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One Week to London

Last year, I went on an incredible trip to Belgium through the University of Illinois College of Media James Scholar program. It was my first trip out of the country and a completely life-changing experience. Going on that trip made me realize how much I want to travel.

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So when the opportunity arose to go on the same James Scholar trip again this year, only to London, I was beyond excited. I’ll be spending one week in the city with fellow College of Media students, visiting the BBC, seeing many of the tourist spots, and taking it all in as an aspiring journalist in the era of digital media.

My college experience has opened my world to so many new things, including my love for science journalism, my excitement about new and social media, and the pursuit of learning new things and meeting new people through my reporting. But being able to study abroad has been an added bonus on top of everything, and something I would’ve never imagined I would be able to do. London will be the largest city I’ve visited yet, so coming from a small town of 1,300 people makes this trip, once again, beyond exciting.

Until my flight leaves on Sunday, I’ll be reading up on London and thinking about the possibility of fulfilling the number one item on my London to-do list: getting that iconic Abbey Road crossing picture that every Beatles fan dreams of. Wish me luck.

 

Ag Tech: Entering a New Era of Innovation

On Thursday, I attended the 2016 Agriculture Technology Innovation Summit, the first conference of its kind on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.

The goal of the conference — organized by Research Park — was to bring together ideas from innovators, companies, and academics and create a forum about where agricultural entrepreneurship is headed for the future. It’s an exciting area of innovation, and you could definitely feel this excitement at the conference.

Speakers presented on topics such as precision agriculture and the future of food. Where are we headed? The future of precision agriculture might include a more “interconnected” farm. Julian Sanchez from John Deere said we should imagine what “things” on the farm would say if they could talk to each other. What kind of information could they provide, and how would this affect precision agriculture?

The real challenges of precision agriculture became clear from the moderated discussion panel. Most of the challenges spur from data, and the massive amounts of data related to agriculture. Panelist discussed how it’s confusing to know what data is meaningful, and how we should value this data in the marketplace. And what’s the best way to collect the right data in a seamless fashion so that it’s beneficial to the farmer?

Questions like these must be answered with innovation, which is why entrepreneurship may have been the most important point addressed at the conference. This was reinforced by one speaker, Aaron Gilbertie of Aptimmune Biologics. He encouraged anyone with a valid idea related to the food animal health to seriously think about starting their own company that will drive innovation.

Panelists encouraged budding entrepreneurs to have mentors, position themselves for success, and overcome their fear of failure in order to succeed.

To feed a world population of 9 billion by 2050, we need a lot of change. A lot of people are going to have great ideas that will turn into some real, tangible change, and they need solid platforms to be able to do this. As a science communicator, there’s a lot to write about. But even more, as someone who’s interested in technology and innovation in general, there’s even more to be excited about.

Winter Weather at UIUC

This semester has allowed me to partake in a part of journalism I have never before experienced: photojournalism. In my multimedia journalism class, I’ve been challenged to move past my comfort zone of writing.

I’m no photographer, but attempting to be one has made me appreciate what photojournalists do every day. In my articles, I can use hundreds of words to tell one story. Photographers have to get an entire story into one picture, one specific moment in time. Just learning about how photographers master this is inspiring.

My first attempts of photography tried to capture the variability of a Central Illinois winter — the frigid temperatures, snow, rain, fog, and 60-degree weather that all happened within the span of two weeks.

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The Main Quad at the University of Illinois, blanketed in snow on Jan. 21, 2016.
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Green Street in Urbana, Ill., is shrouded in fog on the night of Feb. 2, 2016.
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Two days later, on Feb. 4, 2016, it’s a sunny day on the Main Quad.

 

The Best Stories I Read in 2015

I told myself I’d read 15 books in 2015. I ended up only reading 10, mostly because I took a novels course in the spring. I felt a little bad after not meeting the goal of the only New Year’s resolution I made this year.

