Cristina Gardner finds warmth and compassion across the world


It all started with a dream. A wonderful, bubbly, passion-filled dream of beaches, hot weather, and a West Coast life. Senior Cristina Gardner has always dreamt of going to California. Ever since she was a girl, life there has called to her; however, recent life has turned her childhood dream upside down.

“[California] is my favorite place in the country, and I always thought it would be fun,” Cristina said. “You know how dreams, when you’re little, are kind of unrealistic, but I didn’t realize that until I was applying. So, I applied to all the schools. I got in, and I’m going to MSU because my dad and I did a spreadsheet of the prices, and it’s just so expensive. It’s just ridiculous. So, I had to make the mature decision to stay in-state. I’m sure I’ll have fun regardless; it doesn’t really matter where you go, it’s what you make of it. And I know that, but it’s just so hard when I’ve had this dream for my entire high school career.”

California called to her not only because of its unique atmosphere, but because it reminds her of her summers spent in Naples, Italy, the Amalfi coast, and Positano. Her mother is Italian, so Cristina and her family choose to return each summer in order to stay connected to the culture and language.

“I [love] the atmosphere; the people are so nice and welcoming and warm,” Cristina said. “My mom is from Italy, so we go there every summer for a couple of months. I see similarities in the people. The people in Italy are so warm and welcoming and loving, and I saw that more in California than here. I like the heat, and the sun, and the beach. I love the beach; I could spend my entire life at the beach.”

Cristina says that her favorite spot, Positano, speaks to her because of its stunning buildings and view. Traveling to Italy each summer has allowed Cristina to take a second look on the lives we live in America, and she has been able to get so much more out of her time there than just laying eyes on all the beautiful places.

Learning and being able to speak fluently in a different language, she says, is an incredible thing to be able to know and use. Because of her parental roots there, she finds it interesting to take a step back and look at the different kinds of people there. Since she isn’t a native, but also doesn’t put herself in the category of ‘tourist,’ she is able to take on a unique perspective of what life in likes there.

“I think just being [in Italy] showed me a culture that I would have never experienced here,” Cristina said. “It’s so different; every single thing [is different]. Even the things we take for granted here [are different]. We’re so comfortable living here; we have garages. We have dishwashers. We have laundry machines. Over there, none of that is a thing. You park in the street. You have to clean all your dishes by hand. You have to wash your clothes by hand; it’s dirty. You see the most beautiful parts of it when you’re looking at pictures and videos, but when you’re there, it just shows you that we’re really comfortable here, and we have it pretty good.”

Visiting, though, is sufficient enough for her. The culture gap is somewhat of a cavernous hole, wide enough to swallow anyone unsuspecting enough. Cristina says that maybe if she was born in Italy, it would be different, but to move there indefinitely would be a large and difficult transition.

“Even high school and college aren’t the same education,” Cristina said. “We’re so focused on education in America, and over there, high school is like a side thing. It’s not as serious at all. College is free, so there’s not that competition. It’s so much less focus on grades and pressure on such young kids to do so well. We’re under so much pressure at this school, but [in Italy] it’s how it should be: relaxed but still study sometimes.”

Although Cristina is an avid traveler with many future destination aspirations (i.e. Paris and Spain), she can’t help but find her biggest source of comfort in her very own home.

“A big part of my decision to not go to California was I realized senior year how much I need my mom,” Cristina said. “My mom just feels like home. In your first years of high school, you like to think ‘I could live on my own. I could do this and that,’ but I can’t leave my mom. It’s too soon; I’m still a kid. There’s no way I’m an adult. Just [because] I’m eighteen doesn’t mean I’m an adult.”

Although she may be an adult on paper, Cristina doesn’t feel that way just yet. Her close relationship with her mom is something she isn’t ready to let go of, especially because of her mom’s Italian qualities.

“Because [my mom] is Italian, she’s so warm and loving and so passionate and compassionate,” Cristina said. “She’s always there, no matter what. I can tell her anything; it’s not like a mom where I have to tiptoe and lie. I never have to lie to her; I never ever lie to my mom. She is always there for me. I can text her, and she’ll just send me a million things to make me feel better. She’s always there, whenever I need.”

But, the fact remains that she is going away to college. Leaving the comfort and nurturing nature of her home in Grand Rapids will be a big transition, but Cristina still maintains a positive outlook on the situation. Although she has accepted the fact that her initial time living away from home will be difficult, she continues to look for that same sense of warmth and compassion she has been able to discover in her mom, California, and Italy.

“I [hope to learn about] being independent,” Cristina said. “I hope at the end of college I feel completely ready to be independent and be on my own. I know I’m always going to want my mom sometimes, but I think hopefully that feeling will go away of ‘I need my mom all the time.’ Hopefully, I get out of my comfort zone and meet new people, which sometimes I can be not good about. And going out, meeting people that you necessarily wouldn’t meet if you didn’t go out. Sometimes I just have a tendency of saying no to opportunities like that, but hopefully, I will get the most out of every opportunity.”