Alex Willis used his lifelong hobby of baking to keep him busy during quarantine last spring. Willis rekindled his passion for food creation after graduation, which led to an appearance on the fifth season of The Great American Baking Show. Willis earned Star Baker honors twice and finished the season in fourth place.
In this season of celebration, we’re honoring our soon-to-be undergraduate and graduate alumni, and commemorating their time at the University. We reached out to the #NU2021 community via social media to ask for reflections on their time at Northwestern. Here are a few of their responses about the power of place and making adjustments during a challenging time, as well as undertaking important work on campus and around the world.
“Like many Northwestern students, I left campus and went home in mid-March of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, I thought I would be leaving for a couple of weeks, maybe a month at most. However, it quickly became clear that the situation was much more dire than I had anticipated, and I did not return to Evanston until September. Honestly, I didn’t think I would miss the physical space of Northwestern that much. I don’t form attachments to places very easily, and to me, the real heart of Northwestern had always been the people — my classmates, professors, advisers, mentors and friends, all of whom were only a Zoom call away.
For most of the spring and summer, I maintained that I didn’t miss Evanston. However, a few weeks after returning to campus and completing the mandatory quarantine period, I made plans with a friend to sit on a picnic blanket on Deering Lawn and catch up. It was a beautiful September evening, one of the last really warm days of late summer. The setting sun was reflecting off of the stained-glass windows beautifully, giving them a pinkish-purple tinge. The sky was blue and clear of clouds. All of a sudden, I realized that I WAS attached to Northwestern — not just the people but the place itself. I became acutely aware of the joy of the space of Northwestern. It feels good to walk down Sheridan, or to climb the staircases in the stacks of the Main Library, or even just to sit on the lawn outside Deering. After months of rarely leaving my house, it felt especially good to be at Northwestern again. I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the luxury of being in different places until the pandemic began, and this moment of profound appreciation for Northwestern’s campus taught me to appreciate every space that I occupy.”
— Caroline Hsu, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
“Some of my greatest memories involve my work with the office of New Student and Family Programs (now New Student Experience). During my time at Northwestern, I had the pleasure of being a peer adviser for two years. As a senior, I was able to serve on the Peer Adviser Board of Directors as the director for the McCormick School of Engineering. I took part in leadership training courses and reflected on how aspects such as identity shape the way we interact with and lead others. After two years of taking part in these courses, I started facilitating them, which was very exciting. When we were told about having to shift to a virtual format for all of Wildcat Welcome, working with the rest of the board and school partners was extremely rewarding (although hectic at times). While it was frustrating at first to redo months of work, our team really banded together and was able to give the class of 2024 and transfer [students] a welcome that many stated they appreciated so much. Hearing from students that the initial connections we helped create gave them the sense of belonging they needed to make Northwestern a community is something that I will always be proud to have been a part of. And I made some pretty great friends in the process as well!”
— Jacob Kurian, McCormick School of Engineering
“I came into Northwestern as a voice major but soon found myself wanting to pursue a dual degree in music education and social policy. One way that I found to combine those two passions was through the Arts and Music Programs for Education in Detention Centers (AMPED). Through this program I have been able to work with juvenile prisoners at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) in Chicago to create hip-hop music and beats and write lyrics while learning about juvenile criminal justice. One specific moment that changed how I view my place in the world was when I was speaking with a resident of JTDC about what new lyrics he wanted to write for that week. He opened up to me about his home life, what lead him to being incarcerated and the circumstances he is still dealing with at home that inspire him to keep working to be a better person. At that moment I knew just how privileged I was to go to a school such as Northwestern with the multitude of resources offered to me. After I had time to reflect on that experience, I realized how much more I needed to educate myself, keep working on my own personal biases and continue my journey to help break down some of these systems that are in place and designed to make children fail. My experience working in AMPED for the past three years has inspired me to want to be a general music teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system and give children a wonderful, supportive and joyful music education.”
— Lauren Reynolds, School of Education and Social Policy
“Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications is the epicenter of what it means to be a fantastic journalist. Coming from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where I also studied journalism and was heavily involved with two news stations, I knew Medill was the right step to further my future and journalism career! I have never been so confident about a decision in my life, and I’m extremely thankful each day that I am here at one of the best journalism schools in the country.
