I’m a little worried to come back to campus, to tell you the truth. If you see me this weekend, you might be able to sense it. I haven’t been here in a year – I left campus in June 2018, spent my summer in Washington, D.C., did my JR in Santa Barbara, California, in the fall, and for my trouble, received a diploma in the mail in January. I have a pretty solid spatial memory, so I’m not worried I’ll get lost wandering South Evanston or on the Red Line, trying to use my Wildcard one last time at the Art Institute. This weekend, I’m worried about what I’ll feel – and what I won’t.
I’ve already celebrated finishing undergrad, although in a low-key manner, and I’ve already stressed about my student debt and joblessness – my six-month position is coming to a close in a few weeks, and I made my first loan payment last Friday. I’m not moving out of a dorm or an Evanston apartment, but I am moving apartments in D.C., so I’m on the same packing-and-hauling wavelength as my peers. I don’t think being back will particularly affect how I feel about these typical postgraduate anxieties and triumphs. I’m a little jealous I didn’t get to go to the senior beer garden, but I’m not especially wound up about missing senior week. I’m just not sure how I’ll feel about arriving – and departing from – Northwestern for, conceivably, the last time. I’m a bit anxious that sadness will knock me over suddenly as I leave. I’m a bit more anxious that leaving it behind me will make me very, very happy.
I don’t want to be bitter or cynical about NU, you see, and I don’t want to feel so joyful about leaving it behind. That may seem out of character if you’ve talked to me in the last month or seen me robustly criticize the institution on Twitter and in the pages of this publication, but it’s true. I wanted to love it here the way many people do effortlessly. I did love it, at first. I bled purple and went to football games and couldn’t stop smiling as I walked through the Arch while the leaves changed colors and stared up at University Hall’s spire. I couldn’t believe I was actually here, that I’d actually made it, and that I was making it. I loved my classes and I loved my friends and I loved my extracurriculars. I waded in the waters of Lake Michigan and – I had to take a break from this paragraph here. I waded in the waters of Lake Michigan and felt icily baptized. I smoked on its shores and used it to guide me home when I was stumbling back, drunk, from off-campus parties. “Walk to the lake, then turn left,” my roommate would tell me, and we’d always make it home. I know the lake isn’t an ocean, but I grew up in a landlocked state, and it was the closest thing to one I’d ever lived by. Moving here felt magical.
And my time at Northwestern was, all together, not that bad! I graduated with honors. I never really struggled academically. I enjoyed my classes and majored in something that suited me. I got some great experience at some great internships, and I made friends and professional connections through NBN. Medill boosted my standing in my chosen field and sent me to Panama to see amazing sights I’d never have found otherwise. The school paid me $3,000 to take my first unpaid internship and move to Atlanta, and it gave me the leg up I needed to land my other internships. I met my live-in girlfriend and my best friends here. I took advantage of living a mile from Chicago. I came out and into my own in a safe, supportive community where my identity connected me to a welcoming group of other people and alienated me from no one. I liked my dorm enough to live there a second year, and while there, I participated in goofy and fun traditions and chants. I addressed my mental health issues early and spent much of undergrad living life to the fullest. But I’ve seen and experienced a lot at NU that makes it hard to celebrate anything other than getting the hell out of here.
Working at a student publication and focusing on accountability and feature reporting makes it very clear just how much an institution has to be accountable for. Through reporting and editing for North by Northwestern, I learned how Rashidi Wheeler died on the Lakefill in 2001 and how, despite his mother’s efforts, the school has never memorialized him on campus – no bench, no plaque, no building. I learned how despite Harris Hall’s gut rehab in 2010, you can enter through the accessible north entrance – but you’ll meet a set of doors in front of the elevator with no automatic opener. I learned how more than 100 students took over the Bursar’s office in 1968 and made eight demands, many of which have not been met in 2019. I learned how, in the ‘90s, the University allowed a federal investigator to round up women on campus and interrogate them about a fake bomb threat based on their outspoken feminism. I learned how the University worked to stop grad students and adjunct faculty and football players from forming unions. I learned how the University puts adjuncts in precarious economic positions and watched professors burn out and leave over it. I was told, my freshman year, to stay away from Alec Klein, so I did. My junior year, I learned just how many women would have to speak out before Northwestern addressed his behavior. I heard more we can’t publish yet, or maybe ever. Sometimes it felt like I was carrying around this burden of institutional memory no one else seemed to be holding. I certainly understand why the University doesn’t care to dredge up its past.
