In my junior year of college at the University of Florida, I learned a valuable lesson about breaking rules, consequences, and the power of the right question.
I worked as a Resident Assistant (RA) in Beaty Towers. The 1994-95 school year marked my second year as an RA, and the job brought me joy. I lived on the fourteenth floor in apartment-style campus housing with two suitemates. (As an RA, I got my own room, a nice perk.) My suitemates and I created a fabulous friendship, which included comical drawings we would make of each other and post on our door. I worked with people who laughed regularly, liked to learn, and supported each other. Most of my friends came from this community of campus housing nerds, and I belonged.
Like many of my fellow Gators, including my suitemates and fellow RAs, I engaged in a bit of underage drinking. We were good kids, studying, getting life skills, and having fun. Of course, underage drinking was not permitted, particularly for RAs. It happened, all the same, all the time.
One Saturday night, my suitemates and I had friends over and beer in the suite. I had stepped into the bathroom to do my make-up, when another RA came by and busted my roommates. By the time I came to the door, she had already decided to write them up and would explain that I was in the room at the time.
After a series of meetings and a hearing of sorts, I got fired. (I’ll reserve the details of that process for a future discussion.) I received the official written notice that I was no longer part of campus housing on November 4th – my 21st birthday. Ouch. I felt angry, embarrassed, confused, and lost.
Over the winter break, my sister talked to me about how I was doing. During one of our chats, she asked if I wanted to take some time off from school and come stay with her in Chicago. My immediate response, “No. I don’t want to leave school, and I’m not really sure how that would help anyway.”
As the days passed, however, her question came back to me. I began asking myself, “Do I want to take a break?” Maybe this break would give me some space to regroup, to let go of my embarrassment, and take time to decide what might be next for me. By the time winter break ended, I had changed my mind. My sister’s question had opened me up to different possibilities about what may come next, namely the equivalent of one semester in Chicago.
Many of my friends warned me not to go. They said I’d never finish school. I’d stay in Chicago and leave my education behind. Despite these fears and warnings, I felt committed to getting my B.A, and I liked being a Gator. I never once thought I would not return. So, in January, I took the leap and moved to Chicago.
I spent the next four months living in the cold and grey, until spring got closer to summer, or what I like to refer as Chicago’s “outdoor patio season.” I worked four different jobs, along with volunteering at the Remains Theater. I took an improv class at the Annoyance Theater. I explored the city. I made friends. I killed some of my sister’s plants when she went on vacation (still a sore point). I lived a different kind of life than that of the Gator college student.
The urban energy fed my soul and grounded me. I felt sure of my choice to get my B.A., while also deciding I could do better academically. I loved the Windy City, and yet still longed for my old friends, the Florida sunshine, and school. I looked forwarding to returning to the place of swampy heat and signs that reminded you to keep your dog on leash lest a gator eat it for lunch.
I returned to Gainesville sometime in June for a summer session. Between then and graduating in December 1996, I earned top grades in my major and the “with honors” designation on my degree.
I believe I would have graduated, perhaps even a semester earlier, had I not gone to Chicago. Yet, my sister’s question opened up not only the possibility of regrouping, but also the possibility of making bigger changes for myself. I still had quite a bit of fun in my final years as a Gator. That fun, however, was accompanied by a focus to achieve more for myself during my college years. And I did.
I don’t regret drinking with my suitemates before I turned 21. I also don’t regret getting reported for it. Had I not made that choice, I never would have had the chance to answer the question, “Do you want to come live in Chicago?” A question I definitely do not regret saying “yes” to.