However temporary it may feel, leaving home for college is a major transition. Sure, there’s plenty of excitement about what this next chapter will bring: new friends, new surroundings, and a newfound sense of independence. But it can also be overwhelming — for students and parents alike. Nothing can prepare either party for the bittersweet emotions that come with taking that first wistful glance at a now-empty childhood bedroom, or the uneasy nature of moving into a shared space with unfamiliar roommates. It’s all uncharted territory, and quite frankly, it’s intense.
For 19-year-old Stephanie Rodriguez, leaving the New York City home that she shared with her mother, Yamire, this summer was a monumental step. Rather than living in a dorm during her first two years at Parsons School of Design, the photography major — who’s going into her junior year — enjoyed countless mother-daughter movie nights at their apartment in the Bronx. “My mom was pregnant with me when she left the Dominican Republic and came to New York, and after staying with family for about a year, she was able to get her first apartment on her own,” Stephanie says. “There were so many moving pieces in her life, but she just kept pushing ahead to make sure that she could give me opportunities that I never would have had in another country.”
With her mother’s support, Stephanie discovered her passion for photography and, ultimately, decided to pursue it as a career. But since they were brought up in drastically different societies, despite their undeniable closeness, Stephanie and Yamire don’t always see eye-to-eye. “Because I grew up in America and my mom was raised in the slower-paced Caribbean, our values don’t always align,” says Stephanie. “In a lot of Hispanic cultures, family is supposed to be your whole world. And while my family absolutely does come first, my career is important to me, too. So that’s something that we’re still navigating and having conversations about as I get older.”
This past May, Stephanie packed up her childhood bedroom and headed to Brooklyn, where she’s living with a new set of roommates — none of whom are her mother — for the first time ever. And in the process, as any true photographer would, she managed to capture the intensity of the experience for both her, and her mother, respectively. Alongside the poignant photos, we asked the two women to reflect on everything from prepping a new living space, and adjusting to time spent apart, to the meaning of home:
At this moment in your life, how do you define “home”?
Stephanie: “Home” is something that I'm still trying to figure out, but I feel like anywhere my mom is, that's home. Soon after she moved to America from the Dominican Republic, she gave birth to me in Washington Heights. We moved around the Bronx a lot while I was growing up, and I also spent some time with family members in the Dominican Republic when I was younger. Deciding whether I consider New York or the Dominican Republic to be home has always felt like an internal battle of sorts. But on a smaller scale, there’s never been a specific apartment or building that I’ve considered to be home.
Yamire: To me, home is wherever my family is — no matter where in the world that may be. And family meals have always played a huge role in that. Through food, I’ve found ways to keep my heritage alive in America, and that’s why Stephanie grew up eating everything that I would eat with my family back home in the Dominican Republic. I made sure that she really got to enjoy all of the different dishes, and that they felt like home to her, wherever we were. When I look at photos of her that were taken in our first apartment in New York, I think about our first memories together and remind myself of how far we've come. She and I have always had a close relationship. She knows that she can come to me whenever she needs me.
How did you feel on the day of the big move-out?
Stephanie: Between work and school, I didn't really have time to process the fact that I would no longer be living with my mom until it actually happened. Even when my mom dropped me off at my new apartment, it still hadn’t really clicked that she wouldn’t be there with me the next morning when I woke up. For nineteen years, I’ve had easy access to her at all times. We’ve always just been able to hang out and watch movies together. And now, I know I’ll see her even less once the fall semester is in full swing, and it’s been really hard to adjust to the idea of not having her there.
Yamire: The day that Stephanie moved out was definitely emotional for me. I’m so excited for her, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll do as she enters her early adult years, but we’ve always been extremely attached to each other. It was already hard when one of us would leave for a trip without the other, so seeing her move out was even harder. Still, I know that she’ll be nearby and will visit often. We also talk a lot. Even when she lived at home, we were in constant communication when she was out of the house. She’d text me everyday to let me know where she was and what she was doing. That’s always been our routine.
How did you approach setting up the new apartment in Brooklyn?
Stephanie: I mostly brought hand-me-down furniture from home for my room, like a nightstand that used to be my mom’s. The biggest things I had to go out and purchase were an air conditioner, because it’s extremely hot in New York right now, and a clothing rack, because I don’t have a closet. My roommates and I split up the shopping for other things that we needed for the apartment, like a kitchen garbage can, and a filtered water pitcher from Brita. Luckily, my mom went to the store and got me a bunch of toilet paper, paper towels, and cleaning supplies, as well — while I was much more focused on looking for decorative items. You can always leave it to mom to point out what basic necessities actually are [laughs].
Yamire: Back-to-college shopping was very new to me, because this was the first time that Stephanie had ever really left home. She never went off to live in a dorm or even to sleep-away camp, so it was definitely a whole new experience for us. It does make me happy that she brought some things from home with her, like my night stand. I like keeping furniture and decorations that are important to us for as long as possible, and I’m glad she’s carrying on that tradition.
Stephanie: My mom has sacrificed so much for me to even be in college, and it’s an opportunity that a lot of people like me don't even have. I’m just very grateful, and being able to study photography is definitely a privilege in itself — plus, it’s also really fun. I was so bored over the summer, just wishing that I could be back in the studio. I’ve never felt that way about school before, but I think it’s because I’m finally actually studying something that I enjoy. I’m really excited to be around my peers again this fall.
What value do you place on a college education?
Yamire: I’ve always told Stephanie that college was an important opportunity and that she should pursue it, no matter her career choice. I first realized that she had a gift for photography when she was 16 and started sharing her work with me. From then on, I would ask her to photograph all of our family members' birthday parties. It was a big moment for me when she got into art school; that’s when I realized how my sacrifice had turned into opportunity for her.
What do you appreciate most about each other?
Stephanie: It’s funny, because I feel like an adult — and I am one — but at the same time, I feel like a fourteen-year-old kid who misses her mom and doesn’t know how to cook without her. It’s all very nuanced. The biggest thing my mom has taught me, though, is that things are not always going to be easy, and to fight for what you want. She's living proof of that: While she had a kid on the way, she came to a country where she didn't know many people or the language, and she still made it work. And then all throughout my childhood, she made me feel worthy of an education and of achieving things that wouldn’t have been possible somewhere else.
Yamire: Like Stephanie, I was very independent at nineteen. She reminds me of myself, in the way that I would work through my circumstances to make the most out of any given moment. I’m most proud of how level-headed she has grown up to be. She understands the sacrifices that were made by the people who came before her, and she moves throughout life with an appreciation for them. I’m excited to watch her continue to dream big, and work hard for her goals. My advice for her is just to continue pushing and to never lose the sense of determination that she’s had since she was a little girl.