But I’d like to think I made up for it in the articles and various other forms of writing that I read, though they weren’t in book form. To be a better writer, you need to read a lot, and this year I kept up with the news and read those things that for too long have sat unread on my bookmarks list.

2015 was also the year I became addicted to Medium, the blogging platform that lets anyone tell their story. This year, I often found myself spending way too much time browsing this site, finding stories of all kinds — some inspiring, some clever, some heartbreaking.

I know a story has resonated with me when I’ve done more than bookmark it. I’ll send it to my family and friends and then bring it up in conversation, asking if they’ve read it. These are the stories that I think about from time to time, the ones that stay with me, the ones that inspire me to be a better writer.

Here are a few stories that really resonated with me this year.

  1. “A Dying Young Woman’s Hope in Cryonics and a Future” by Amy Harmon

This was probably my favorite piece of the year, and an incredible piece of science journalism. It tells the story of Kim Suozzi, who died of cancer at age 23. Her last wish was to have her brain preserved, with the help of her boyfriend Josh. This story has everything for me: a clear explanation of the science behind it, a discussion of the ethics surrounding the issue, as well as anecdotes that drew me in.

It was impossible to know on that cloudless Arizona morning in January 2013 which fragments of Kim’s identity might survive, if any. Would she remember their first, fumbling kiss in his dorm room five years earlier? Their private jokes and dumb arguments? The seizure, the surgery, the fancy neuroscience fellowship she had to turn down?

More than memories, Josh, then 24, wished for the crude procedure to salvage whatever synapses gave rise to her dry, generous humor, compelled her to greet every cat she saw with a high-pitched “helllooo,” and inspired her to write him poems.

2. “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz

One of the best and most highly acclaimed pieces of long form journalism of the year. You should take the time to sit down and be totally drawn into this story that explains the inevitable earthquake that is coming to the Pacific Northwest, and includes stuff like this:

Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle. Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone. Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America. When you try it, your right hand will slide up your left arm, as if you were pushing up your sleeve. That is what North America is not doing. It is stuck, wedged tight against the surface of the other plate.

3. “In Unit Stalked by Suicide, Veterans Try to Save One Another” by Dave Philipps

We know there is a high suicide rate for veterans returning from duty, but do we know what this is like, or how they feel? This story begins to tell what that might be like.

“When the suicides started, I felt angry,” Matt Havniear, a onetime lance corporal who carried a rocket launcher in the war, said in a phone interview from Oregon. “The next few, I would just be confused and sad. Then at about the 10th, I started feeling as if it was inevitable — that it is going to get us all and there is nothing we could do to stop it.”

4. “Split Image” by Kate Fagan

Everyone was talking about this story when it was published in May, and for good reason. I couldn’t stop reading this incredibly well-written piece about Madison Holleran, a college athlete who took her own life after struggling in college, a life that contrasted what her social media accounts portrayed. Not only did I feel like I knew Madison, but I thought about what this story can say about the larger problems regarding social media in general, and thought about how everyone, no matter how picture perfect their Facebook posts are, may be fighting their own personal battle.

A little over a year before she died, Madison posted on Instagram a snapshot of a quote from Seventeen magazine:

“Even people you think are perfect are going through something difficult.”

The image had been put through a filter.

The New Normal: UI Professor Deana McDonagh’s Research in Empathic Design

IMG_5897Every morning, Deana McDonagh makes tea. She puts the leaves in a teapot and carefully pours the boiling water in. As the leaves soak, she patiently waits and watches what she calls the “ritual of the fusion.”

Each step — listening to the sound of the water pouring over the leaves, making sure the color of the tea is just right, adding the perfect amount of milk — is a part of McDonagh’s own ritual, one that represents her belief that material objects can make a person more emotionally stable and allow them to live a more fulfilling life.

This belief is one to which she has devoted her life’s work. McDonagh is a professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who researches empathic design. In the past year, her research has led her to become involved in designing products — most recently, in developing a voice amplifier for people with disabilities.

She is also a researcher at Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and is involved in product development and advising emerging startups at the University’s Research Park.

