Going North for College
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I’ll start by stating the obvious. Yes, I am choosing to go over a thousand miles away from home in order to go to college. This decision may seem out of the ordinary, but I am convinced that I’ve found the community for me.
Ashland, Wisconsin is a small town on the Chequamegon Bay, which is on the south shore of Lake Superior. At first (and second, and third) glance, Ashland doesn’t seem like a typical college town. But just off of Main Street lies Northland College, the school I’ve chosen, no matter how unconventional it seems.
Northland College is home to about 600 students, and is hidden in the north woods of Wisconsin. The closest “city”, Duluth, is an hour and a half away, and even that town is not much bigger than our own. I think the question I was asked most often was, “how did you find us?” and honestly, it may have been pure luck. I stumbled upon Northland after being invited to a STEM college search program that matched me with schools that held the most promise for my major. Northland is known as an “environmental liberal arts school”, and it turned out to be what I was looking for, with small classes (think 10-12 people), and hands on learning. After months of planning and haggling with my parents to convince them to look into it, I was finally accepted and able to set up a day to visit.
As soon as I found my way to the admissions office, I knew that I was in the right place. Of course this sounds cliche, but everyone I met seemed genuinely excited to show me around and were easy to approach. Thanks to my counselor and the visit staff, I had an overnight host waiting for me. She seemed almost as nervous as I was, so we made a good pair. After a quick walk through campus to show me what she deemed the most important, she led me to her dorm. I can’t say that I had a wild night or anything, but I was welcomed into her group of friends. We watched movies in her friend’s room for most of the night, but my favorite part of my stay was helping someone cook in the community kitchen. His girlfriend was visiting, so he wanted to be as romantic as one can be as a broke student. We all crammed in the kitchen to help him cook, and I felt instantly at home in the chaos of a bunch of students laughing and telling stories while making a meal.
After a surprisingly restful night, I was ready to sit in on classes. Before arriving, I had chosen two classes I was interested in so that I could witness firsthand the teaching environment. I was in Wildlife Ecology first, and was able to just sit and absorb the conversation. It truly was conversation. Although the students were taking notes, there was an easy connection between student and professor that allowed for an open discussion and shared theories. The professor even told about his own research and drew connections to the lesson. Even with all of this, the most memorable part of the class was at the end when the professor told us that he hoped we could enjoy the unseasonably warm weekend by getting outside. This was such a small gesture, but to me it meant that the passion for the outdoors is genuine throughout students and teachers.
My biology class was different, but held the same attitude that everyone cared about what was being said. The professor had brought in ferns from the greenhouse so that we could see living proof of what we were being told. Although these classes weren’t in labs or in the field, I got the sense that I would love those days all the more.
I later met with a biology professor, and learned in more detail the style of learning that Northland believes in. She told me about the sophomore student who was already a published author, about the trip another student took to Costa Rica in order to work in the forests there. Over and over I was reminded of the unique opportunity I had in front of me. It was all there, I just had to ask. Being a freshman doesn’t mean much; I can still be working and researching from my first days.
The next day was the official visit day, with about 15 other families. I continued to see the deep involvement and passion of everyone involved while the staff and even the president spoke. Luckily, my family was impressed with the tour, and I grew even more sure that this is the place for me. So much so, in fact, that at the end of the event, I enrolled.
The last days of my trip were spent exploring the area, including attending a polka party and a 10k across the frozen bay. Time and again I was amazed by the culture and community of Ashland and how closely linked Northland College is to it. I truly felt as if I was returning to somewhere I’d been before, or somewhere that I was just meant to be. It was so easy to immerse myself in the unique lifestyle that the area presented.
Although I’ve only just come back home, I can’t wait to go back to see the lake and the school in summer. I already have people on my side that I look forward to seeing. The distance may seem insane sometimes, even to me, but it’s been worth it so far. All of the admissions counselors appearing in your email aren’t lying; there really is somewhere that will fit you, even if it’s not what you expected. Leaving high school behind is an adventure for everyone, but I feel that going north will be the adventure of a lifetime.