Quarter one was a collection of the best stress of my life. I remember being pushed to the best of my abilities by professor Craig Duff. I wanted to write about how COVID affected restaurants and was guided with the best advice about how to execute the story. Heading into quarter two I remember reflecting about my identity as a Black woman in the world of journalism, and professor Christopher Benson constantly encouraged me to bring that opinion into the classroom. I continued to learn and acquire skills in professor Arionne Nettles’ coding class, where I have never been so thankful for a patient and understanding professor. Professor Nettles is a beast in the world of journalism! And now as I reflect on my third quarter of graduate school at Medill, I can’t help but think about building upon the broadcast skills I worked so hard to acquire during my undergrad years. I smile ear to ear every Tuesday I trek downtown to professor Caryn Ward’s classroom for TV News Producing. The passion, the expertise, the connection I feel with journalism runs deep in my veins. Enduring an eight-hour day to produce a Medill Reports TV show with my colleagues, only to sit down and anchor the show, is the best stress a broadcast journalist can endure. I’m saying all of this to say, thank you, Northwestern University, Medill School of Journalism. Thank you, Medill, for the memories, all while doing what I love with the people I love. MSJ Class of ’21 has a special place in my heart — I won’t ever forget. THIS is my Medill Story!”
— Diamond Taylor Alexandria Palmer, Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications
“A specific moment that had the biggest impact on my maturation at Northwestern was my experience in the Weinberg College of Arts and Science’s Arch Scholars [programs]: Bio&ChemEXCEL, NU Bioscientist, and Bridge II. I met my close friends before my academic career at Northwestern even started, that summer before my first year. The most memorable experience was the night before our first midterm; we studied quite hard, but I did not actually learn much for the class — I learned about my future best friends, their upbringing and their future motivations. Now, as I look back as a graduating fourth-year [student], I am thankful to have studied that night with them and to have enrolled in Arch Scholars. My fellow cohort ensured that my experiences as a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student at Northwestern would not be one conducted in isolation.”
— Bassel Shanab, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
“My proudest moment at the Pritzker School of Law was supporting the Bluhm Legal Clinic. As a student in the Immigration Clinic, I had the opportunity to work on my first bond case. We spent hours preparing the night before our hearing, staying at the clinic until almost midnight to put out last-minute fires and prepare our case. After hours of hard work and pleading with the judge, we were able to lower our client’s bond and our client was released. We also had the privilege of working with a young girl who was seeking asylum and had gone through unimaginable hardships. This experience had a profound impact on me, and I learned that no matter what the future holds and where my life takes me next, I want to continue to use my legal skills to help others.”
— Brooke Bagnall, Pritzker School of Law
“During the Complete Immersion in Management (CIM) [orientation program], where incoming students are introduced to the Kellogg School of Management’s culture, I met my section mates, ‘The Turkeys,’ for the first time. During the events, particularly a session on creating safe spaces, a powerful moment that would shape our Kellogg experience occurred. My classmate and friend Abby proposed that we all commit to the values of Kellogg: purposeful leadership, promoting community success and achieving together during our time here. Impressively, we decided to do more than speak those words. Everyone raised their hands to commit to creating an environment for all to thrive in. It was a quiet moment, but it was loud with intent. My classmates did not just commit — you could see in their eyes that they meant it. That commitment and the wonderful spirit it created in ‘The Turkeys’ defined my Kellogg and Northwestern experience. I have been inspired by the friendship and love I have received and shared. This strong community was very important at different times of my stay at Kellogg. Knowing I could count on my friends during those few early months of uncertainty when COVID hit, especially as I could not travel or be with my family, was motivating. Also, I was very touched when several of my classmates reached out to support me when there was crisis in my country. Kellogg has been a dream come true for me. My experience has been the exact reason I came to this school. While working in Nigeria, I had observed that Kellogg alumni were not just extremely smart, they were the ones I wanted to be like. I was very intentional about the type of leader I wanted to become and Kellogg’s high-impact, low-ego style resonated greatly with me. Given that a key part of the value of business school is to build enduring, strong relationships, I am very grateful for ‘The Turkeys’ and indeed everyone at Kellogg for the beautiful memories we created in the last two years.”