“My area is empathy and emotion, so it’s really important that as we age, as we grow old, as we develop disabilities, everything that we surround ourselves with is empowering us,” she said.

As an industrial designer, McDonagh believes that the products that make up everyday life should work for the user instead of against them. If somebody pushes a door that instructs them to pull, McDonagh said it’s the door’s fault.

“Bad design slaps us in the face every day,” she said. “Good design goes relatively unnoticed because that’s what good design should do.”

Whether it’s food packaging, shower gel, or a car seat, McDonagh believes these products have value because they satisfy needs: emotional, cultural, social, functional, and aspirational. She said these needs can be met if products accommodate everyone’s perspective.

McDonagh said she has looked at the world through an industrial perspective since she was a child. She credits this outlook to being born and raised in the industrial city of Manchester, England.

“Mancunians, which is what I am, they are very industrious,” she said. “. . . I think that suits me well for coming into the American culture.”

Prior to coming to the America in 2004, McDonagh earned a bachelor’s degree in three-dimensional design from Manchester Metropolitan University, a master’s degree in industrial design from the University of Salford, and a Ph.D. in industrial design from Loughborough University. At Loughborough, she was a lecturer and reader before she got the opportunity to teach at the University of Illinois.

The chance to work in a different culture that spoke English was what she said prompted her to teach in another country. Eleven years later, she said she feels more established in the U.S. than anywhere else.

“The longer I’m here, the less I feel the need to go back,” McDonagh said. “. . . I think the more you achieve and the more you prove yourself, the less you have to prove yourself. There’s a track record.”

But McDonagh said it was a track record that did not come easy. Twenty years ago, when McDonagh would attend design conferences and be the only woman in attendance, she would often have to fight to have her voice heard in a male-dominated field.

“I’d be the one talking about empathy and emotion, and it was perceived as, shall we say, trivial, at best,” she said.

In a space that at first did not respect her views on empathic design, McDonagh said she feels the tide changing. She said more designers are now realizing the value of empathy in the design process.

Within her efforts to ensure all perspectives are included in the design process, she personally places a high value on the female perspective. In her opinion, many everyday products have been designed by men, which means they were designed for men — for example, car and plane seats.

“I cannot get comfortable in a plane seat. And it’s like, I want that seat to fit me,” McDonagh said. “I’m paying just as much as everyone else, why doesn’t it fit me? Why am I uncomfortable in it?”

McDonagh said she is fascinated with challenging the “conventional wisdom of the dominant group,” and that it is her goal to “sensitize males to the female experience.” This includes dealing with subjects that may be viewed as uncomfortable. But McDonagh said “being provocative is okay.”

She enjoys embarrassing her students by referring to products such as the P-Mate, a paper funnel that allows females to urinate standing up. She has a few P-Mates stored in her desk and, after shuffling through her drawers to find one, is more than eager to explain how they work.

“You should imagine all the male faces when I give these out,” she said. “. . . Just because we urinate sitting down or squatting, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider standing up. You can pick up all kinds of infections off of toilet seats. Women know that. Men don’t know that.”

McDonagh is also especially passionate about ensuring that the perspectives of people with disabilities are included in the design process. She teaches a course in the University’s School of Art and Design called Disability and Relevant Design that allows disabled and non-disabled students to collaborate on creating products for people with disabilities.

The idea began with a project that was initiated by Lydia Khuri, the program director of four living-learning communities on the University campus and a practicing psychologist.

“I had seen an exhibit documenting race and racism on campus and found it very powerful,” Khuri said. “I thought it would be cool if somebody did that around disability issues.”

She got in contact with McDonagh and pitched her idea. Once the plan was in action, Khuri recruited Susann Sears, the acting director of Beckwith Residential Support Services, a program that supports students with disabilities who live in the University’s Nugent Hall.

“We worked collaboratively together and had this amazing art exhibition display at the Illini Union,” Sears said. “Truly, it was an interdisciplinary initiative, meaning we came from different disciplines, different ways of looking at the world, and worked together collaboratively to come up with these solutions.”

