My final two journalism classes at Northwestern began the same way every session. After gathering at ceramic tables in Fisk Hall, my fellow students and I would sit and listen.
In Dr. Steven Thrasher’s “Sex and the American Empire,” we listened to songs about imperialism, capitalism, conquest, and other related themes. The classroom speakers boomed with bass as Killer Mike rapped about Reagan-era capitalism, prodding us to think critically about the systems shaping the journalism we were reading. In Dr. Patty Loew’s “Native American Environmental Issues and the Media,” we listened to our professor’s voice guide us through meditation. The subtle rise and fall of my classmates’ breaths made Patty’s expressions of gratitude for the safety of the classroom all the more pertinent.
Throughout that fall quarter — my final as a Northwestern student — I couldn’t stop thinking about the importance of these classroom spaces. Being critical, vulnerable, open and, most importantly, together, we learned and grew. Obviously, this is not true of every class: Northwestern has a history of putting students in danger in the classroom and on campus. But for those last classes, the physical space nurtured our learning in a way that felt particularly special.
At the time, it felt bittersweet to graduate before my friends, to leave those spaces and suddenly jolt myself into adult life when they were looking forward to the rest of their senior years. It still feels bittersweet now, in a very different way. The class of 2020 really got it all, with our first quarter defined by a world-changing election and last by a global pandemic, economic crisis, and revolution for racial justice.
With campus shut down and my friends finishing classes online, I returned to the thought that had so preoccupied me during the fall: Why did those spaces feel so special? I don’t feel particularly attached to Northwestern as a school — I barely went to football games and only have one school shirt. Those classrooms weren’t particularly nice, in a building in need of renovation (No. 23). My only full year on campus was my first, with the other three punctuated by study abroad, journalism residency, and early graduation.
The power of these classes came in the collective pursuit of knowledge. The students around me focused on developing a critical understanding of the world around us and current events affecting it. We weren’t afraid to challenge one another and came together to help each other in the pursuit. Our professors helped guide us, but we were all united in seeking to better ourselves and our world.
Obviously, this is an idealistic view of what a college is. Surrounding us was a legacy of colonial massacre, an administration unafraid to make reckless, endangering decisions, and investments in harm and destruction. As a white student, I was able to engage in my classes without having to worry too much about microaggressions or harassment. But by that last quarter, I had seen enough of Northwestern to make me wary of giving credit to the institution.
Six months out of college, I’ve come to realize that those spaces weren’t so unique after all. What made those classrooms unique were the communities that formed within them. I’ve realized that the most I can expect of my college experience — the most I can expect anyone to expect of it — is to emerge with a distrust of institutions and existing power structures and an embrace of community approaches to knowledge. Much of what sticks with me from Northwestern emerged from candid conversations at a table in Norris, or in the GSRC, or walking along the Lakefill.
What made Northwestern a place where I could become more self-critical and analytical was not a massive endowment, a top-10 ranking, or a glass castle — it was the people. I realize that many of those people, myself included, were attracted to the school because of its prestige. But meeting and conversing with them in shared surroundings created a community committed to more than just higher rankings or more donor money.
What all this amounts to, for me, is an urging to current and future Northwestern students: Don’t let your time slip by. Challenge yourself with classes on new topics, conversations with new people, adventures to new places. And most importantly, don’t let your growth at Northwestern be solely for your own benefit. Continue challenging yourself to develop and pushing yourself to change the world around you. Angela Davis said it better during a 2008 lecture at UC Davis: “The critical impulse which I want to suggest we need to develop involves a commitment to use knowledge in a transformative way. To use knowledge as a way of helping us to remake the world, to remake the world so that it is better for all of its inhabitants.” It’s as good a time as any to remake the world right now.