After graduating from Amherst Academy in 1847, Dickinson enrolled at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College). In her short time there, Dickinson stood out by refusing to take part in the school's Christian evangelical efforts. Dickinson held organized religion at arm's length all her life. She considered herself a believer, but never joined a church. "Some keep the Sabbath going to church," Dickinson wrote in a poem, "I keep it staying home."4 This predilection was evident at Mount Holyoke. During one student assembly, headmistress Mary Lyon asked all students who wanted to be Christians to stand up. According to classmate Clara Newman Turner, only Dickinson remained seated. "They thought it queer I didn't rise. I thought a lie would be queerer," Newman Turner recalled Dickinson telling her.5 Incidents like these are a pretty good indicator that Dickinson wasn't too happy at college. In the end, she lasted less than a year. On 25 March 1848, Emily's brother William Austin arrived at Mount Holyoke to escort her back to Amherst. She moved back into The Homestead and lived there for the rest of her life.
Dickinson's life in Amherst was not a particularly eventful one. "There are long periods of time—weeks, months, and on one occasion an entire year—for which not even the simplest quotidian activity of her routine can be ascertained,"6 biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff wrote, with more than a note of frustration. As the eldest unmarried daughter in her family, she was expected to care not only for her parents but also for her brother until he married in 1856. She did household chores, maintained the garden, and wrote poems privately in her spare time.
The most notable events in Dickinson's life were often tragic ones. In 1850, her former principal Leonard Humphrey died unexpectedly. "The tears come," Dickinson wrote to her old friend Abiah Root, "and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed Humphrey."7 By the mid-1850s, her mother had become bedridden with various illnesses that would plague her for the rest of her life. The burden of caring for her mother was great, and confined Dickinson to the house.