Oliver: College years have power to transform teens

Forgive me for being a little nostalgic, but my niece Gabriella starts college this week.

She is a freshman at Columbia College in Chicago, just a few miles down the road from Northwestern, where I spent my undergraduate days.

It’s brought back a lot of fond memories, as well as painful ones.

Those years in Evanston, with frequent trips to Chicago, played a large role in forging the person I am today, as these upcoming years no doubt will do for Gab.

For me, it was the first time I had been away from my parents for more than a week or two at a time.

It was the first time I didn’t have someone looking over my shoulder to make sure I ate three times a day, did my laundry and got up in the morning to go to class.

Whether I succeeded or failed depended entirely on me.

Good thing I already had been helped to see the value of following through and being responsible. No doubt that kept me from a lot of heartache, though I scarcely realized it at the time.

I remember how overwhelming everything felt. 

I’d sit beside Lake Michigan, looking south at Chicago’s skyline, and I’d think about how lucky I was to be there. 

My family couldn’t afford to send me to NU, but here I was, and it was an opportunity for which I remain grateful today.

I’m also happy for the many lessons I learned that had little to do with the literature I read or the papers I wrote.

I learned to consider the source whenever I get advice. That lesson came courtesy of taking directions from an NU wrestler who thought nothing of sending a female freshman to the South Side of Chicago via the “L” train. I lived to tell that tale, but it’s a doozy.

I learned that sometimes people will get what they can from you and then toss you aside, like the elite sorority girls who would befriend me for classes and then refuse to acknowledge me when they were over. Sadly, I fell for that one more than once.

I learned to stand up for what matters. My editors at the Daily Northwestern weren’t happy when I decided to put my homework ahead of spending every waking hour in the newsroom, but it’s a decision I still don’t regret.

And I learned to lean on other people when times get tough. In those four years, I endured the death of my beloved father, the murder of one of my sorority’s pledges and the suicide of someone in my extended circle of friends.

These were life lessons that have served me well in the decades since.

Amid all that were many happy times, too, filled with concerts, fraternity and sorority formals, an internship in Kansas City, Mo., and summers working in downtown Chicago.

In the end, it was a journey that took me from adolescence to adulthood.

And it’s a journey Gabriella is embarking on now.

I hope she enjoys the ride, because those years will go by far faster than she knows.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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