As I prepare to graduate from EMU and enter the workforce, I can’t help but reflect on how I’ve gotten to where I am.
Around four years ago, I arrived on Eastern Michigan University’s campus after a 3-hour drive from my small Ohio hometown. No one from my high school was attending EMU alongside me, and that was done on purpose. I was a starry-eyed idealist who was convinced that four years in a brand new place, with all new people, would set me on the right path. I would finally have the opportunity to mingle with people who hold my same interests. Things were just beginning.
What ended up happening was so much more than a 19-year-old idealist’s vision of the rest of her life; my time at EMU was a learning experience full of opportunities and hardships. My time at EMU was challenging yet reaffirming. My time at EMU was like nothing I had expected or prepared for.
I spent my first year at EMU volunteering for Hillary Clinton and working 20-30 hours per week off-campus. I lived in the residence halls, but I was largely detached from the campus community. I did well in classes, but I was mostly enrolled in general education courses and almost changed my major twice; things felt very stagnant and I didn’t get instant gratification anywhere. I also remained in denial about my sexuality and about my mental health.
In short, freshman year was about as challenging and rewarding as high school in most areas of my life, but I’m glad I didn’t let that dictate the rest of my college experience.
With sophomore year came greater academic challenges. My education became more specialized, and that brought me peace of mind; I felt that sticking to my political science major was becoming worth it. I began befriending people that made me feel more whole and shared more of my interests, I joined College Democrats, I traveled to Washington, D.C. and finally started visualizing my future in a real way. I became more willing to navigate and understand my sexuality and identity. Things were on the up-and-up, at least temporarily.
The summer between sophomore and junior year was the time when my career and personal development was tested, and when I had to reckon with my inability to address my mental health in years previous. That summer, I was heavily involved in two political campaigns; one for the Michigan Senate and one for the U.S. Congress.
Just when things were starting to ramp up on both campaigns, I lost a friend to suicide. I grieved with the rest of the EMU community when we lost two involved, passionate students that summer, and my grief made me confront a demon I had avoided for years: my own depression. However, it definitely wasn’t out of self-advocacy; I went to CAPS because my friends forced me to. I then ghosted my therapist and turned to alcohol and to work, until I became burnt out and inconsolable. I was in the worst time of my life, and I was at a loss on how to make anything better.
Then, in the beginning of my junior year, I started volunteering during Orientation season as an NSOA. Out of all of my experiences on campus, volunteering for Orientation is the thing that made me grow the most as a person. The spirit and support shown through Orientation at EMU was infectious and made me feel connected to the campus community for the first time.
I needed to find that in other organizations; I needed to at least try to create it. Using that logic, I participated in CPC’s structured recruitment and joined Sigma Nu Phi, the local sorority on campus, for which I became the inclusion chair. In EMU College Democrats, I embraced my position as secretary, and then VP. I had my sights set on change and on creating a diverse and inclusive experience in both organizations, and largely failed to do so.
By the end of my junior year, I was disaffected by both EMU Greek Life and EMU College Democrats. I was worried about whether I still fit in with EMU Orientation when I had failed to translate their values to other organizations. After I had another reckoning with my mental health, I didn’t feel accomplished or inspiring at all. I didn’t feel that new students would think of me as a leader.
Looking back, I think my experiences made me more real, and more human. A good leader, I’ve learned, is often someone who embodies that, and who is honest about their experiences. This vision of what a leader is has allowed me to continue my role in EMU Orientation as an Orientation Group Leader (OGL) and O-Teamer. Nothing could have prepared 19-year-old me for being an Orientation Leader - in all honesty, it would have terrified me, especially with it now being in a virtual format. But without those experiences, I wouldn’t have become the woman and leader I am today.
My time at the Echo, from the end of my junior year to now, has only strengthened and cemented my leadership abilities. I’ve been able to write professional, detailed articles on issues I hold dear, offer election commentary, invest in and start a data team, and help writers improve their writing, interviewing, and leadership abilities.
The Echo offered me a family; something I had desperately sought in College Democrats and in my sorority, and something I desperately needed. While my senior year is mostly highlighted by Covid-19, the Echo is a highlight of my life thus far. I wish I could stay, but all good things must end, and the impact of my experience here will extend far beyond my time on campus.
Much of what this piece is intended to offer you is this advice/insight: Your life, and your college experience, will never be what you expect it to be. It won’t necessarily be worse or better than you’re envisioning; but it will be more complete, more nuanced, more real. You’re going to find yourself in situations you can’t control and in seemingly impossible circumstances. You’re going to have periods where nothing you’re doing seems memorable, and periods where everything seems of utmost importance. Sometimes you’re going to struggle, and sometimes you’re going to thrive. But I can almost promise you that when everything’s said and done, it will be different than you’re expecting.
Do new things, take chances, make mistakes. Be honest with yourself, be self-reflective, and hold yourself accountable. Tell yourself you’re okay, you’re human, you’re capable of lasting change and improvement. Come out the other side battered but bettered. Do all of this for you, and for the people you love, and for future students or friends that take your own advice. You have at least four years; make the lessons you learn expand beyond your time in the classroom.
And as a new EMU alumna, I can promise you: things are just beginning.