Khuri said working with McDonagh was “a lot of fun,” and that McDonagh’s creativity, energy, and charisma serve her well for her career path.

“She’s got her heart and mind in the right place in terms of doing this work,” Khuri said.

McDonagh, Khuri and Sears decided to continue their research and develop a course around the topic of disabilities and design. Since 2007, McDonagh has taught students how to bring empathy into the design process to create effective products for people with disabilities. The kind of products the class produces depends on who is in the class and what disabilities are represented. McDonagh said they are always diverse, which allows the class to have far-reaching impact.

“If I have somebody with no vision and a seeing-eye dog, or I have somebody who can’t hold a pen, then we have to be really creative and innovative with how they engage with the designing process,” McDonagh said.

The course has brought to life products such as better raincoats for wheelchair users, something that Khuri said was needed since the standard product resembles garbage bags.

“Who wants to ride around in a wheelchair looking like they’ve got a garbage bag on? Let’s get something nice, you know? Let’s make something fashionable, useful, practical, but also really hip,” Khuri said. “Then you’re going to want to wear that raincoat.”

Sears said the aesthetic features of the products they make are just as important as the functional features. “That’s what gives people their dignity, that’s part of it,” Sears said. “That’s why what [McDonagh] does is so important.”

The course recently provided an opportunity for McDonagh to literally give a voice to people with disabilities. In the past several months, she has been working on developing a voice amplifier called AmpliMy. It was designed for Alexis Wernsing, a student with cerebral palsy who took McDonagh’s course and was a teaching assistant for the course this past spring.

Wernsing was collaborating with McDonagh on the project until her death on Oct. 1, 2015. In her honor, McDonagh said she will continue to develop AmpliMy in the hopes of helping anybody who has difficulty in projecting their voice.

From experiences like these, McDonagh has learned that the perspectives of people with disabilities can enrich the world in more ways than one, especially when it comes to her course.

“They bring to us not only a great level of academic capital, but it makes our population a little bit more diverse than it is,” she said. “. . . You look at real people through a new lens to help you develop empathy for others and also see how you can have an impact for your community beyond just doing the ordinary.”

Beyond just doing the ordinary could also be a way to describe McDonagh’s approach to the future of design. She has plenty of ideas for products that can provide functionality and emotional stability.

Essentially, McDonagh sees a future where every product can be tailored to the user’s specific needs. It’s a future that includes products like a toilet that analyzes waste and tells the user if they are dehydrated or lacking certain nutrients, a refrigerator that gives meal options based on its contents, and self-cleaning showers.

Not only does she believe products should improve lives and meet the user’s needs, she believes they should make life more fun.

“I just challenge everything. Why does the dentist drill sound so awful? Why can’t it chirp or sound engaging?” McDonagh said. “From the moment you wake up, everything you touch should be joyful. The color and flavor of toothpaste should give you joy. Don’t leave all that fun stuff for the children. Let us have some enjoyment.”

For this reason, McDonagh encourages her students to look at the world from the viewpoint of a five-year-old, as if anything is possible.

She said that might seem crazy, but for her, crazy is the next normal.

“When I was young, the thought of a phone and a camera, putting them together, was seen as ridiculous and crazy speak. And now it’s like we’ve all got them in our pockets,” McDonagh said. “So it’s just interesting, what sounds crazy today, we have to talk this way.”

She said this will direct and shape what will be developed in the next 15 years.

McDonagh also hopes that more designers will see the benefits of empathic design. She said she is glad to already see this change happening, along with the change of seeing that what she brings to a research group or to students is perceived to have value without the need to assert herself, as it was when her career began.

“For a lot of women in numerically male dominated fields, they don’t feel worthy. You feel like the imposter. It is a well-known situation, where females feel like this,” she said. “That’s way gone. I have a right to be here and so do female students.”

