Last week, I made my first trip to West Virginia. My reason for traveling there was a bit unconventional. For his entire life, my dad has wanted to travel out there to see sites where our ancestors lived. So he took me and my brothers to go see them.
I’m used to family vacations that are primarily historical. I grew up in a family of history lovers, so vacation usually meant visiting a Civil War battlefield. I don’t remember many of the experiences, because I was young, but I like that it instilled in me an appreciation for history and preservation.
However, this trip was different from those trips , since I am no longer five years old and can now comprehend the history behind the sites I visit.
West Virginia is definitely much different than Illinois, but the small towns we visited were the same. It almost feels like stepping back in time, into a world that’s separated from its surroundings.
That’s both good and bad, but for the most part, it made me appreciate where I grew up.
I grew up in a small town in central Illinois, a town I used to be embarrassed of, but now I find myself appreciating it more and more each day. It’s a relief to come back to a place that hasn’t changed much since I was born.
I’ve traveled across continents and to cities large and small, but there is nothing like strolling through a small town on a warm, sunny evening.
Like many Illinois students, I’m (still) recovering from the transition from spring break back to real life. Some call it the spring break blues, which is an accurate way to describe how I’m dealing with returning from sunny Florida back to gloomy, rainy Illinois.
But I’ve also found the time to sit, reflect and be grateful. Every spring break I’ve had while I’ve been a student at the University of Illinois has brought me new experiences and new memories with friends.
My freshman year, I traveled to Belgium and France with a group of students from the College of Media. It was my first time out of the United States, and it was an experience I will never forget. Being from a small, rural town in Illinois, this trip was what made me realize just how much was out there, and just how much I wanted to explore.
The next year I got the opportunity to travel to London, again with fellow media students. No one can really prepare you for what you’ll gain from a trip abroad, and you don’t always expect that what you’ll gain are friends and perspective.
Each trip has brought me new friends or has allowed me to grow closer to the friends I have. Without these people, my experiences wouldn’t have been the same.
In Belgium, I wouldn’t have the memories of walking down the street at midnight with my friends, laughing about something I don’t remember.
In London, I wouldn’t have the memories of navigating our way around London on our own, or laughing uncontrollably with my friends about something we found in a gift store.
And from this past week, I wouldn’t have the memories of standing on a beach in Florida, watching the sun go below the horizon with my best friends.
There is value in being alone, but there is value in being together — in experiencing something new with the people you love. It solidifies that the moment you experience together becomes a memory.
Each spring break, I’ve returned back to campus with these new memories, memories that I carry with me as I return to normal life. And this year, these memories are all the more bittersweet. But they’ve given me perspective on these final few weeks of classes that will be full of finishing up final projects and soaking up all that senior year has to offer.
This year, I’m thinking about the memories that we make without even knowing — the things that I’ll miss about college life when my friends have moved away and we start new chapters of our life. The late nights spent studying, the unconventional meals made in my kitchen, the laughs we have over dumb things we’ll soon forget — memories that weren’t made on any trip, but ones that I’ll value just the same.
For many lifelong Cubs fans like myself, this is more than a great win for a great team, or the breaking of a “curse.” It’s a win for the people have been waiting for decades for this win, and for loved ones who never got to see this day.
That’s why today is bittersweet. Today, I’m thinking of my late paternal grandparents, who were diehard Cubs fans. Unfortunately the Cubbies weren’t able to get the pennant again in their lifetimes. I know they would’ve been so excited for this milestone in what I hope will be a new era for the Cubs.
But I’m glad that my other grandparents and my parents and all of my friends who are Cubs fans got to see this win. I know they, like many other people, were probably skeptical of whether they were going to see the Cubs in the World Series. It’s a win for all of us.
And even if the Cubs don’t win it all this year, I’ll be happy. I watched history being made last night. I watched people breaking down in tears, hugging their families, sighing with relief. I watched people express pure joy, all because of one team who has been waiting so, so long. I experienced the best part of baseball in the way it spans generations. All skepticism and negativity aside, last night was a testament to the best parts of baseball and how it can bring people together.
This year will be the final year of my undergrad studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Although I plan to have a busy, memorable, and fun final year, I wanted to share a bucket list that could maybe serve as inspiration for incoming freshmen.
