Hours after the last class filed out, an eclectic bunch trickled into a classroom in Tate Hall. Toting Chinese food containers and sub sandwiches, they giggled wildly – even letting out the occasional snort.
In walked Ashley Sogla. While she may be a newbie at the University of Minnesota, she isn’t when it comes to the subject at hand.
Amidst the frenzy of the first week of classes, Sogla, who usually wears her festive maroon and gold hoodie, made it a point to mark Thursday night’s anime club meeting on her planner.
The Spring Lake Park native has been a fan of Japanese cartoons for years, even before the trip to Japan that changed her life. She loves it all – from the “really dark and disturbing ones to the happy-go-lucky kid ones.”
The lights dimmed. Suddenly, thunderous booms and shrieking Japanese voices filled the room. Bright colors and wild shapes flashed across the screen, bathing the audience in pink and green.
Sogla and her friend Nick whispered comments to each other.
“This is probably the weirdest anime I’ve ever seen,” Sogla said, her grin suggesting that weirder is better.
A boisterous girl in front of them turned around and pointed to Nick.
“You’re in my German class!”
Nick looked unsure. While he attempted to respond, Ashley shot back: “You’re not in any of my classes!”
The group giggled. Sogla turned to Nick.
“She’s stalking you.”
Bringing a forkful of Chinese food to her mouth, Ashley said she wasn’t able to eat much during Welcome Week.
The stress of starting school had her on edge, which never bodes well for her health – not to mention her ability to digest food properly, if at all.
“Basically, I have overall sucky health,” she said. “Now that the first day of school is over, I can eat.”
Though it’d be impossible to tell by looking at her, Sogla relies on a variety of medications to keep her out of the hospital.
It all started with a case of pneumonia when she was young. She was hospitalized and heavily medicated just so she could breathe properly, but came out of the ordeal with full-blown asthma. Then there was a leg injury that morphed into a complex where her brain sensed pain that wasn’t there. With that on top of severe stomach issues, it’s been a “continuing battle,” Sogla’s mother, Kathy Swanson, said.
Sogla seems more or less resigned to her problems. Asked if they bother her, she shrugged and said, “I’m kind of used to it.”
Sogla approached Disability Services about her medical conditions. They assigned her to a single room in Yudof Hall. Her immune system is pretty much useless, so anytime a bug goes around, Sogla gets it.
“She won’t get the flu shot because if she does, she catches the flu,” Swanson said. “If we go to the doctor’s office, she can’t touch the chairs because she’ll get sick and we’ll have to go back two days later.”
In any case, Sogla’s dorm – neat and organized, with barely a crumb on the floor – is a reflection of her personal style, and perhaps even her reluctance to leave home.
Shelves next to her bed are filled with rows of stuffed bears, sheep and other childhood playthings. Her bookshelves are lined with science fiction series, ‘Japanese for Dummies’ and anime DVDs.
Law, medicine, Asian languages or English?
Sogla rattles off six different possible majors she’s considering, everything from pre-med to Asian languages. When pressed, she’ll narrow it down to history and English – but it’d be foolish to put money on either.
It’s not that she’s indecisive. Rather, her curiosity won’t allow her to focus long on just one topic.
In high school, Sogla “soaked up medical information like a sponge.” Then there’s law, a profession that would let her argue her point all day long – not to mention fight for people’s rights, a cause she’s passionate about.
“I think unless somebody’s intentionally hurting other people or hurting themselves, there’s no reason it should be illegal,” she said.
And finally, there’s her first love: English. Having worked for the newspaper throughout high school, Sogla’s got a knack for the written word.
It’s frustrating for Kesang Bhutia, a freshman at St. Catherine University and Sogla’s best friend since ninth grade, because Sogla never lets anyone see her writing.
“She said one day after she’s done with her first novel she’ll let me read it,” Bhutia said, “but that hasn’t happened yet.”
All things Japanese
Even though Japanese 1011 didn’t start for another 10 minutes, Sogla, her maroon and gold hoodie now paired with a matching T-shirt, hurried in and grabbed the seat nearest to her professor. Ten minutes early is running late by Sogla’s standards – so late that she had to throw her breakfast, dry cereal, in a baggie and eat it at her desk.
Although it’s a beginner’s course, it’s taught almost completely in Japanese. As her animated professor spoke, Sogla shifted between looking up and writing intently in her notebook. She recited Japanese phrases with the class and shook her head after fumbling over ’87.’
