Growing up 20 minutes away from Blacksburg, I never thought I would have to experience the disorienting effects of traveling to a faraway place to live and study for half a year on end. I thought myself immune to that particular adjustment.
But then I spent a semester in Switzerland.
I spent this past spring on a study abroad program that lasted the whole semester. Adjusting to an entirely new country with a language I had only a cursory understanding of and customs that I had yet to fully internalize was an exercise in trial and error. But now, having gone through that, I have developed a deep sympathy for those incoming freshmen from beyond the New River Valley or even out of state coming here to embark upon the most formative chapter of their lives. For their benefit, I have put together a handy guide for them to acclimate themselves to this area.
First of all, don’t be afraid to try and make friends. That may sound like a no brainer, but it can be daunting to come to a new place with no friends and have absolutely no idea where to start. In order to counteract this, I have an additional suggestion: Don’t be afraid to attend stuff and go to places. The easiest way to meet new people and to exercise your interests is to keep one ear to the ground about events and places of interest. If you like sports, don’t be afraid to go to minor league baseball games in Pulaski. If tabletop or trading card games are your thing, seek out those kinds of stores around the area. Folks who enjoy both these types of things congregate in these places for a reason: to meet people.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you probably won’t find your group right away, and it’s a really bad idea to try and force your way into one — been there, done that. Humans are social animals and it’s best to let that kind of thing happen as naturally as possible. Forgive me if this sounds like self help, but if you don’t need to question whether or not you’ve made a friend, you’ve made one.
Now that the big stuff is out of the way, here are a few minor, yet useful pieces of information that are more about convenience than proper acclimation. First, get used to backroads. Virginia may be the only state in the Union that takes better care of its backroads than its highways, and a lot of the time it’s extremely difficult to tell which is which. If you’re driving around and all you see are abandoned barns and herds of angus cattle, fret not. On a related note, get used to tractor trailers on Interstate 81. Your number one concern on that stretch of road ought to be to never get stuck behind a semi truck with another one right beside you because you won’t be able to see a darn thing. Just pass them while going uphill and everything will be fine. One last road-related tip: Things are really spread out here in the lower half of Virginia. My favorite used bookstore is a good hour-long drive from my house, and I am perfectly willing to make that drive on a regular basis. For those of you without XM, Southwest Virginia has a good mix of FM radio stations as well; 92.3 for pop hits, 105.3 and 96.3 for rock music, 94.9 and 107.3 for country.
When shopping for groceries, make sure to get yourself a rewards card from whatever store you use the most. They are absolutely free, totally worth the effort to sign up and they will always ask if you have one so you might as well do it. Also, try not to shop on the first of the month because grocery stores are extremely busy on those days, and getting what you want can be a needless hassle (here I am not speaking as a customer, but as a former employee).
One last thing: learn to love the kinds of low-stress outdoor activities the area has to offer. There are more hiking trails and bike paths in the area than I have time to mention, but sometimes it feels like you can’t walk 3 feet without bumping into one, and more often than not, the scenery, as well as the availability of shade and water, make it all worth it.
Southwest Virginia can feel like a pretty boring place. Speaking as someone who grew up here, there are plenty of things that might give you that impression. The charms of this area are not obvious, and its pleasures are just as well hidden. Hopefully this handy guide will point you in the right direction and, if nothing else, make the whole place seem a little less daunting.