If you are one of these incoming freshmen who are fortunate enough to just be beginning their college experiences: know that you really are fortunate to attend this university. It really is a special place. On this campus are thousands of brilliant, kind, fascinating people, and you may have the pleasure to meet some of them. Take advantage of every day you can wake up and be a student at this university, because it gives you a lot of opportunities that you may never see again. Make your own bucket lists, so you can make some amazing memories of your own.
My UIUC Bucket List:
1. See something out of the ordinary
Last year Vice President Joe Biden was visiting our campus, so I left the library I was studying at to go see him drive by in his car. An hour later, I was standing on the quad looking at a camel, and hundreds of students were lined up so they could sit on the camel for a few seconds. It can happen.
2. See a concert at Foellinger Auditorium
I never had class at Foellinger, but the first time I stepped into that building, I was seeing Nate Ruess perform, about a week after I had the chance to interview him over the phone. Since then I’ve seen more bands and performances there, and I think it’s pretty unique that celebrities come and perform in the same place many people have their freshman lectures.
3. Sit in Block I
We may not always win, but I guarantee you will always have fun sitting in Block I, the football student cheering section. Hey, card stunts are something that our school is known for. And even if our team isn’t that great, the Marching Illini are. If we do happen to win, there’s nothing better than after the games when the football team stands in front of Block I, and everyone has their arms around each other singing “Alma Mater.”
4. Get really involved with a student organization
I really think this is more of a requirement to make your UIUC experience worthwhile. Get involved with something that takes up a lot of your time, challenges you, lets you meet new people, and is something that you’re passionate about. For me, it was getting involved with Illini Media, and I really can’t imagine what my college experience would’ve been like without it.
5. Take a class just for fun
It could be out of your major, out of your comfort zone, or out of your area of experience. Bonus points if it’s all three. But let it just be something you enjoy, and a class that you look forward to — and if you’re looking for suggestions, I’d take ATMS 120 (Severe and Hazardous Weather).
6. Sit on the Quad and do nothing
Just sit there. Without a laptop, without your phone, without a book or anything. Sit there and watch people go by and revel in the fact that you’re sitting on just about the most college-y looking grassy quad that has ever existed.
7. Listen to a performance at the Courtyard Cafe
In the Illini Union courtyard cafe area, there’s a little stage and sometimes, if you’re lucky, someone is performing. Sometimes it’s open mic, but one Tuesday when I was done with class I went to sit there to do some studying, and this great jazz group was performing. It was loud and pretty much everyone in the room was entranced.
8. Get a milkshake at Courier Cafe
Although it’s not on campus, Courier Cafe is one of my favorite places to go, specifically for their desserts and milkshakes.
10. Go to sporting events other than basketball and football
Hockey, softball, and baseball don’t draw the same crowds as our popular Big 10 sports, but they do draw a crowd.
11. Attend Holi in the spring
Spend a day outside with your friends acting like a kid, throwing colors and playing with water guns. Asha UIUC puts it on every year, and I went this year for the first time — it was a blast.
12. Study abroad
I never got the chance to go abroad for an entire semester, but I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Belgium and Paris and a week in London with some of my best friends. There is no other experience like exploring a new country for the first time with good friends.
“It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools.” -John Muir
Giant sequoias are the most fascinating, most miraculous living things I’ve ever seen in real life. The way they are created and the way they live on for thousands of years, facing drought, snow, fire –and today they are still standing, admired by millions.
John Muir described them best. “I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death. Barring accidents they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all diseases that afflict and kill other trees,” he wrote in a travel journal. “Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground on which they stand.”
As I’ve grown more interested in science, and specifically in the environment and agriculture, I’ve learned that the greatest threat to sequoia trees is people. But we won’t be chopping them down and using their wood, or carving a hole in them so we can drive through — the threat that we’re creating is climate change.
According to a 2013 article by science journalist Bruce Dorminey, sequoias are being threatened by a combination of increased temperatures and diminished snowpack. Nate Stephenson, an ecologist, was quoted in the article saying: “In 100 years time, we could lose most of the big sequoias.”
It’s pretty baffling to me that something as permanent as a sequoia tree — which has lived through centuries, to see countries rise and fall, to see hundreds of snowfalls and fires and everything in between — could be toppled in just one century, not by something like a lightning strike or a disease, as Muir pondered, but by something humans are causing.
