It was now the late days of 1987. I had about two weeks left of winter break before I had to head back up North for the second half of my freshman year. The younger siblings I had been excited to see after months away at school were wearing on my nerves. I had talked my dad into loaning me the car for the evening to head over to our friend Glen’s party, but I was starting to sense that the familiar high school crowd gathering there would somehow feel less a little less familiar.
So, I called Sara, convinced her to join me, and the rest is friendship history. You know how you hear about people talking about the moment they fell in love? I think there can be a friend equivalent of that. That night at Glen’s I connected with Sara in a new way, and we both realized the uniqueness of our bond. I left that party knowing we were just beginning something special, but I could never have imagined how our paths would continue to intersect, diverge, and intersect again in the decades to come. We were both of Kentucky, but we were also both curious adventurers, who had been expecting to be welcomed with open arms by new peers in college. Many of whom, at least in my case, expressed surprise that: 1) I was from Kentucky, 2) I wore shoes, and 3) I wasn’t planning to marry my brother.
So much for welcoming.
That was my experience at a private college in 1980s New England. Sara’s early college days in the Midwest held a few surprises as well. The first was that the housing gods at Northwestern had randomly placed Sara in a dorm room directly across the hall from Judy, who had graduated from a top-notch Dallas private school. This same Judy happened to be the daughter of a long-time extended family friend. Sara had heard countless Judy stories over the years, and they were not entirely flattering. Judy’s sophisticated designer wardrobe, perfect manicure and bright red lipstick were more than a little intimidating. Sara rolled her eyes and feared the worst, yet this was actually the start of her enduring lifelong friendship with Judy.
In time, we both started to feel a greater sense of belonging in college. We were able to find our people, and we immersed ourselves in campus life. Preoccupied with our new lives, correspondence between us largely dropped off until we were again at another winter break gathering with high school friends, this time in early 1990. While most of our high school friends were gearing up for another semester of spring formals, Sara and I were about to truly step outside our comfort zones.
As a student in Northwestern Medill’s School of Journalism, Sara was required to do a quarter-long internship at a local newspaper. While many of her more die-hard journalist classmates were sent to Pulitzer-Prize winning newspapers, Sara was assigned to intern at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch in a West Virginia town less than 3 hours from our Kentucky hometown, but it seemed worlds away.
As one of two Northwestern interns at this small-town paper, Sara quickly learned the value of situational friendships. She was living in a shabby, furnished apartment located in dilapidated downtown Huntington, across the street from the newspaper. Thankfully, the other intern from Northwestern was able to snag the apartment next door, allowing them to share a phone line and many otherwise lonely meals. Sara learned a lot in her three months in Huntington, both professionally and personally. The work experience was invaluable. Sara reported on some interesting assignments and came away with clips that helped launch her into writing roles post-college. Sara also gained confidence and humility. This was her first experience navigating office politics and she recognized that while she wasn’t overjoyed about being there most days, she knew it was temporary and tried to make the most of the experience. She enjoyed traveling home to Lexington on weekends when she was off, spending time both with her family and two friends from Northwestern who were interning at the Lexington Herald-Leader.
While Sara was immersed in the cultural innuendos of life in West Virginia, I was settling into a semester abroad in Vienna, Austria. This was my first venture outside of the United States and two years of college German allowed me to not get lost in the airport, but hardly much else. This experience changed me as well. Even though I was in a foreign country, I felt strangely at home for the first time in nearly a decade.
Everything in Austria was an adventure. Buying groceries for the small apartment I shared with my two American housemates tested the limits of my German and the patience of the Viennese shopkeepers. I later realized I was living in a bubble, spending time only with other Americans on the IES program. Friendships formed quickly and were rooted in shared experiences and opportunities for adventure. Politically, my timing was good. Countries such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary that had previously been off-limits for Americans had just begun to open their borders to western travelers for the first time since the Iron Curtain had descended in the aftermath of World War II. These destinations became my weekend getaways. My travel companions and I were often the first Americans local taxi drivers had ever met.
I felt a kinship with my American classmates, as we all were experiencing this unique environment for the first time. But my connection to them felt deeper as many of my classmates attended colleges based in the Midwest or at universities that were not fixated on becoming the next Ivy. These people had similar sensibilities to my Iowa-bred father, reflecting a degree of humility and acceptance I had struggled to find on my New England college campus.
Sara and I managed to keep in touch via airmail letters, sharing our homesickness and gratitude for what we were able to experience. When Sara returned to Northwestern’s campus at the end of March to start her spring quarter, she had a newfound appreciation for her classmates and her community of friends. My absence from campus also had heightened my resolve to embrace friendships and experiences during my final year at Tufts. When my semester in Vienna wrapped up, I had a month to travel before resuming my waitressing job in New England. I stopped first to visit my good friend Ben as he wrapped up his year in England. Sitting in a century’s old pub near his campus in Sussex one evening, we hatched a plan to become housemates our senior year with our mutual friend Bill. Our time away from campus had taught us the value of supportive friendships that pushed us to better. We knew our final year of college would be a good one because we would have each other and a solid home base.
Top photo shows Julia and Ben at their Tufts apartment, Spring 1991.