Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Year in Illinois

I split time between writing in this blog and writing in my own private journal. My journal is for me to record my thoughts, figure things out, and document my life. While this is obviously a public forum that I want people to read. I use this to tell stories I think might be entertaining and update people on my Peace Corps process. Its especially intended to help future applicants learn about the process and keep my family and friends informed of what I'm up to.

As I look back on Illinois, I find the desire to write about my experience in my journal and on this blog. There's still a lot of reflecting and sorting and figuring out to do that will hopefully occur soon in my journal. But I want to be able to tell my friends in the Midwest what my year with them meant to me. How it changed me. And how much I enjoyed it.

Even when I was leaving to go to Illinois, I was not sure if the decision was the right one. I had not wanted to continue school originally, and I really wanted to go straight into the Peace Corps. But over time, that position had weakened and I finally decided to do PCMI instead. What's a year? Even if Illinois was awful, I'd be home in less than 12 months. I'd never been away from the South for a long period of time and although Bloomington-Normal didn't sound like the most exciting place in the world, it sounded like something different. And if anyone knows me at all, they know how much I enjoy savoring new experiences.

So my parents and I loaded up two cars full of stuff and drove up to Normal, IL. I remember that first night there. We got off the interstate and asked the gas station where Main Street was (we were on it, but it wasn't labeled that.) And the first night there we helped some guy (who may have been our neighbor) get his car from Bloomington. That was the start to what would amount to a crazy year.

The first few months were settling in and trying to find my place in Normal. My roommates were friendly, and Steve (who had lived in the house before) made sure I felt included in the scene of the city. I focused on my classes and trying to make friends. I also started attended the awesome Newman Center on campus. I quickly found myself at home among my classmates, random social work friends, and the ISU frisbee team. This trio of groups of friends remained for the rest of the year. I do wish I had tried harder to befriend the international students in my classes though, as I'm sure they have awesome stories and interesting lives.

Classes went well for me. I had a strong background in economics and research methods as an undergrad at UGA. I also have been good at math all my life (so not necessary, but type in my name and math into google and see for yourself). So I never did find my econ classes
very difficult. And my non-econ classes were mainly reading intensive. I definitely had to study and do all the work. I don't want to make it sound like a cakewalk, but at the same time I didn't feel it was that much of a shift from what I had experienced before. Oddly enough, I found myself actually ahead much of the time, which was strange to such a seasoned procrastinator. (Although this changed second semester.) Second semester my classes were about the same. Somewhat interesting, not all that difficult. I even managed to squeeze in an extra class with Dr. Ram (Economic Development) so I had a total of five classes. It was lots of work, but manageable. Overall, I felt that I learned a fair amount. I definitely became better with econometrics and I can now read many economics papers if I put my mind to it. There are still many techniques or math (mainly when they start using Linear Algebra (I still wish I'd taken that class as an undergrad)) I don't understand, but I get the overall gist. I understand broad areas within community development, but I wish I had more practical experience in implementing them.

And in addition to knowledge, Illinois blessed me with winter. I'm a Southern boy. And although I don't have rebel flags, own guns, or even have an accent (thanks for everyone I ever met in Illinois for pointing that out to me), I do take pride in some things. Coke, Waffle House, grits, SEC football, and our climate. I'm about to leave for a country that borders Siberia. Had I gone from Georgia weather to Kazakh weather, I'd probably be nervous. But I've done a year in the Midwest, so I have at least some understanding of what winter actually means now.

I can't really complain about the winter though. I enjoyed it for the most part. Before leaving, that's really all I heard about. Winter this and winter that. Just wait for the snow. Over and over again. Being that I am a very stubborn person, I said, Winter, bring it on. I still walked to school every day. I walked to church on Sunday. I even biked on icy roads until I fell down three times and realized that there was still hard pavement underneath it. I quickly found out the secret of layering and had no real problems. I do remember the day I walked to my 8:00 am computer lab assignment and felt that it had been pretty cold. I was thinking it had been like 11 degrees or so. Nope, it had been like 5 degrees with a -13 wind chill or so. That day was cold. But I had also not had my good gloves or balaclava on. (Now maybe this is not comparable to the -40 temps of Kazakhstan and this false sense of conquering a winter is actually worse than fearing it, but that is yet to be seen). Overall though, winter came and seemed to last forever. There was a lot of snow, which I enjoyed 80% of the time. And then it was over, and I enjoyed seeing spring more than ever before in my life.

Even before I left for Illinois, I viewed my year there in a strange way. It would be one year. One and done. In and out quickly. Then off to the Peace Corps. I even declared it my bonus year. I didn't have to worry about it because whatever happened would happen, and then I would be gone. Although I wasn't sure if this labeling would discount or highlight my year in the Midwest. I felt like I had to do everything I could while I was there because that was it, but I also felt like it didn't really matter in the end because I would leave it so soon. There was also a freedom associated with this outlook. Most social fears could be eliminated by reminding myself that that was the bonus year, the year between college and PC that a lot of people spent finishing their studies, and I should just do it because I could.

But a funny thing happens when you get to make friends. You realize that there is no bonus year. Unless you count every moment as your bonus moment. The view that the time spent anywhere won't matter is bogus. But the idea of living for all its worth remains valid. In other words, I was only in Illinois for a year (or 11 months actually). But I created friendships and connections that will last a lifetime. I've had some of my friends there tell me that knowing me has made them a better person. And feeling that I can inspire people is awesome. But they should know in return that they've made me a better person.

I know people change all the time. As a former sociology student, I believe that societal setting has a huge impact on how a person acts, thinks, feels, is. And it's interesting to me how malleable people can be. Even being home now, I feel like a completely different person than when I was in Illinois. But part of that previous me lingers. And that part of me was formed primarily through my interactions with others. I am who I am today because of all the people in my life. And that most definitely includes the friends I made in Bloomington-Normal, IL.

So to everyone I met while in Illinois, thank you for the awesome year. I know I won't be back for at least 27 months, but I will try to make it back some time after that. The memories and times we shared have affected my life greatly. I'm glad I did it. And I'm glad you were all a part of it.

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