Julia Cohn: Running for thought

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 - 4:35pm

I am both an early-morning person and a runner. These two characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive, but both have one similarity: “This American Life.” “This American Life” is a podcast produced by NPR and narrated predominantly by Ira Glass. It has different weekly themes, with stories ranging from things people regret to how Greece is helping Syrian refugees. For the last six years, I have religiously listened to “This American Life” on my runs. Hundreds of miles logged have been matched with hundreds of stories from people all around the world.

My alarm clock blares before the crack of dawn, I climb out of bed, slip on my running shoes and walk out the front door.  The air has the distinct smell of morning dew: clean and fresh. I press "play" on my podcast, and I’m off, legs running and feet pounding. Ira Glass’s friendly voice rings through my ears: “Every week on our podcast we choose a weekly theme…” This opening statement is one I can recite from memory, that makes me feel comfortable; it is like listening to an old friend.

One rainy morning, I turned on my daily podcast. I heard Ira’s weekly opening statement, his tone noticeably more somber than previous weeks. This, he said, was Harper High School. The “This American Life” staff would be spending two weeks in an inner-city Chicago high school exploring how the school deals with lack of funding, gang violence and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Jumping over puddles and getting more drenched by the minute, I remember tears streaming from my face and mixing with the dreary rain as I listened to the stories of the three students who were shot, the teachers who didn’t come to class and the weekly flooding of the hallways from dilapidated infrastructure.

Harper High School is a stark contrast to my high school, an upper-middle class suburban school where almost everyone graduates and goes to college. And this educational disparity made me angry. So I decided to act. I gathered the support of my peers and faculty and broke through a long-held silence surrounding systemic issues. Students for Social Justice emerged, and with the help of the school administration we launched a school-wide campaign against sexual assault. For the first time, and for the next two years of high school, I was able to be a leader and make a difference.

Arriving at the University of Michigan in early fall brought a mix of fear, excitement and anticipation. High school had supposedly “prepared” me for the next four years, and everyone said the best years of my life lay ahead. The first few weeks of college included thousands of new faces, taking the longest route to class because Google Maps did not know how to navigate through the Diag and working up the courage to do homework in the Law Library. All of these changes were new, and I felt like I was failing to find my place.

Festifall was the most overwhelming event to occur on campus: thousands of booths, flyers and, of course, free candy. I grabbed handfuls of flyers and laid them out on my still-organized desk. All the clubs seemed new, exciting and promising. I could help refugees, join a pre-law fraternity, cook in the South Quad basement or work for a handful of different publications.

I was a typical overly-ambitious freshman, and all of those flyers sat in my desk for weeks. I would occasionally glance at them while getting my next stack of notecards, and a pang of anxiety would pass through my body. I had yet to attend any mass meetings or fill out any applications. Was I failing at getting involved? I felt like the only freshman on campus who was this overwhelmed, but I began to realize I was not alone.

As the semester progressed, my friends changed, my classes got more difficult and the leaves began to change colors. As I continued to doubt my college involvement, “This American Life” remained a constant. My running routes shifted from flat, tree-lined streets to the hills near Oxford Road. Ira Glass’s voice rang in my ears, sharing stories of failures, hope and the possibilities of change. Donald Trump had been in office for a year, but Roy Moore lost in Alabama. There was still hope, and I could make a difference. Hundreds of students on our own campus kneeled for hours in protest. Change could be made in any way. Making a difference did not have to mean joining clubs or starting political movements. Rather, it meant continuing to seek out experiences that made me feel empowered and showed me a purpose. Though not becoming involved in typical college organizations felt much like failure, recognizing my purpose from the environment in which I was immersed each day continued to be empowering.

My surroundings have shifted, but my curiosity and desire for progress has never waned. I see this possibility in the smallest of places: contributing to class discussion, reading the newspaper during a 30-minute break or discussing politics with a newfound friend. Recognizing my peers come from diverse places and have different experiences sparked my interest in asking questions. The transition from high school leadership to discovering interests in unknown places is a new experience. But sometimes experiencing the “new” is just opening your eyes to the world around you. All of this reminds me that I am no longer in my bubble: there is possibility all around me.

Now, I sit through lectures about the history of social justice and civil rights on college campuses. My professors are teaching my peers and me how to lead, pioneering generations of change. This is the kind of change that “This American Life” motivated me to think about. This is the change that I experience unknowingly in opportunities each day. So, “on this week of This American Life,’” I will keep listening, keep asking questions and keep working for change.

Julia Cohn can be reached at julcohn@umich.edu.