And what would Muir himself think? Recently, I’ve been reading John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. It’s an incredible thing to read purely for Muir’s elaborate and beautiful descriptions of nature. He had so much admiration for every little aspect of nature — the wind, the sound of a nearby stream, the movements of squirrels, lizards, and birds. He had such an appreciation for the smallest, most seemingly insignificant things, that someone else might not pay attention to, and I think about all the thoughts he surely had about these grand, enormous sequoia trees that are larger than life.
Reading his accounts also made me think about my own writing, and in science journalism, how I might use the appeal to the senses and to human emotion that Muir uses so effortlessly. Maybe writing about nature in this way could drive people to go see these places and work to save them, and make people more aware of the challenges these places face and the challenges that are ahead.
I often scroll through my Twitter feed and see article after article about a new temperature record being broken, raging wildfires, ocean acidification…the list goes on and on. And I’ve heard about these problems so often that they’ve become so familiar. I feel like I could easily explain them to someone I know. That’s the impact journalism has. Sure, it can seem excessive when you keep hearing about the same things related to climate change, but then you’re aware. And it becomes part of common language. And that’s when change can happen.
There is surely much more at stake than just the giant sequoias when it comes to climate change. Yet, it would be heartbreaking to see these trees that have stood the test of time be broken by something that we caused. It gives me hope knowing that it’s a problem many are researching and working on, and that there are dedicated science journalists there covering it along the way.
“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir
As spring has sprung in central Illinois, it’s become a lot more difficult to focus on projects and exams when I’d much rather spend all day outside. It also happens to be National Park Week, and today is the birthday of John Muir, the great conservationist and naturalist who helped in the establishment of two of my favorite places on earth, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.
Muir advocated for the protection of nature and spoke often about how he believed that human beings are interconnected to nature. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” he said in one of his many writings, My First Summer in the Sierra. He was changed by nature, and allowed himself to use this passion to make real change in conservation efforts. He gave President Theodore Roosevelt a tour of Yosemite National Park, which led to further protection of the park that so many have grown to love.
Everyone who visits Yosemite should make it their goal to see Lee Stetson’s portrayal of Muir. After learning about Muir’s life, seeing Stetson imitate a man who almost seems like an unreal part of history was pretty surreal. In a darkened room, Stetson, with his Scottish accent and Muir-like white beard, tells stories like of his beloved dog Stickeen. You can really imagine that it’s Muir sitting in a rocking chair, telling you a story about his dog that is both riveting and heartwarming.
Muir’s life was both fascinating and inspirational, and you can’t help but wish it was a life you had lived — spending summers in the Sierra, going on adventures in Alaska, and going through Yosemite with Teddy Roosevelt. But in a way his life has been an inspiration for my own. It sets the example that if you truly love what you are doing, it’s easier to put in the work to see the rewards — for both yourself and others. When I’m stressed out over studying for final exams and scrambling to finish projects, I remember that I’m doing what I’m doing because I have passion for it and it allows me to make an impact in people’s lives. It’s a different kind of impact than what Muir made, but I’m thankful to be able to do it.
As I write this blog post on the nine-hour flight back home, I’m once again grateful for my experiences traveling abroad, but more importantly, I’m grateful for the people I got to spend this past week with and the memories we share together.
Before this trip, I only knew one other student who would be traveling with me to London for the first time. By the end of this week, I’ve made so many new friends and had so many fun times and laughs with my fellow media students.
But we began the trip on a sad note. The terrorist attacks in Brussels, which happened exactly one year after I arrived in that same airport for my Belgium trip, really shook me up. As I explored the city for the first full day with my new friends, I couldn’t help but think about all the lives lost and the people affected for such senseless reasons. It made me appreciate that I live in a world where people come together in unity after such horrible events, and that together we can overcome these things.
As the week went on, I realized the importance of enjoying the experience of traveling, not just running around from place to place, making sure you hit all the sights, and not stopping to enjoy the atmosphere and the people around you. Several times this week I had to almost pinch myself and tell myself I was in London, a city I’d seen in movies and had only dreamed of visiting.
But more importantly, I was visiting such a great city and getting to see it with such great people. I laughed so much on this trip; it was a good break from the crazy stress of college to be able to see new things and enjoy new friends.
Some of my favorite memories from the trip included:
Our first tube ride and a selfie to commemorate it
Making a pit stop at King’s Cross station to take a picture that every Harry Potter fan needs
Faking British accents while we visited Buckingham Palace
Getting scared by a bunch of pigeons in Oxford
Exploring the fun shops in the Covered Market in Oxford