Live up your experience in college: find your own niche

By Courtney Linehan

I never knew what this job meant to me until one snowy week in mid-February this year. You remember the one.

It was Tuesday morning. My radio alarm kicked on at 6:30 and, just like every day, I awoke to the sound of Mike Cation reading the morning’s news.

“Bad news about Brian Carlwell, after the break …” Cation teased from somewhere in Champaign. I shot straight up, picked up my cell phone to start making calls and realized I had a text message from the night before.

“Are u up?” fellow Daily Illini senior writer Erin Foley had asked at 2:18 a.m. I immediately dialed her number, still sitting in bed, pieces of hair falling out of my ponytail, rumpled sheets at my feet.

“Erin, what happened to Brian? Call me back, what happened to Brian?”

I flipped my phone closed, snapped it back open, and texted Cation.

“What happened to BC?” I demanded.

“Accident. Severe concussion. Critical condition.”

I felt the energy drain from my body. Carlwell isn’t a friend, or even an athlete I’m close to. But hearing that news sent me into a state of shock I could not have predicted.

The next few days unfolded in a web of phone calls, official statements and Internet updates. I talked to reporters from The Associated Press, Chicago Tribune and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, nervously refreshed my Gmail account hoping news would magically appear and combed the fan chat boards in search of some piece of information. I called Illinois Sports Information, Carle Foundation Hospital and the University Police looking for answers.

Two days later it started all over again, only this time I was calling former Chiefs and current University insiders to verify rumors of Illiniwek’s impending retirement. On the way to a weekend in Chicago, I pulled into the parking lot of the Bourbonnais Steak ‘n’ Shake and began jotting notes against the steering wheel of my mom’s Ford Explorer. I quizzed Dan Maloney, the current – now former – Chief Illiniwek, as I drove up I-294.

I learned that week that this was how I would remember college. This was what made my time at Illinois uniquely mine.

We all have stories of drunken nights at fraternity parties, of sleeping through class and pulling all-nighters. We all have great professors and boring teaching assistants, meaningless hookups and heartbreaking breakups, floormates we’ll never remember and roommates we’ll never forget.

But each of us has something that makes our experience here uniquely our own. Something that shapes our years in Champaign into a memory no one else will own in quite the same way. For me that memory begins one fall afternoon in 2003, when I first stepped onto the field at Memorial Stadium – and into a college career where interview sources replaced sorority sisters, where weekend road trips traversing the Big Ten replaced nights at Station and C.O.’s.

Four years ago I wasn’t ready to leave high school. I remember thinking that if I could go back and start at the beginning, I’d willingly do it all over again. Today, I don’t feel the same way about graduating from U of I. I’m excited about moving on with my life, even if I don’t know quite what the future will hold.

But at the same time, I’ve had more fun, learned more and grown more in my four years here than I could have in a dozen trips through high school.

I’ll never forget late night walks down First Street, running to Assembly Hall in the snow, dinners at Fat Don’s and breakfasts at Merry Ann’s. I’ll tell my grandchildren about meeting Charles Barkley, yelling at Dee Brown one night outside of KAMS and finding out I am taller than Rod Blagojevich. I’ll miss late summer evenings at Camp Rantoul and early spring practices at Memorial Stadium. I’ll miss Fort Monk, Busey Evans, Weston, 57 East Green and room 31 in Gregory Hall.

My advice to those who will be back in the fall is to figure out soon what your unique memories will be and where they’ll be made. Then enjoy each moment you have in those places. Cherish each second you spend with those friends. The keggers and classes are what make college college. We all come from different backgrounds. We all enter different majors. And we all leave as different people. The histories we bring here and the experiences through which we filter those histories are what help us emerge from Illinois as newly reborn individuals.

Everyone should spend at least one night at a trashy bar. Everyone should go to at least one religious service. Everyone should make friends with someone you would never have thought to befriend, should take a class that challenges the spirit of what you believe, should visit places and events where you stick out like Yao Ming in a kindergarten classroom.

I’m glad I did. Just like I’m glad I found the friends I would have been drawn to anyway, took the classes I knew I’d love and sought the opportunities that have made me who I am.

Courtney Linehan is a graduate student. She can be reached at [email protected]