As the first full female professor of industrial design on the University campus, McDonagh is not afraid to make waves. “I’m on a rant and a mission,” she said of her work and her belief in empathic design, which has not wavered since she discovered its benefits.

“You have to really be sure that everything you surround yourself with gives you joy, and it helps you complete tasks in a very seamless way, and that helps with your emotional well-being as well,” she said. “I know it sounds weird, but this works.”

Walking up to Strangers and Asking Them Questions

Two weeks ago, I was sitting at the desk in my tiny dorm room, staring at my cell phone as it rang. I was surrounded by several recording devices (because you can never be too careful) and the feeling that my heart was going to beat through my chest. I was waiting for Nate Ruess — singer, songwriter, and lead singer of the band fun. — to pick up the phone.

I had never done a Q & A with a musician before — let alone one who has won Grammys and collaborated with artists such as Brian Wilson. Since this was my biggest interview to date, it was the most nervous I had ever been, even though it was just over the phone. Fortunately, the interview went really well— meaning that I didn’t completely embarrass myself — and now I have a really cool memory of interviewing a celebrity. I know that if it weren’t for my job as a reporter for The Daily Illini, I would have never been able to interview such a prominent person.

In my journalism classes, I’ve often been told that being a journalist gives me the right to walk up to strangers and ask them questions. Throughout the three years that I’ve been reporting  —  and the nine-ish months that I’ve had some sort of clue about what I’m doing  —  I’ve been able to talk to people from a mix of backgrounds and professions.

Ever since I’ve grown more interested in writing about science and technology, I’ve interviewed a lot of brilliant professors, engineers, researchers, and innovators who give me time out of their day to tell me about what they’re doing and what they’re thinking. To get a glimpse of what’s going through their minds is not only extremely interesting, but inspiring as well. Most of the time, these are people who have worked their whole lives towards one goal. Though they have stacks of awards on their office desks, they’re talking about the next thing that they’re working on, the next step of their research, the next goal that they want to reach.

When I interview people from startups or students, it’s a different kind of vibe completely. They have a lot of potential, but they’re just starting out their careers  —  they have no idea what their future holds. Yet they’re usually pretty excited about it. After all, I could be hearing about them twenty years from now when they’re the CEO of a company or making ground-breaking discoveries in their research.

Whether I’m interviewing a professor, a student, or a musician, I can always find a way to relate. Usually, I get inspired by the things people say just off the top of their heads.

When Andrew Kerr, a University of Illinois engineering alumni who I interviewed before he graduated, told me that “experiences are only as valuable as the people who you do them with,” I thought about how that applied to my own life and my college experience so far.

When Nate Ruess told me that one of the things he’d tell his 19-year-old self is to “let the bad moments happen and learn from them,” I immediately identified with that.

Eli Lazar, co-founder of a startup company called SNOOZ, told me the story about the time he was so close to quitting work on his idea that he packed everything up in a box and was driving away, only to be encouraged by a friend. He drove back, unpacked his things, and eventually successfully created his product after much trial and error.

He later went on to describe how he felt he was “in the phase where you get to dream about how big you can become.” You could also describe my life this way.

Even if you think you’re polar opposites from somebody, even if you’re at completely different stages in your life, even if you feel like you can’t find a single thing in common with them — you can learn something powerful if you just talk to them. I’m grateful that my journalism career so far has allowed me to do this. By identifying myself as a reporter, I can (most of the time) walk up to strangers and ask them questions.

Nate Ruess also told me that while he was singing with Brian Wilson, he learned to have gratitude for what he does.

“To see [Brian Wilson] light up as soon as the music starts, that kind of just taught me to appreciate what it is that I’m doing,” he said. “Because I should be so happy to get to make music for a living.”

Likewise, I am grateful for what I‘m getting a chance to do, and I should be so happy that I get to talk to new people every week, write about it, and learn something new.

