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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Wisconsin chapter.

But not from what it has taught me 

Everyone says college is the time to find yourself. It’s a unique period of reinvention, exploration and stories you could never live down. It’s four years that people look back on wishing they could relive all over again if they’re lucky enough to experience it the first time around. In these four years, I have never met another student who said they didn’t like college. Sure, there are people who will say in a heartbeat, “It’s just not for me” or, “I can’t wait to be done with school.” First of all, I have never been and will never be one of these people. Secondly, the majority of the time I’ve heard this comment made, it had to do with either the daily busy-work side that comes with an education or the more mundane side of exams, essays and projects. How many times have you heard, “I think I’ll skip the whole fun part of being young without any commitments and just fast-forward right to paying bills and the hard-earned paycheck at minimum wage!”. With graduation now on the horizon, I want to recap what it’s been like living ‘the college life’ and all that it’s taught me along the way. It’s time to look back on my four years at the University of Wisconsin.  

I don’t think I’ll ever forget how it felt to move away from home for the first time. Summer 2018 was a big one for me and my family. One kid was graduating high school and moving to college in August after traveling across Europe for a few weeks. One kid was going to France on a school trip while another was preparing for her year in the lakeshore dorms as a House Fellow come August. The oldest’s wedding set for July made the Spring an exciting and chaotic time at the same time. After the busiest Summer months we’d ever had, I knew it would be even harder to leave for school. On that day in late August, my parents, sister and I pulled out of the driveway for the hour-and-a-half ride to a dorm room I would call home for the next nine months and my stomach sank. It was the first time in my life I’d ever left home for something bigger than a few weeks’ Summer vacation. I remember walking out the door of the local restaurant next to my dorm after a filling lunch and knowing what was coming next. Fast forward past the first few hours in my new room, unloading bins and bins of clothes, knickknacks and school supplies, tears filled my eyes before the goodbyes even started. There isn’t anything more humbling than being dropped off for the first time in a new place where you don’t know a single soul. Over the course of the next few months, I learned what it’s like to share a room with someone other than a sibling, made my first friends in college and made it through my first months in one piece. I still remember that my first day of college was on a Wednesday, and I could show you the exact room where my first lecture was: Western Civilization. Upon being accepted the Summer before, I participated in the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program where I conducted research for the first time. The Educational Psychology Department Chair, Brad Brown, welcomed me and two other freshmen onto his research lab team and I still, to this day, could not be more thankful. While at the time I felt as though I was constantly screwing up and making mistakes, I look back now on the leadership and team we had and feel so grateful for the graciousness that was shown to me. We worked all year long to analyze middle and high schoolers’ social media use and its effects on their social, familial and educational environments. In the Spring of that year, I had the privilege of presenting our findings at the Undergraduate Research Symposium along with almost two hundred other students. I’m so thankful for this experience because it exposed me to an area of study that I previously had never even thought of exploring.  

My second year at UW was really my first when it came to extracurricular activities and club involvement. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t get involved in any campus organizations until my second year on campus. I was involved in the Catholic Church on campus, Saint Paul’s, but that was about it. I decided right away that Fall that I wanted to participate in the same program my older sister had two years earlier. RCIA, or the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, through Saint Paul’s, is the journey I underwent to be welcomed into the Church through the Sacraments of Initiation. Due to Covid, instead of in the Spring of 2020, I was welcomed into the Church surrounded by my family the following Fall. I always knew growing up that I was a Catholic, however, this is the experience that taught me what it really meant. When I applied to an online magazine organization that supported women writers after hearing about them at the Student Organization Fair, I had no idea I would be accepted into it. Walking into the Thanksgiving social that year as a sophomore just joining the club, I was more nervous than I had been for anything in a while. Heading to the social with a jug of apple cider hanging from each hand, I walked into the room and found myself welcomed into an organization that would change my experience at UW. Today I’m so glad I decided to go to that social and put myself out there because it brought me here. 

Through the Music Therapy Association on campus, I got the chance to go to surrounding communities in the Madison area and share my passion for music and singing with others who needed a bright spot. I remember carpooling to the nursing home ten minutes off-campus and noting the name. My grandma had been admitted to a different branch. This was the first time I’d set foot in a place even more sad than a hospital (I find hospitals extremely depressing). We gathered at the front of the room before singing some sort of Beatles, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen compilation, and I can picture the group in front of us. Feeble and tired-looking people who just reminded me of missing my own grandparents stared back at me and left me wondering if they knew who we were or why we were even there. For the first time, I sang not because it made me happy but because I wanted others to feel that happiness. 

