By Isabel Seidel
If there is one thing that defines college, it is change. Your first day on campus is filled with new surroundings, new people, new ways of learning, new freedom, new excitement and new fears. No matter how close or far you have traveled from home, a lot in your life will change during your four years at Northwestern. But change can be a blessing in disguise.
While everyone is different, a lot of students choose a college based on the things they value most in their lives as high school seniors. At least, that is how I chose Northwestern. Northwestern was fairly close to home, purple suited my skin tone and the journalism school would surely propel me into a career at a magazine like Vogue. But my decision to compete at the varsity level in cross country and track played one of the most defining roles in that decision I made as a naive 17 year old.
I love a good, clichéd “letter to my younger self,” but this is not a letter to freshman Isabel. The fact is, I cannot change the path that I have taken from the first day of Wildcat Welcome onward. This is a letter to the Class of 2021, some sophomores, juniors and maybe even some seniors just like me. Hindsight is 20/20 and I wish I had realized as a freshman that it is okay to change your priorities as you move through life.
In late August 2014, I reported to campus for my first ever preseason, fresh off two state championship titles in track and absolutely high on life. On the first day, I remember grabbing my brimming haul of Under Armour gear from my new locker, barely being able to fit all the items in my arms. Within that pile was my first racing kit—a purple singlet with a pair of black running buns that read NUXC across the back—which I immediately tried on. Surprisingly, it fit in all the wrong places. The top had a horribly uncomfortable built-in sports bra and the elastic fabric of the jersey would ride up over my hips in the worst way. The buns were cheeky and unflattering.
That uniform set off the mood for my freshman year running career. I still had amazing experiences as a freshman, but more often than not, the days that I suited up in my racing kit usually ended in disappointment. I wanted to love my sport like I had loved it in high school, but it was hard to love something that began to bring me more pain than reward.
I found it so easy to make mistakes. I made every possible mistake that year. I questioned whether I would even be able to get through another year at Northwestern as an athlete, but also just as a student. While that year tested me beyond my limits, I realized that my athletic commitment was the buoy that kept me afloat. It regimented my time like nothing else could. There were workouts that I fell short in and races I gave up on, but I kept at it.
A year later, I came into preseason injured. In late June, I fractured my pelvic bone in a bike crash and spent the rest of the year battling injury. While I trained, I did not race that year. I enjoyed life more than ever before, realizing that there was more to college than racing with the N on my chest.
My junior year fall, however, was very different and much worse. I had bypassed the discomfort of the uniform from the year before and my new uniform had a better fit and fabric. But I hated wearing it. I began to race for the first time in over a year and everything just felt harder than before. The next few months were marred by a constant overwhelming feeling of seclusion and defeat. Once again, the days I suited up in my racing kit usually ended in disappointment.
You’ll realize that as the clock ticks closer and closer to your impending final day on campus, you recognize things that really matter most to you. After my anticlimactic cross country season came to a close, I had my own realization. It wasn’t running or my social circle or my academics that mattered most. It was my own wellbeing and self-worth. All these important yet conflicting factors in my life were simply pieces to the puzzle, and that winter break I made it my mission to find a way to fit them together.
I knew I could do better. Over the four weeks of winter break, I focused on my own well-being and my bruised self worth. I did whatever made me happy. I returned to campus more physically and mentally strong than ever before—stronger than the doe-eyed freshman state champ that arrived on campus three years ago.
I suited up for my first indoor race and somehow, the uniform that I hated weeks earlier felt so right. Within the first few weeks, I realized that for the first time I felt true excitement for the facets of my life that I valued most. I had started to make new relationships and strengthen my existing ones. I loved my classes. I won races. I became extremely devoted to track over the season not just to run faster, but to be empowered by the challenge.
More often than not, I wear my purple issued gear around campus as if I’m wearing a nametag that reads athlete. But the past three years haven’t been all about my sport. Running brought me to Northwestern, but my experiences here convinced me to stay. Your perspective changes. And with that, so did my personal style, my habits, my relationships and the way I value time. College may be a valuable experience on an intellectual level, but it might even be more valuable on an emotional level, far beyond any lecture hall or discussion section. You experience new ways of learning over time through the things you do and the people you encounter.
When you graduate from Northwestern, whether in a few short months or in four years, you will realize just how much you have changed from that freshman marching through the arch in a purple t-shirt to the seasoned graduate that will take senior photos under that same iconic landmark in a pressed polyester robe and cap. Virtually everything in my life has changed from the first time I raced in that uncomfortable Northwestern singlet to the present day. The reasons why I love Northwestern are completely different today from the reasons why I first fell in love with the university three years ago.
Not everyone will love Northwestern. Not every day will be fun. Some of the worst days are yet to come, but some of the best days are yet to come, too. Everyone has about four years to accomplish as little or as much as they would like to.
They say it takes about four weeks for the body to truly reap the benefits of a hard workout. The moment it gets hard and you begin to feel the discomfort, you make the decision to give up or keep going. I decided to keep going. And the funny thing is, you’ll notice that your workouts down the road won’t get easier, but you’ll start to run faster.