Although neither of her parents are sure why, Sogla’s developed a profound love for all things Japanese. Her eyes light up when she describes her trip there two summers ago.
“Everything there was so pretty, the way they’d combine modern buildings with nature,” she said.
In the three major cities she visited, Sogla said the locals’ kindness stood out.
“In one of the temples I dropped something and didn’t notice,” she said. “About 10 people ran after me holding it. When 10 people run up to you here you’re like ‘Oh crap, what did I do?’ “
“Kind of like having a sister”
Sogla is toying with the idea of joining a sorority, something her grandmother’s always tried to convince her to do. She’s gone to Rush Week activities, toured houses and learned about their respective charitable work.
Her interest could come as a shock to those who knew Sogla in high school, where she hung out with a lot of “geeks,” Bhutia said. Sogla said she’s never had a boyfriend.
“A lot of people at school have this weird notion that she’s only into non-girly things,” Bhutia said.
The friends she’s had her whole life are pretty pessimistic, she said, and the change would be welcome.
“If there’s a test on Friday they’d be like ‘Oh my god, we’re all going to fail!,’ ” she said. “If I’m going out of the country ‘It’s going to be so hot’ or ‘There’s going to be like a tsunami that attacks you.’ “
But in a sorority, “It’s kind of like having a sister,” she said, noting that her real sister is 12 years older and wasn’t around much growing up.
Even if she joins a sorority, Sogla said she’s not the kind of girl you’d see dancing at a frat party. She’d rather play video games or a board game on Saturday nights.
“I’d be the one that’s at the party who says, ‘You should’ve seen what you did last night.’ “
Tom Sitzman always wanted to get out of, and away from, his high school.
In his senior year, Sitzman, who grew up in Otsego, Minn. – “a suburb of nothing,” he calls it – started taking classes at Anoka Ramsey Community College and stopped hanging out with his friends. In fact, he realized that they weren’t really his friends and that he felt he had almost nothing in common with them.
“I totally drifted away from, like, everyone in my high school,” Sitzman said. “I realized I didn’t actually like those people, and they were kind of jerks.”
Sitzman started spending time with a more eclectic group, kids he met from working at Taco Bell, and friends of friends. The conversations, sometimes fueled by marijuana, were better, and nearly all his new friends played an instrument.
Sitzman has played guitar for five years, mostly heavy metal, teaching himself from books he’d bought. He played several hours a day with his younger brother Luke, now 15, on the drums.
In his first semester, Sitzman is taking two music classes, including one-on-one guitar lessons, for which he needed to buy a classical guitar. Sitzman claims a wide variety of interests and could see himself majoring in physics or English and maybe going to medical or law school someday. But, at least for now, he’s holding onto his dream.
“I want to get famous playing guitar,” Sitzman said.
As loud as we want
Sitzman often felt more mature than his high school friends, and he knows why he grew up faster than they did: Both of his parents are clinically deaf.
Sitzman jokes that having deaf parents has its advantages: It was easier to sneak out at night, and he and his brother could jam at top volume.
“We can just be as loud as we want,” Sitzman said. “The neighbors complain though. But, whatever.”
Sitzman acknowledged the difficulty of his childhood. Though he learned to sign, the language barrier between him and his parents was a constant frustration. Sitzman was, and remains, close with his parents and plans to use video chat to keep in touch with them during college. But last summer, he felt he needed more time on his own and spent most of his time outside the house. His parents understood and gave Sitzman his freedom. For this, and other reasons, he admires them.
Sitzman also acknowledged the cruel reality of a musician raised by deaf parents.
“It makes me sad that I can’t share it with them,” Sitzman said. “Because, I mean, it is what I love, and it would’ve been nice to play for them once in a while.”
In his first week of class, Sitzman was an enthusiastic, if quiet, student, scribbling notes in his angular but neat handwriting, all in lower case.
“think of the reading as an artistic creation,” he wrote during his English literature class. “not merely plot, don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it.”
The University was actually Sitzman’s second choice, but he didn’t get in to Carleton College, a small, elite liberal arts school in Northfield, Minn. Though the rejection disappointed him, Sitzman said the tuition price, totaling around $50,000 per year, might have been too steep.
“I’m gonna be in debt here, forever, as it is,” Sitzman said.
Instead of a small school in a sleepy college town, Sitzman chose one of the biggest schools in the country, one located in the heart of a city.
