wall. My family was losing everything through no fault I could comprehend, and I felt as though I were caught in the middle. Most of my possessions were sold. Eventually the house would go as well. The third invitation from PEG came, and I took the bait. If their suspicions were right and I was made of the right stuff for this program, it was my ticket back to some form of homeostasis.

Arriving at Mary Baldwin College, in the September of 2003, I understandably shared none of the personal details of the last year with my fellow students. I kept it to myself and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps due to my own insecurity, I did not feel particularly well received. At 15, like most, I was struggling to understand who I was while coping with the crippling levels of change I had experienced. The first semester also saw devastating wildfires which caused ash to rain over most of southern California, evacuating my mother and my aunt. I lost contact with each of them for a few days during the evacuation process and despite this, never entirely opened up to my peers. Through all of this, I coped poorly. By Christmas, I begged to come home per a prior agreement with my mother that if I tried one semester and disliked it, I could come back. However, by that point it was too late. I was informed that there was nothing to come back to, and due to my funded status at college, I needed to stay. Up until this point, my view of the program was bleak, due to no fault of the program or its staff. I was young, feeling beaten down, and too embarrassed to tell anyone. In these moments, the program showed its true colors, and moments I had taken for granted the previous semester began to hold more significance for me.

Safe Harbor

Despite being a fine educational opportunity for gifted young women, PEG’s strongest characteristic is the role it plays as a safe harbor for those of us who have, at one point or another, felt different. For some it was for their grades or their bookish behavior. Having attended a private high school, it’d been a few years since anyone had isolated me for being intelligent and, in fact, I’d gotten on rather well in school. That year, I felt different because of my situation. I was ashamed by circumstances I had not caused. But to the young women of PEG, a difference was only a fascinating character trait. In short, they simply didn’t care. And it was the moments like that – hanging upside down off a friend’s bed at 10pm on a Saturday night discussing philosophy, sexuality, and our apocalypse evacuation plan with other PEGs- that got me through the first year of college, and indeed through one of the most difficult years of my life. In addition, the PEG Center is no usual dormitory. On an evening where the building lost power due to a hurricane, PEGs did not sleep. They staged epic light saber fights in the corridor. They sat in small groups, huddled on the floors of the older PEGs’ rooms, as the 15- and 16-year-olds told them it would all be fine. Moments later, in the case of room 213, a transformer blew, sending a pillar of blue flame to illuminate the horrified faces. The scorch marks remained until after we graduated in 2007, a point of pride for many.

Care and consolation were never one-sided. We consistently helped each other, switching off between who would be in whose room with some problem — retrospectively trivial but absolutely heart wrenching at the time. When advice was not being given, pineapples were being ritually “sacrificed” in the floor lounge, hair was being dyed any assortment of rainbow colors, and students made serious banter about world domination. That was PEG. And by the end of my freshman year, I understood why I was there, and when my parents asked me if I still needed to leave, I declined.

Finding A Passion

While some might have argued that it was foolish to attempt to complete a bachelor’s degree while going through that amount of life change, as it happened it ended up being precisely what I needed. In my confusion, academia gave me structure. Being young allowed me to explore a wide range of subjects at a serious academic level with the security of youth to be able to change my mind and not have long-ranging consequences. This exploration helped shape who I was and allowed me to find a subject I was truly passionate about instead of quickly settling into something, and explore I did. At the end of my freshman year, I added (and kept) a studio art major, founded on a newly discovered love of painting, an art form which became a new and helpful way of working through my thoughts and feelings. By the end of my second year, I had investigated English and theatre majors, but decided against them. I had added psychology, but dropped it at the end of my sophomore year due to my lack of statistics skill. In the fall of my junior year, having recently discovered the infeasibility of psychology, I took a British history course. It is important to note that without the safety blanket my age as a PEG gave me time to explore, I would have never seriously considered history as a major due to the stigma that it would not lead to any later career opportunities. I took it simply because there was no reason not to, and there I found my passion.

My studies in history took me through every British history course offered at Mary Baldwin then into the Virginia Program at Oxford in the summer of 2006. Although focused on the history of England, it was there that I found an interest in Scottish history, which was surprisingly encouraged by my academic advisor, despite her bewilderment at my desire to study Scotland. All of this eventually led to where I am now, in July 2011, researching for my PhD in Scottish History at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. From five thousand miles away, my PEG and Baldwin experiences continue to influence my life in a positive way. I maintain sibling level bonds with fellow PEGs our respective busy schedules. I had the luxury of taking a year off to do a “real job” before going back into academia, while still being younger than the average grad student when I entered my master’s program. During the year off, I continued to receive appreciated advice from Dr. Martha Walker, and although I did not finish my psychology major, the wisdom and encouragement I received from Dr. Jack Kibler in my first few years stayed with me and helped me to pursue a psychology-fueled PhD topic six years later.

Despite the struggles of my freshman year, I feel genuinely formed by my PEG experience. In retrospect, there is nothing I regret, because every struggle, every mistake (and I admittedly made many for which I apologize), and every late night of cheesy horror films helped make me the person I am today. I am proud of my PEG family, and I am glad for the uncomfortable circumstance which kept me there. In many ways, going to PEG was not a choice for me, it was a necessity — one for which I am unequivocally grateful.