Learning by Listening: The Art of the Interview

When I was fifteen, I decided that I wanted to explore a career in print journalism. My mom encouraged me to respond to a job advertisement in my local newspaper. The job was to be a stringer at that newspaper, a small weekly publication. With zero experience, I applied for and got the job.

What happened next was an almost three year-long crash course in journalism for which I will forever be grateful. It was scary to me, to think that my articles were going to be published when I had never formally learned how to structure one. And I’ll be the first to admit that my early articles were pretty awful. But what scared me the most was the interviews. I’ve always been a pretty shy person, so the thought of walking up to someone and asking them questions in a formal setting at that time was generally terrifying.

One of the first articles I wrote was a memorial to my kindergarten teacher who had recently passed away. Needless to say, it was an emotional article for me to start out with. I interviewed several people about how my teacher had touched their lives.

I vividly remember interviewing one of her family members over the phone. As the interview progressed, I grew more and more comfortable. Here was one person who had been affected by a much larger story; one more life that had been affected by cancer. At one point, I could tell that the person I was interviewing was crying on the other end of the phone. I started to tear up as well, and told them how she was my kindergarten teacher and about all the fond memories I had of her. In that moment, I felt connected to this person.

The point is that if you listen — just listen — you’re going to find the emotional side of the story. You’re going to find how people feel about things. How things have affected them personally. And once you have that, you have a story.

Listening is the easy part, and the part I love most about any interview. You sit back, you don’t talk about yourself at all, you don’t give your input. You make it all about them. Right then, they are the most important person in the world to you, and their story is all that matters. If you listen, if you let the pauses linger, then people will often open up to you and give you the heart of the story.

If you’ve never interviewed someone one-on-one, I encourage you to do so. It’s not very often that we have a conversation with someone that is so one-sided, where your own thoughts and opinions don’t matter. And to me, that’s humbling. In any social setting, I’d always rather sit back and observe rather than put myself in the center of attention. When I’m interviewing people, it’s my job to do just that.

I haven’t perfected the art of the interview by any means. I still cringe when I go back to my recordings and listen to how I worded questions or stumbled over my sentences. But with each interview, I learn something new. When someone rambles on about something that doesn’t relate to my article, I learn patience. When someone gives me insufficient responses, I learn how to craft follow-up questions on the spot. When someone skirts around my question, I learn to be assertive.

I’ve met so many incredible people and learned so many interesting things that I would have never known if it weren’t for my reporting assignments. And no matter how many mistakes I make, I know I want to pursue a career in journalism because it allows me to learn every day, whether I realize it or not.

In the words of Henry Luce: “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”

With every interview, I’m getting closer.

Find this post on Medium.

The tree that changed my life

In the summer of 2012, I was on vacation with my family in California when my mom gave me a decision to make.

We could either visit Disneyland or Sequoia National Park, and it was up to me. I had never been to either place, but it was an easy decision to make once I imagined my sixteen-year-old self waiting in line for a Disney-themed ride with my parents alongside me. I decided I wanted to visit Sequoia, and to this day it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

But the moments leading up to seeing my first sequoia tree were anything but extraordinary. As I sat in the backseat of our rental car, suffering as we twisted around the curves of the mountain road that led us to the park, I closed my eyes and cursed my uneasy stomach that was used to Midwestern flatness.

Then we hit a stretch of flat road, and I began to see them: the sequoias, with their iconic reddish bark, speckled among ponderosa pines and cedars. They were nothing compared to what I was about to see.

What I experienced next made me fall completely in love, with sequoias themselves and with the magical feeling of being in a national park.

100_3802At our ranger talk, at the foot of the General Grant tree, the ranger explained how a sequoia starts out as a tiny pinecone, smaller than the palm of your hand. The only way it can open up and germinate is through fire. Its roots grow only a few feet into the ground to hold up trunks that are over two hundred feet tall, with bark that is so fragile and delicate it feels like sponge. Sequoias need fire to regenerate and thrive, so much that the park has to hold prescribed burns.

Their whole existence is one big miracle. And like most wonders of nature, pictures do not do them justice.