When he toured the University as a high school senior, Sitzman was struck by its size. And last Tuesday afternoon he walked into his first college class and found more than 100 students sitting in an enormous Smith Hall auditorium. Sitzman is still adjusting to the class sizes and said he didn’t muster up the courage to talk in his bigger classes.
So far his favorite class is Guerino Mazzola’s freshman seminar, “What Music Is: Meaning, Reality, Communication, and Embodiment.” Mazzola said many of his freshman students, like Sitzman, have been enjoying and even playing music for years without intellectualizing it.
“That’s a very frequent situation,” Mazzola said. “You love [music], but you don’t know why and how.”
In Mazzola’s class, Sitzman took notes on what Mazzola calls the four dimensions of music: realities, communication, meaning and embodiment.
“I’m interested to hear his take on it,” Sitzman said, “because I think it will help me [with] writing music and becoming a more critical listener.
“My own thing”
On one of his first nights in Middlebrook Hall, Sitzman talked with his roommate, Yuntao Xia, about what it was like growing up in China. They had a long conversation about freedom, with Sitzman asking Xia about the Chinese government and its practice of censoring Internet sites like YouTube and Facebook.
“I asked if he had a problem with that, and he’s like, ‘Well, I guess we just don’t care, you know?'” Sitzman said. “And it was intriguing to me, because if I was raised in a culture like that I’m sure I wouldn’t care either.”
Sitzman had hoped that in college he would easily find the same kind of thoughtful conversations he’d sought out back home. So far, fellow students seem more interested in finding parties, which doesn’t interest Sitzman, who was never much of a drinker.
“I was kind of looking forward to having intellectual discussions all day,” Sitzman said. “But I guess that was kind of an unrealistic expectation to have.”
Instead, Sitzman’s philosophical challenge has come on his own time. He’s been reading a chapter a day of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” a major anti-Marxist text, but he also brought home a flier for an upcoming lecture on “The Case for Socialism.”
Sitzman also brought a few books with him for his own study of philosophy and thought, including texts by Sun Tzu, Plato and H.P. Lovecraft, along with the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
“I got it from a Mormon friend of mine,” he said, and shrugged. “I’m trying to find wisdom from everywhere, if I can.”
On Friday, Sitzman took the train back to Otsego to spend the weekend celebrating the recent birthdays of two of his friends. He doesn’t know how often he’ll make it back, or whether his friends will come up to visit him.
He wonders about how he’ll find new people to jam with and has considered joining a frat. But if he doesn’t, he’s not worried about finding his way at a big school in a big city.
“I came here for the education,” Sitzman said. “And I’ve just done my own thing my whole life, and it’s worked out pretty well.”
Keen Thao strolled through Bailey Hall on Friday with an air of confidence.
Without an ounce of shame or embarrassment, he told the story of setting off an alarm by using the wrong door while leaving the dining hall.
In just a few short weeks, Bailey Hall has become his new home.
“How come I didn’t see you in the lecture today?” Thao joked with a friend playing pool in the lounge. “You didn’t go?”
Winding his way around the stairs and halls of the dorm, he made his way to his room: a relatively plain and unadorned living space.
“I thought you said you were going to tidy up?” Thao teased his roommate Luke Oldenburg, who had clothes on his bed.
He carried over just a handful of old friends from high school to the University, but it’s been easy to make friends with his new roommate and the other classmates living nearby, he said.
Despite his playful attitude among his new friends, Thao goes quiet when the conversation turns inward. Like the spare style of his room, he doesn’t have much to say about himself.
Finding his niche
He speaks quietly with a light accent – the product of his Hmong family and his predominately Asian friends at Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul.
“It was pretty easy,” he said of high school, where grades were never an issue.
What may prove difficult for Thao is finding ways to be involved in University life, as he was in high school.
Rattling off a long list of extra-curricular activities that included student council and National Honors Society, Thao said he worries whether he’ll be able to recreate that active life on campus.
Getting tickets for Gopher sports are one option, but he said watching football or basketball will take a backseat.
“It depends upon whether I’m busy or not,” he said.
Thao has his sights on becoming part of Bailey Hall Council, joining the Hmong Minnesota Student Association and eventually getting into student government with the Minnesota Student Association.
For Thao, college classes aren’t a way of narrowing his academic interests. He first needs to find them.
With biology, drama and media and karate, he enrolled in a wide variety of courses in hopes of finding his niche.