— Babatunde Oladosu, Kellogg School of Management
“I never used to think of myself as a creator in the sense of producing finished works but rather as someone who brought ideas and components to collaborative projects or to the work of others. This began to change in the fall 2019 quarter when I choreographed an original work for the Fall Dance Concert, but the moment I really felt like a creator was when I debuted my final multimedia performance for my Musical Theatre Dance class the following year, in fall 2020. The work put everyday activities to music to demonstrate that making art is as natural a behavior as birds singing or fish making patterns in the sand. I didn’t have much experience in any aspect of the project besides movement, so it surprised me when I showed the work to my class and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The movement, music and editing all were mentioned as being quite impressive, and in that moment I realized that not only was I an artist but I could create things that make people feel and think all on my own, which never could have happened without my experience at Northwestern.”
— Brady Lee Sharbaugh, School of Communication
“On February 25, the startup that I worked for, springrose, won first place in the Kellogg Venture Challenge! I believed in the vision of founder Nicole Cuervo (MMM ’22) to create adaptive and attractive bras for women with upper mobility challenges so much that I happily joined the team, which also included Natalie Coletta (2Y ’22) and Courtney Weldon (MMM ’21). To me, the most satisfying part about working on springrose is being able to connect with women and physical and occupational therapists who constantly tell us that they are excited that someone is actually creating an adaptive bra in the market. Looking back at the past two years, working on springrose was by far the highlight of my Kellogg experience. I never intended to pursue the entrepreneurship route but really wanted to get out of my comfort zone and try something different — and I ended up loving it.”
— Hans Rojas, Kellogg School of Management
“As a communication exchange student from Qatar, I got the chance to explore another part of Northwestern and share that experience with my peers in Evanston. Being independent and trying to adapt to new changes was challenging at first; however, I was able to adjust. At times when I questioned whether or not being away from home or my parents was the right choice to make, my friends and I would look at the wonderful opportunity to explore a new way of learning. Even though our trip was cut short due to the pandemic, we are still a strong family and will always be in touch.”
— Balkees AlJaafari, School of Communication, Northwestern University in Qatar
“A few [memories] stick out, but if I can pinpoint one it would be the connections I’ve made. One in particular is with a student from another state. We ended up in a class together on a project about a year ago. I now call her my friend. We developed an amazing friendship/sisterhood and have plans for her to come visit my family as soon as it is safe to do so. It’s amazing that I have never met her in person but feel as though I know more about her than I do about people I’ve known for years.”
— Lateesha Thomas, School of Professional Studies
“Despite being an MD-MBA student, the primary thing that helped me create community at Northwestern had very little to do with either degree. In fact, it was through music that many of my most treasured memories at Northwestern were created. Whether performing with the Feinberg School of Medicine’s In Vivo show, the Kellogg Bands or the Special K! Revue, I learned so much about my peers and about myself as a teammate and leader. Regardless of any other accomplishments at Northwestern, it’s likely I will be best remembered for taking the stage (dressed as Dean Eric Neilson) with professor Flaherty at Feinberg’s 2017 In Vivo production — a moment of true levity in something as serious as medical school. In a similar way, the favorite topic of questioning from residency programs was not about my passion for anesthesiology but rather how we transformed the 2020 Special K! Show into a fully virtual production in just a few weeks. The meaningfulness and reward of folks coming together for a shared passion is universal, and I’m lucky to have been able to do it with the students that formed my home at Northwestern.”
— Nick Volpe, Feinberg School of Medicine
“The way professors treat their students at Northwestern has always stood out to me. Despite being world leaders of research, all faculty members I’ve encountered are caring, considerate, patient and articulate — all qualities I’ve rarely seen in top-tier researchers and medical professionals prior to Northwestern. In my cardiovascular epidemiology class, I was impressed with how expectations were set by professors Mark Huffman and Donald Lloyd-Jones, but both of them were so encouraging and helpful with our understanding of the content — something not guaranteed given their demanding schedules. It helped inspire me to not only perform my best in the class but also remember to remain considerate to my peers in everything I pursue moving forward.”
— Benjamin Jacob DeYoung, The Graduate School