Our ranger told us how these trees are just like humans in the way they overcome challenges. They start out so small, with seemingly no potential, only to grow into something larger than life. They need the fire, the fallen branches, and the harsh winters to bring something greater out of them; to bring themselves out on the winning side, with broken branches and charred bark as scars to remind them what they’ve been through.

I was amazed at the fact that this tree had stood for the longest time without any human to admire it. It had lived for almost two thousand years, to see countries rise and fall, through countless wars, through the lives of so many people I admire. It had endured endless winters and fires, silently and stoically.

Anyone else might see this same tree and be completely unaffected. Which is why I was so surprised by how it changed my outlook on life. It made me proud of my country, for saving these wonders of nature and working so hard to protect them. I consider how easily the parks could have become overflowing commercial areas, and I am grateful that they are not, but are instead sanctuaries.


“National parks are the best idea we’ve ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” — Wallace Stegner

After visiting Sequoia National Park, I knew I wanted to see more national parks, not only to view the great natural wonders our country has to offer, but to just experience being in them. Being in a national park is like going on a camping trip with the rest of the world. People from all around the globe are coming to our country to see these places that most Americans do not take time out of their schedules to see.

100_3928Yet you don’t feel like these people are from foreign places, but rather that they could be your next door neighbor that you’ve known for your entire life. You could strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller without even having to introduce yourself. Everyone is in the same state of wonder and awe and happiness, which is what makes the experience of being in a national park so incredible.

“One touch of nature makes all the world kin.” — John Muir

Our national parks are something we can be proud of, but only if we continue to treat them as they should be treated. The National Park Service has undergone budget cuts that have caused parks to open later and close earlier, close campgrounds, lay off staff, and neglect needed maintenance and cleaning. These budget cuts cannot continue if we want our nation’s most spectacular historic and natural places to be preserved and restored. Adequate funding is needed so that sites can be properly managed, staff visitor centers, perform construction on roads and buildings, and hold educational programs for our youth.

The entire budget for the National Park Service is a tiny 1/15th of one percent of the federal budget; in 1982, it was 1/8th. — National Parks Conservation Association

Anyone who has ever visited a park managed by the National Park Service can recall the memories and experiences they had there. These national parks, monuments, recreational areas, battlefields and more also pass on the history of these places for the younger generations to learn about. Without these places, what would we know of our nation’s history? Would our most sacred battlefields and most beautiful landscapes be remembered by a new housing development and maybe a plaque? Would anyone be inspired to protect the beauty of our national parks or the history behind our national landmarks? Would anyone have stories to pass on to their children about their first visit to a national park or be able to share the experience with them?

Unless we start talking about it, the places that our nation can be most proud of may become just a memory. As the Roosevelt Arch, placed by President Theodore Roosevelt in Yellowstone National Park, says, national parks are “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” not to be mistreated and forgotten.

Find this post on Medium.

What small town summers taught me about the excitement of everyday life

There is nothing better than being a kid and having no agenda for three whole months. Having this experience in a small, rural town with a population of about 1,300 people makes it a little different. But it’s something I wish everyone could experience. At the time, it seemed less than glamorous, but now I wish I had those days back. I realize it forced me to create my own fun and allowed for some of my favorite childhood memories.

My experience living in my hometown in central Illinois is not something people fully understand until I explain it to them. It’s a comforting yet repetitive feeling to live in a place where you know everyone and everyone knows you. You go to school with the same people you were in diapers with and you’re with them until the day you graduate.

Growing up, I thought I had a lot to complain about. I felt there weren’t a lot of opportunities for me. I felt pretty isolated — which is understandable since doing almost anything required a half hour drive. I felt like the world was going on without me, and I wanted to be a part of it. Here, I felt like I couldn’t be.

I can’t deny that growing up in my town was different from a lot of people’s experiences, but I also can’t deny that I had a great childhood. I stayed in the same house and school system, I had the same friends all the way through. I was close to my relatives and got to spend a lot of time with them. I grew up in a place full of warm-hearted people who would drop everything to help you out, watch your kids, or run by your place to lend you a cup of sugar.

