Northwestern was actually my last choice. In the fall of 1993, I wanted to be anywhere but Evanston. It was the school that my parents made me apply to — close to home, strong academics and the alma mater of my mother’s frenemy’s daughter. Check, check, check.
I, on the other hand, dreamed of fulfilling my artistic destiny at an elite music conservatory. Or living out my bohemian streak in a crunchy liberal New England college town. Or just recovering from my father’s unexpected death, three months prior, in a place where no one knew what had just happened — New York City seemed dreamily anonymous.
So I started at NU amongst hundreds of bright-eyed freshmen with a chip on my shoulder, wondering if my life was ruined forever. Now, two decades later, I am honored to serve on my 20th reunion committee in gratitude for the experiences that Northwestern continues to provide in my life.
I’ll sum them up here in three themes:
* Taking chances on others: I took a big intro to philosophy lecture class my first semester on a whim. My professor was Kenneth Seeskin, then the head of the department. After finals, he wrote me a letter to tell me I was one of a handful of freshmen who received an A and that I should consider majoring in philosophy. (I did.)
I never forgot that gesture, that statement of belief in my potential to succeed. It motivated me to prove myself.
I now lead The People’s Music School, the only completely free music school of its kind in the country. Through music, we deliver an intensive character-development program that builds brave, creative, problem-solving leaders for tomorrow.
We invest in hundreds of students each year from all across Chicago, taking a chance on their potential. Our students come after school for an average of 10 hours per week, study one of 14 instruments we offer and perform in one of our 40-plus ensembles, playing everything from mariachi to Mozart to Maroon 5. While the program is free, the expectations are high — all students and their parents must contribute service hours to keep the school operating.
Our alums are at Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern, Michigan and more. They major in biomedical engineering, psychology and computer science, often minoring in music. And they credit The People’s Music School with empowering them to change the trajectory of their lives.
* Building relationships: Northwestern brings together some pretty amazing people. Through my dorm (Bobb-McCulloch), sorority (Delta Delta Delta), classes (including a year abroad at the University of Sussex) and more, I met individuals who continue to weave through my life as friends, colleagues, advisers and collaborators, not to mention my husband, Takumi Matsuzawa ’96.
Today, it’s incredibly rewarding to reach current students as I work with faculty like Bryan Pardo on our Music Hackathons, mentor with Gregg Latterman ’96 MBA in his arts entrepreneurship course and partner across the Bienen School of Music on artistic matters. The team behind The People’s Music School is filled with Northwestern influences, including board members, staffers and teachers.
* Squeezing life out of every opportunity: I spent formative years at Northwestern, where I gained the confidence that not much was out of reach. Why couldn’t someone like me, who had never left the country before and had a complex financial aid package, spend 12 months traveling and studying in Europe? It was possible through NU (and amazing!).
I was a proposed English major turned music double major turned philosophy major who became a piano teacher, got into Harvard to study music cognition and hustled into a job at Bain & Company. Why not? After all, our long-suffering football team actually went to the Rose Bowl my junior year — so anything was possible!
My 18-year-old self would be shocked to see me writing this. And very relieved. You don’t outgrow Northwestern — it grows with you in unexpected and special ways, if you let it.
Jennifer Kim-Matsuzawa ’97 is president and artistic director of The People’s Music School.