I was a complete mess when I met Sara and Lori early one morning at Rise Coffee House in The Grove. We laughed throughout our conversation as I spilled milk on myself, the table, and the floor. They had a sense of humor about most things, including the time spent completing the degrees they don’t plan on using (I can relate, one of my degrees was in music to be an Opera or classical singer).
Sara grew up in Nashville, but her extended family lives here which is how she heard about Wash U. She applied for early decision (meaning she applied and would receive an early decision from the school in exchange for committing to Wash U if she was accepted). Lori grew up not to far from here near the Lake of the Ozarks. When she heard that Sara had applied early decision she gasped, “I did too!” They both exhaled “Wooooah” in unison and laughed.
They became friends while working in Wash U’s peer counseling program but couldn’t remember exactly how. They knew I was going to ask, however, so they had an answer prepared, “Our eyes just met across the room.” In reality, there were about 20 people in the same class and it gets intense, with over 100 hours together sharing personal stories and emotions. In the end they had gained 20 new friends, including each other.
At 18, as we’re starting college, most of us don’t know exactly what we want to do and neither did Lori. “If I were to start over, I’d do women’s gender studies, but I didn’t care about that then.” For her undergraduate she is finishing up a degree in psychology with a focus on linguistics. She knows she has learned a lot, but “Am I coming away with any practical skills? That’s not something I thought about going into school, ‘I want to learn something practical.’”
Sara is majoring in French and anthropology, but she didn’t know what anthropology was when she came to Wash U. After learning about it in her freshman seminar she was fascinated by the huge spectrum it offered her. She took classes like The Anthropology of Clothing and Legal Anthropology (both taught by the same teacher) and loved that they all fit into her major, “It was cool to be able to do that.”
Eventually, Sara will probably move back to Nashville to be closer to her family. Lori, who has never lived outside of Missouri, will try a few other places. Right now her plan is to take a gap year with a friend and work in Seattle or Portland. I threw in an awesome reference to some high quality films/books when I asked if she was moving to Washington because of Twilight. The answer was no. Darn.
Uncle Joe’s is a Wash U peer counseling group open to all undergraduate students who need to talk. Lori is the co-director and Sara is one of the trainers. “There’s a big stigma around mental health and counseling,” Lori said as she was explaining that anyone can stop by and talk about anything they want or call the 24 hour hotline. They were both thankful that they had gotten involved with the program because it sparked much of their interest in social work and they met each other. I asked how they found Uncle Joe’s and they laughed. “You know, fumbling around as a freshman…” Sara began. “Maybe this! This looks fun!” Lori finished.
Lori worked an internship at the circuit attorney’s office with the victim services unit and up until that point she would have said that social workers just... “take babies away? That’s like all I would have had in my mind.” It was here that she met people who had their masters degrees in social work and that set her on her current course. “It’s an education on how to help people.”
For Sara, she didn’t have the slightest inkling as to what she wanted to do until she started working at Uncle Joe’s. Lori looked surprised, “Really?!” Initially Sara thought she wanted to do something with environmental issues, but she has loved counseling. It’s not the psychology she’s interested in though. “I feel like it reduces people to what goes on in your brain. There’s my anthropology coming out! There’s so much that makes you who you are..um… and for me… I don’t know, social work is a way to make people’s lives the best they can be. For me, a social work degree is more interesting than a Phd in psychology or something like that, because it allows you to look at a bigger picture, of not just like, what someone’s thinking but what are their relationships like, what are the big influences in their lives.”
Nodding her agreement as Sara spoke, Lori added, “It’s much more about serving people than learning about them.” According to both of them a degree in social work would add legitimacy to what they want to do. Lori has considered taking that a step further and pursuing a law degree but, “I don’t know if I’m brave enough for that yet. It’s a bit terrifying. Real person things. Ahhh… it’s scary!”
Lori doesn’t just help people through Uncle Joe’s, she also volunteers on the YWCA’s sexual assault response team. If a victim of a sexual assault crime is admitted into the hospital, this team is called to meet them there. The volunteer will then stay with the victim the entire time if they want it and then connects them with services afterwards. In terms of the healing process, Lori says that the response victims receive immediately afterwards has been found to be the most crucial in terms of their healing.
Sara is helping in a very different way. Did you know that Cahokia Mounds is an active dig site? Archaeologists from Wash U are excavating bones and ceramics and Sara is helping to sort them. Lori was just as shocked as I was. “Wait, I don’t think I knew that! So, you actually sort artifacts?” Sara shrugged, “Yeah. It’s not as exciting as it sounds.” Except that the other day a professor came into the office where she was sorting and said, “Don’t mind me, I’m just looking for some human bones.” Sara looked freaked out, “Wait… we have humans in here? This changes everything!” I was curious as to how old the artifacts were and Sara was very knowledgeable. “Actually, in North America, the…” she lost her composure and started laughing, “Um… GEEZ. OLD. REALLY OLD.”
There was a prolonged silence when I asked their favorite thing about St. Louis. Lori finally jumped in, “So I didn’t really, like… it wasn’t until this summer that I really felt like a true St. Louisan.” Apparently most students stick to the Wash U bubble and this summer Lori ventured outside of it to volunteer with the YWCA. Experiencing the city a bit more made her curious, so she took a class on community building.
“We did a lot of tours of St. Louis.” Lori continued, “We had two weeks where we had three different history lessons. We covered 200 years each time, like the same 200 years but with different lenses. So it was like, looking at, one of them was just like architecture, one of them was just like… I can’t remember. We talked a lot about race relations, white flight, and how things got to be such a segregated city. I think that gave me a greater appreciation for St. Louis, where it’s been and where it is now.”
Sara took longer to formulate her answer. “What’s my favorite thing about St. Louis… I think that it’s that, like, there’s like a really wide variety of people who live here. I mean I think that’s partially because it’s a big city, but I don’t know, for me, you know, New York or Chicago, those are big cities, but it’s a little more of a uniform mindset, maybe? Whereas St. Louis, people are coming from all sorts of experiences in the same city. I don’t think people are drawn to St. Louis by like a particular identity that St. Louis would give them.” Good point, well made.
We continued to chat about the city, the coffee house, and life after college as we packed up our things and stepped out into a brisk, overcast morning to start our days in earnest.