And I learned how Morton Schapiro personally reads hundreds of interviews that get passed on to him, and he doesn’t really mind which ones or how. I learned about Satoshi Kanazawa and Arthur Butz, who still teaches electrical engineering in Tech 4.8 miles from the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. I watched an administrator from the Dean of Students’ office walk outside of Harris Hall and mock, in a whining, babying voice, the students inside who’d gathered to protest the presence of an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement representative. I watched the University use NUPD as a threat and a cudgel against students experiencing mental health crises. I paid a full quarter’s tuition, $3,000 in rent and $687 in travel costs to work full-time – a requirement to complete my degree – at a job that paid me a $1,200 stipend, plus the $700 lump sum I got after I applied for financial assistance. I once answered the phone at the Women’s Center and had to tell a student she couldn’t bring her friend to Searle to have a rape kit done, and I told her she’d have to go to Evanston Hospital on Ridge, and I personally advised her to take an Uber there. I don’t know if they went. I watched Title IX retraumatize friends and strangers. I learned that my fellow students allegedly drugged and raped others at fraternity parties. I watched the aftermath of those fraternity parties. I called CAPS my freshman year to deal with the depression that had recently graduated to active self-harm and waited a week for a phone intake and three weeks for an actual session where a well-meaning postdoc made it clear that I needed to seek treatment elsewhere. Later, he sent me an email pointing me towards a few therapists with offices in walking distance of East Fairchild, including one man whose website I will never forget (psychicago.com!!). Then I did not call any of them for the next month. I learned the Women’s Center would be cutting counseling, after working there for a calendar year, through an email (subject: “Women’s Center Update”) on an October afternoon, and I believed that our marches and op-eds and strongly worded letters would change the decision, and I watched our efforts fail. In my inbox, I have seven separate emails from Todd Adams titled “A loss in our community.”
It’s probably true that I expected too much. Maybe I’m looking for perfection in a necessarily imperfect institution. It’s certainly true that my feelings towards this place have softened in the year I’ve been away. I’m less angry now. I’m mostly just sad. I wanted to love it here. I want to smile and tell people Northwestern was great. It seems so easy for so many of you.
But when I think about it, it’s obvious that there are some things I will miss about Northwestern when I fly out of O’Hare for the last time: Norris sushi, which fueled me for years. The blissful feeling of the perfect Dillo nap. Having friends and strangers over to my apartment, furnished with a hand-me-down couch and decorations from the $3 bin at Target. The way the sun shines on the sidewalk on the north entrance to the Crown Center in the fall, when the flowers are in bloom. The view of campus from the top of Swift. The professors who challenged me and reshaped my writing and thinking. The lore surrounding the Fisk basement bathrooms. My friends laughing arm in arm as we stumbled down Garnett. Distributing North by Northwestern magazines. The Women’s Center – all of it, especially the cozy interior feeling it retained even after its much-needed remodel, though I was always charmed by the books sitting in the bathtub upstairs. I will miss the lake and the rocks and the sound of the ice cracking in the winter, a sound I’d never heard before I came here and haven’t since I left. I will miss walking home at night, guided by the hazy orange glow of the city to the south that illuminated the clouds. I will miss the sense of possibility that came with being a student and the thrill of discovery – discovering more about myself, about what a life can be, about the endless world around me.
“I graduated in December,” I tell people at work or at (shudder) networking events. Or, sometimes, “I just finished my journalism degree.” I let them ask about my alma mater if they really want to know. I’m not necessarily trying to hide it – I just recognize that in the professional world, my school matters less than my completed degree, and the degree matters even less than the work I’ve done and the work I’m doing. This is not something I would have believed four years ago. I was convinced Northwestern – the school, the experience, the brand – would change my life completely. I now think I could have had most of these same experiences and benefits somewhere cheaper, or warmer, or less “prestigious.” But for better or for worse, I had them here. I’ll let you know how I feel after the weekend’s over.