Without a doubt, my favorite memories that go along with this childhood come from the summers that seemed to drag on and on, summers that I mark my childhood by. Those three months each year were filled with endless fun, most of it occurring in my backyard with my older brother and our two neighbors who were around our same age.

All of them were older than me, so naturally I admired them and would do anything they told me to do. This led to some interesting situations and hilarious stories. There was always something fun we could do in our joined backyards, and I always made sure to join in on it. Together we created neighborhood baseball games, wrote a neighborhood newspaper, made a puddle in my front driveway become one of the most fun places to be, filmed home movies with my mom’s video camera that will go down in history, and invented other unusual activities such as playing snake doctor (just as it sounds).

For three months, my backyard was a magical place to be, and it was the only place I wanted to be. It didn’t matter what was beyond it, or what town my backyard was located in, because within these areas of green grass and swimming pools, a normal Tuesday in June or July became an adventure. Imagine if I still looked at every day as an adventure, if I woke up eager and excited, just because. I envy that ability we all have as a child, the sense of wonder we have towards life. Though spending a day making up games in my backyard and shooting home movies sounds more enjoyable than the online class I’m taking this summer, shouldn’t I be waking up and getting excited? Shouldn’t we all?

What did I lose from then until now that caused this change? In my opinion, it’s the loss of my own sense of creativity and imagination, qualities I had an abundance of during my childhood. The kind of childhood summers I enjoyed are the ones I hope my younger brothers and future generations of kids will have: ones that are unimpeded by video gaming and television marathons, smartphone using and YouTube watching. Ones where the only tool for creating a day that will later become a fond memory is a mind of imagination and great friends to share it with.

These summers, I believe, can act as an example for how I should live my life: excited, carefree, imaginative, enjoying my friends and family who surround me, living as if every day is an endless summer day where anything can happen. For that, I’m grateful for my small town upbringing and the imagination it created.

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Reflections on Freshman Year

The weather’s getting warmer, classes are winding down and finals are looming, libraries are full to capacity, and summer is so close you can taste it.

My freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is over, but I don’t want it to be. Mainly because I can’t imagine it getting any better than this.

I went into my freshman year with a lot of slanted expectations, and of course nothing ended up going exactly as I’d imagined. Some aspects of this year ended up going in an entirely different direction. But for that, I’m grateful. For the most part, I ended up being pleasantly surprised, both at the great opportunities that came my way as well as the things that I accomplished. I never knew what I could do until I was truly challenged.

You know you’re doing something right when everything seems to fall into place. Nine months later, I’m getting paid to write about brilliant, talented and interesting people (I still can’t believe this one), I have an amazing group of friends, I’ve been published on the front page of The Daily Illini, I was able to travel to a foreign country for the first time in my life thanks to the College of Media James Scholar Program, and I’ve seen my perspective on journalism and the rest of the world be enriched by my studies and experiences.

Proof that I've been an Illini fan my whole life.
Proof that I was destined to come to this school.

As a fifth-generation Illini, I have always loved this university. I went to basketball and football games my whole life, visited campus often, and dreamed of going to school here. I wrote in a sixth-grade journal that I wanted to study journalism at U of I one day, and here I am doing exactly that. I wish I could go back to my sixth-grade self and tell her all that I’ve done and accomplished, because I’m pretty sure she’d be shocked.

IMG_3591Though I’m sad this year is over, I’m looking forward to the opportunities that are bound to come my way as my college career continues. And I’m continually amazed by how blessed I have been this year, not only to have had so many opportunities and challenges, but for the friends I’ve made this year. I’m surrounded by incredibly talented, incredibly brilliant and all-around amazing people that have shIMG_3888ared their experiences with me and opened up my small world to a much larger one. I’m more grateful for that than anything else I’ve experienced this year, and I’m so glad I get to spend the next three years with them.