Through an organization called Badger Volunteers, I had a very similar experience in the Spring. While we only got to twice before the pandemic hit and changed even the tiniest parts of daily life in March of 2020, volunteering at the Mobility Training & Independent Living Program in Madison made volunteer work not seem like work at all. A woman I cared for whose name was Crystal was the brightest spot of those few hours I spent volunteering at this program. Although her hair was grey and her skin was freckled with age, she wore pretty barrettes, hair ties and clips in her hair, and each time I looked at her she wore a grin ear to ear. While I didn’t know it at the time, the last day that I would work at this program we sang, “You Are My Sunshine” before we ended the day and the patients went back home. Crystal was right next to me holding my hand so tight that I began to lose feeling in my fingers by the end of the song. But I didn’t mind. 

Junior year was a continuation of a time of re-evaluation for me. Beginning the year earlier, I began questioning relationships, second-guessing where I was headed and became frustrated with the fact that I still didn’t know who I was. The March before I was a Junior, an airborne virus that came from the other side of the world was now in the U.S. and made my university in Madison, Wisconsin shut down the school. I remember when the chancellor sent out a campus-wide email telling students getting ready for their Spring Break 2020 getaways to act as if they would not be back to campus until the Fall. Just about the only positive thing I could think of at this point was that there was no better time to be bailed out of Chemistry in the Arts. Back when professors were more lenient on assignments and grades because there were so many unknowns and you were certain that no one wasn’t struggling in one way or another. I have to say, if there were any benefits that came out of the pandemic, this had to have been near the top of the list. 

The Summer was an experience I will never forget. In March we flipped our daily routines on their heads due to a global health crisis and in April one of my brothers was diagnosed with a tumor in his abdomen. For the next twelve weeks, every day was simply about surviving over and over again. Fast forward to the Fall of Junior year. It was hard leaving home after only knowing it for the past six months. Covid interfered with reuniting with friends, any sort of definition of, ‘normal’, and positive mental health practices. I was lucky enough to be a part of an Executive Board for the first time that semester. Her Campus-Wisconsin elected me as the Member Connection, Wellness, & Social Chair for the entire year and I was thrilled. While it was a challenge to bring a group together through zoom, it was fun to do my best to make us feel as much together as a team as possible. 

That Fall, I also somehow miraculously stumbled across a non-profit student organization that I had heard of before but sadly never jumped at the opportunity of joining it. Camp Kesem-UW was a student org that supported kids through and beyond their parent’s cancer. That’s what I’d heard, at least. Until that following Summer, I wouldn’t know what Kesem magic truly felt like. Virtual meetings, Friends & Family days, and socials made that harder to experience. However, I did my best by joining the CKUW Committee that met every Sunday night and I applied to be a Summer Camp Counselor. Little did I know, I would become a counselor to little kids who needed an extra friendly face and who would eventually refer to me as Shrimp. The Spring semester was one I will always look back on and smile. I was fortunate enough to be able to leave my previous living space and move in with my sister on campus for a few short months before she left Madison. It almost felt like we were back home again together but living under a Madison roof where sirens went off and we still needed to go to class. She drove me to the Dane County Humane Society on numerous occasions to look at furry friends that I had joked about bringing back with us. She went to an appointment with me to visit a dwarf bunny who we then actually took home with us. His name is Milo and he’s been with us for just over a year now. The first night after we brought him home, we thought he had died under our sofa when we let him roam the apartment. I got to see my sister graduate from our university before we played on the same softball team and took sailing lessons on lake Mendota that summer.  

When the beginning of this school year rolled around, I couldn’t believe I was a Senior and I still don’t want to. It’s the first year that my older sister hasn’t been on campus with me. It’s been a year of many firsts, actually. It’s my first year in a while with an entirely fresh and new friend group, and the first year where I have truly put myself back out there after Covid. This year is my first time living in an older, run-down Madison house instead of an apartment, and I became a student employee this year. It’s the first time I’ve led a student organization before and it’s also the first time in a long time when I haven’t already long known what’s next for me. In the Summer, I held my first serving job at The Madison Club and became quite humbled because of it. I kept it up through the Fall semester while being a full-time student and working as a student employee and Intern through the Jones Leadership Center housed in the Red Gym on campus. Leading Her Campus-Wisconsin has by far been one of the best opportunities I could have experienced and I wish the time spent doing it hadn’t gone by so quickly. Organizing philanthropy events, holding club meetings every other Wednesday night from seven to eight at night and attending socials has allowed me to meet an amazing group of women and writers that I’ll be sad to leave.  

The time I have spent at UW has been the best I could have asked for and so much more. These are the memories I’ll look back on and smile just thinking about. On Saturday, May 14th, 2022, I’ll graduate with a B.A. in Spanish, a B.A. in English-Creative Writing, and a Certificate in Leadership from the College of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While I am unsure of my path past the University of Wisconsin, I’m looking forward to finding out where it will take me and what opportunities, experiences and individuals will be put in front of me.  

Isabel Fernandez

Wisconsin '22

UW-Madison Senior, Creative Writing and Spanish major Hometown: Waukesha, WI