My parents both graduated from the University of Michigan in 1990. My dad was an outside linebacker on the varsity football team in 1988, under legendary coach Bo Schembechler. My mom choreographed multiple productions each year for the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. They can both share anecdotes about working multiple jobs on campus and being involved in clubs. Each of them went on to complete master’s programs. They met in class — the jock fell in love with the bookish girl who never went to a single football game. Yes, I know: It’s unbearably cheesy.
Their daughter, on the other hand, is from upstate New York. From the age of 8 all the way until my senior year of high school, I only considered attending a university that boasted a Division I women’s hockey program. The University, sadly, does not offer that particular varsity sport (though it would undoubtedly help to grow women’s hockey in Michigan if it did).
The vague dream I had of being a Wolverine faded during my freshman year of high school when I found out the school didn’t meet my one requirement: Division I women’s hockey. Despite being raised by two enthusiastic University graduates, I had only visited Ann Arbor once or twice, so this news was not exactly crushing.
As I entered my senior year I was being recruited for hockey by some decently well-known academic schools, but in the end I was lured by low tuition and promises of winning a national championship. SUNY Plattsburgh, a Division III school located somewhere in the northernmost corner of New York, is known for having strong hockey teams and a decent childhood education program. I was not there to become a teacher, so my program of choice — entrepreneurship — was not particularly challenging. I tested out of my foreign language requirement despite not taking a language my senior year and barely being able to hold a basic conversation in French. I put minimal effort into my 100-level calculus class and did fairly well, even though my efforts in high school pre-calculus class had been far less successful. School-wise, my classmates thought they were being challenged, but no one spent long nights at the library or Sunday afternoons cramming in a coffee shop. In my management class, I was one of the few people that turned in homework. My professor told me, “Don’t bother showing up to the final, you already have an A.”
So, college hockey was my focus. The daily grueling practices, led by a coach whose only goal was winning, felt less and less worthwhile. Eventually, we won the NCAA National Championship, crushing our opposition 9-2 in the final game of the tournament. Almost every game of the year had been a blowout. We won 6-0, 8-0, 10-1 … our season became boring and predictable, exactly the opposite of what college hockey should be. Winning nationals left me uneasy, in the same way the perfect score in my management class left me feeling like I had cheated. I hadn’t earned anything and was being rewarded just for meeting expectations, not for taking initiative or pushing myself. It was becoming clear that Plattsburgh was not my home.
It took a broken back to veer my path toward Michigan. I left Plattsburgh after one year, clinging to my sport. I moved to Cambridge, Ontario, and played junior hockey there for half a year. In November, my skates were swept out from under me and my neck was snapped backwards onto cold, solid ice. The cheap shot behind the referee left me with multiple herniated discs, and six months later I went in for surgery.
By the time I went to the hospital to have them remove ruptured disc material from my spinal cord, I had been through four different sets of very painful and unsuccessful injections. I had switched doctors, convinced that the first hadn’t given me the best medications or treatment options available. I was taking too many painkillers each day, terrified of becoming addicted, but not being able to function without them. Pain had become a way of life. A risky surgery could fix me, but it would cost me my hockey career. Hockey player was the only identity I had left, and without it I didn’t know who I was.
I had never considered attending a school where I wouldn’t be a varsity athlete, clad in school colors and surrounded by teammates. My recovery prognosis had all along been hazy at best. My mother urged me to apply to other schools besides the ones I’d visited for hockey. Michigan was on the list, but, to me, it still was a fallback. I’d never even been on an official campus visit.
Before I go any further, there’s one thing that I feel I have to clarify to Michiganders. People in New York do not care about college football as much as Midwesterners. In CBS Sports' college football rankings from this week, they list our state’s largest Division I schools — Syracuse University and the University at Buffalo — at 113 and 121 respectively, out of 128 total teams. Michigan is currently number four on that list. Football is a huge reason that the University of Michigan is known as a great school nationally, but when your home state schools typically perform dismally, you try to avoid the rankings. Because of that, we don’t have the same understanding of large state schools that seems to be inherent across the rest of the country. To me, Big Ten schools just meant wild parties. Before I started researching, my parents’ intense love of the school was the only reason I applied to be a Wolverine.
For months in high school, I panicked about what school to attend. After my first college experience, I was even more nervous about making the wrong choice. I confided in one of my best friends, David, with my enrollment decision due shortly and a looming choice between the University and two much smaller liberal arts schools. He knows me quite well, and his advice was simple. “Michigan seems like a Maggie school.”
Thank goodness I listened to him. I started attending the University in fall 2015. My classes are challenging, but I’ve never been more excited to attend them. My dismal placement test last year can confirm that I most definitely was not qualified to place out of French. With some help from my advisor, I changed my major to English and never have to struggle through a math class again. I took up writing about sports for The Michigan Daily — something I never would’ve had time for as an athlete. I found a new identity here. If this is starting to sound like an ad for attending the University, I’m sorry: I’m also a tour guide these days. I’m not on the football team like dear ol’ dad, but I just accepted a job at the Natural History Museum — my mom’s former employer. I even won an intramural soccer championship last fall, venturing into post-surgery athletics. Sometimes the balancing act of a heavy class load and extracurriculars gets tough, as it does for every student. Looking back helps me to realize how lucky I am to attend the best university in the world, even if it took me a while to get here.