So long, Montevallo.

A little over four years ago, I didn't want to go to college. I liked learning, but the awful social aspect of high school outweighed my enjoyment of English class, and I guess I was afraid that college would be more of the same. After years of not feeling like I didn't fit with my peers, I found my place in Florida the summer before my senior year of high school, and I didn't want to leave. I started a great summer job and threw myself into a photography business that proved to be more lucrative than I could have ever expected. Since I clearly knew how to be a photographer already (ha, that's hilarious), I could just start my risk-free life straight out of high school. I already had a plan- what did college have to offer me?

Fast-forward to now and I am SO glad I made a different plan, because yesterday I graduated from the University of Montevallo. This strange little school has shaped me into the person I've become.

Montevallo is what happens when you take the most liberal, artsy subset of Alabama's student population and put them all in a town in the middle of nowhere. It's an oasis of open-mindedness and creativity in a state that can often feel backwards and stifling. To me, Montevallo is defined by its history, colorful characters, strange traditions (like competitive musical theater), gorgeous nature and places to explore, and a strong sense of community.

Being a student here taught me just how much I don't know, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. It's made me reconsider tightly-held notions about art, the world around me, other people, and myself. Ironically, I'm a lot less sure of what my future looks like after four years of school, but right now I'm completely and totally okay with that.

Of course, the lessons I've learned here haven't come easy, but I guess no worthwhile lessons are. Sometimes it felt like this town was just a bit too small for its own good. I hesitated to get involved in anything on campus and found myself escaping back to Florida on the weekends. For various reasons, my junior year was one of the hardest years of my life, and several times, I thought very seriously about dropping out.

Overall, though? My college experience was pretty wonderful. I've made lifelong friends at this school. I have enough memories to power me through whatever craziness lies ahead for me, and I met some people who changed the direction of my life in very significant ways. If you had told 18-year-old-Cocoa that she'd be going to Italy alone to meet up with a Fulbright-winning artist and see the Venice Biennale, she would never believe it, but somehow these are connections that I've made at Montevallo.

So, here's the next step: I'm going to grad school in Italy to pursue an MFA at an international arts school called SACI. I'm not sure how a Southern town with a population of 6,000 opened up the world for me, but it really did (mainly because my mentor here is absolutely incredible). After four years, I'm grateful to have the time and resources to devote a few more just to learning as much as I can fit in my head. It definitely doesn't hurt that I'm going to be studying in Florence, my favorite city in the world.

My senior project is called The Montevallo Project, and it's dedicated to capturing the spirit of this weird little community via the portraits and stories of its residents. Hopefully it will give you a glimpse into the spirit of this place, because my words will never be able to do it justice. Hearing other residents' thoughts on what life here means to them gave me a new appreciation for just how special Montevallo is, and how lucky I've been to call myself a member of this community. Also, hey- it's a book now, too!

I'm going to miss cooking pesto pizza in my apartment with my friends. I'm going to miss constantly hanging out on the porch of Eclipse with either a cup of coffee or a glass of cabernet, depending on the time of day. I'm going to miss watching my talented friends perform in musicals or play house shows or sing at open mic night. I'm going to miss the craziness that is College Night. I'm going to miss frantic printing sessions in Bloch 11, a room that I've spent far too much time in over these past few years. I'm going to miss seeing my eccentric neighbors walk their dogs by my apartment complex like clockwork every afternoon. I'll miss the coziness and the feeling of connectedness that comes with small town life. Somehow I'm even going to miss the seemingly endless cow pastures that border campus, because by now they feel like home.

I've pretty much run the gamut of emotions while reflecting on this experience, and I'm going to stop myself before I descend into full-on sappiness. The next adventure is going to be great, but no matter where I end up, but I'm always going to be grateful for Montevallo.