Special Feature: Commencement 2011

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'An Incubator to Foster Great Things'

SESP senior Nathalie Rayter reflects on her Northwestern experience

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June 16, 2011

By Nathalie Rayter, SESP '11

It is two days until graduation, and we’re building a campfire. I skipped out on Senior Week with some friends -- most of whom I lived with freshman year -- to camp in Michigan for the night. In typical character, we improvised sleeping arrangements and gave in when we had to buy a third tent to fit all of us. But now, as we’re growing impatient to make s’mores with the biggest marshmallows I’ve ever seen, we’re struggling. No one picked up firewood before we left, and the nearest stores are closed by now. So we’ve set to work as best we can, some of us scouring the brush behind our campsite for kindling and sticks and others digging through our packs for whatever seems flammable. Finally, after a few false starts (and, admittedly, near accidents), we’ve got it: fire.

This is my Northwestern experience: an unlikely collection of people brought together in an incubator to foster great things. I can see that now, when I’m so close to being done. I started here to study journalism, but within my first year, what I wanted from my undergraduate experience became unclear. I switched to social policy, and here, my program afforded me the freedom to build my own curriculum. I took writing courses, law seminars and classes that sent me into different neighborhoods in Chicago, helping me develop a more pragmatic understanding of my studies. Throughout, I had the support of my professors to engage with policy matters critically and to push my learning experience beyond campus and into our surrounding neighborhoods.

Yet in my residential college, I still lived with friends who were mostly journalism and film majors. This kept me grounded in the creative community, guiding me onto the board of Inspire Media, a student initiative to promote socially conscious film and art. Through Inspire, I met so many other students and faculty members interested in creating positive social change through their respective media, whether theater, writing, music or photography. Bridging beyond the film circle, my board connected with the social justice community and redefined our mission as we encountered great ideas from other student groups, bringing us collaborative events and new pilot projects. The creativity and thoughtfulness of the people I’ve met here have never failed to impress me, and each idea was worth trying though not all would work out.

College is hard, and I would never say otherwise, but Northwestern provided me with the opportunity to grow in my study and interests. As I think back to my freshman year, when I first met the friends I’m camping with now, it is the people I’ve met and the environment I’ve spent time in that have helped me mature as a scholar and define what I want for myself and my community.

After graduation, I’ll be teaching journalism in a Chicago high school through the Public Interest Program, a fellowship run by Northwestern. I’ve come full-circle in my academic trajectory, teaching what was once taught to me. And I credit the community that Northwestern gave me for helping me onto this new and exciting path.

I’m sitting around the fire with my friends for the last time in what will probably be a while. By the end of the week, we’ll be sitting on Ryan Field in a sea of purple among our classmates, thinking anxiously about the rest of our lives. Part of me never wants to leave this campsite; another part of me knows I’ve been prepared well for whatever comes next. But for now, I’m content to sit in the dying light of the fire we built, both reminiscing and looking forward to whatever comes next.