This is a love story, although perhaps a bit of an unconventional one.
I had never liked my hometown in Pennsylvania when I was younger. To me, it represented long, cold winters and unpleasant memories of being bullied in school. When I went off to college, I swore that I would never come back to the area for any longer than a visit.
Of course, things didn’t work out that way. I landed my first big summer software engineering internship (the kind that all computer science students excitedly/fearfully prepare for during their undergraduate academic career) at Urban Outfitters, which was headquartered in Philly. Three years after I’d sworn I’d never go back, I found myself on a plane with plans for a long-term stay in the area.
I’d grown up in the suburbs, but after both my sister and I left for college, my mom moved into a more rural, small-town area. I was staying with her, but sleeping in a new room and commuting about an hour each day into the city. It was surprisingly pleasant.
The internship itself was the most difficult challenge I’d had so far. Software engineering in the real world was a far cry from the assignments we had in the classroom; on top of that, I was working with paradigms and languages that I barely knew. You know the story — I was so used to being “successful” and a “top student” that it had been ingrained into my identity, and struggling at work made me feel like I was drowning. Some kids get that you-ain’t-shit wake-up call when they leave home to go to college. I got it — the crushing impostor syndrome, feeling like a failure, constant worries that they were going to fire me — every day on the job.
My long-term partner and I also broke up a few weeks into the summer. It had been mutual and cordial — ten minutes on the phone with both of us agreeing that our original feelings had gone and that we were better off with other people — yet I still found myself reeling and confused. We’d been together since we were first-years in college and we’d planned on having a future together. What did it mean when someone you said “I love you” to each night and factored into your long-term plans suddenly became a stranger?
I was sad, but also thrilled. This meant that I was free — not just to be with other people, but to be fully and truly myself. I threw myself into both my work and my after-work adventures. During work, I led a team of three interns to develop a computer-vision app that recommended pieces from the company catalog to match your current outfits; after work, I ran around the city like an untethered little heathen with cute guys, pretty girls, and fellow interns who would go on to become my best friends.
The city became my playground, and I drank it all in with the exuberance of a college kid on their own in a big city. I spent days in a Penn frat house covered in graffiti, engaging in conversations about writing and ambition and the beauty of Lana del Rey’s music. I opened up about my gender dysphoria and feelings of inadequacy at work. I met dozens of strangers in coffee shops and Chinese restaurants. July came, I turned twenty-one, and I discovered the wonders of happy hours, bottomless mimosa brunches, and rooftop bars that were so high up that you felt lightheaded coming off the elevator.
Through it all, I was learning, with experiences and realizations coming so quickly that my mind ran overtime to process it all (and truly, I didn’t process it all until I was putting together this series). I learned about myself, both the good parts and the parts I didn’t mind leaving behind forever. I learned about human nature and human behavior. I learned about technical iOS development and how to give a good demo. And when I returned to college, I felt like I had been away for years. I have not been the same person since.
The photo set
Earlier this year, I started going beyond taking pictures of my dresses and started thinking seriously about how every aspect of the image — the setting, what I was wearing, the time of day, what I was doing — came together to tell a story. This was the first story I wanted to capture and remember forever; though I had plenty of photos from that time itself, a lot of key moments were missing, so I returned to Philly for a week this summer to fill in those gaps.  This photo series is a tribute to my most brutal and beautiful summer so far. To this day, it reminds me of that special time in Philly, when I gained newfound freedom and had yet to experience real responsibilities.
 Hell yeah, I’m that extra. Don’t you know me at all by now?