“It went better than I expected,” he said after his first week of class wrapped up. But his week ended on a sour note with a Biology lecture, he said, where he felt lost in a sea of more than 300 students in Willey Hall.
Thao isn’t worried about finding a major. He knows time is on his side. But a degree may mean more for him than most of his classmates.
Keeping the Hmong tradition alive
“I’m here to get an education and job so I can support my parents,” he said.
Thao hopes to carry on the Hmong tradition in which the parents move in with a son of their choice when the time comes. The weekend before classes started, he visited his parents.
“My mom was talking to me, saying she wants me to become successful and live with me,” Thao said.
He described his family as a mix between Hmong and American cultures. Thao is comfortable speaking Hmong, but said his family of six – smaller than a typical Hmong family – usually speaks English at home.
But there’s more to providing for his parents than keeping a cultural tradition alive. Thao wants to give back to his parents for raising him and paying for school.
The ideal of giving back is one that transcends most of his life. He used his involvement in high school to do so and continues today through his Episcopalian church by volunteering and working at fundraisers.
“It’s just something I want to do,” Thao said. “I don’t even know why, but I want to do it.”
In short, it’s part of his identity and part of what sets him apart from the average college student.
It’s apparent church is a big part of who he is, too. Though he’s a man of few words, he spoke at length about trips with his pastor and youth group to Tennessee and Nisswa, Minn. over the summer.
Despite this enthusiasm for the church and his pastor’s encouragement, Thao doesn’t see a career there.
“I don’t really think it’s my calling,” he said.
Nor did he express any interest in medicine. Though his father works for Medtronic and his mother is a medical assistant, Thao said he hasn’t been pressured to enter the same field.
While he’s unsure what profession the future may have in store, Thao hopes to study abroad for a semester – either China or Korea would be ideal, he said.
Life under his own roof and rules doesn’t mean Thao will cut loose and get sucked into the party scene that he avoided throughout high school. If he decides to join his friends for a drink, he’ll still be the same level-headed Thao.
“I won’t really get out of track,” he said.
The benefits are simpler – no more doing the family’s laundry or mowing the lawn.
Even though he still eats and sleeps in his hometown, things have changed for Thao as they have for the rest of the class of 2014.
“It’s just starting a new life without any rules,” he said.
As the gruff, grey haired French professor marched on with his 8:00 a.m. lecture about prepositions at the 1701 University classroom building, some students reached for coffee, while others rubbed their eyes with their fingers.
In the front row, first-year student Danielle James grabbed her cell phone, tucked it behind her binder and notebook barricade and cautiously tapped out a message. But, before the cell could be slipped back into her hooded sweatshirt, it tumbled to the floor, splitting into three pieces.
James froze as a classmate slid his foot in front of the debris to shield it from the professor as she reached over the arm of her desk, nearly tipping over before gathering the pieces into her sweater.
Before class she had told her professor she had to leave early, to his chagrin.
“You have to do what you have to do,” he said. “Write me a note.”
The early exit was for a doctor’s appointment, a quick bike ride away at Boynton Health Service.
She will soon be applying to the School of Nursing. But to be accepted she has to first volunteer at a hospital.
Nursing was the choice for James because of the time she will be able to spend with patients.
Before beginning her six month stint volunteering for Minnesota’s oncology department she has to be cleared for tuberculosis.
“I have to come back Wednesday to see if I pass,” James said. “I’m not too worried.”
If she checks out, James would be on her way to becoming a third-generation nurse, following her mother and grandmother.
Going where she “wasn’t the best”
James, one of the newest additions to the University swim team, winced as she moved up the stairs, still aching from her 6 a.m. gym session.
“I get up at five,” she said, posturing herself to relieve her legs. “Today was our first intense practice and I’m pretty sore.”
The morning schedule isn’t too tough on the early riser who has been swimming as long as she can remember.
Originally from London, Canada, James moved to Lakeville, Minn. at about the age of six and picked up swimming.
At Lakeville she was the star swimmer, peaking at the 2008 nationals, where she finished 19th.
When it came time to select a college, James had to decide between Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“I wanted to go somewhere where I wasn’t the best,” James said. “And all the girls here are faster than me.”
Senior year was a disappointment, James said, which she attributes to her team’s lack of training and focus.
A lack of training is unlikely to be a weak spot for James this year.
“She was an animal in the weight room today,” said Terry Nieszner, co-head coach of the swim team. “She’s so competitive. Isn’t she feisty?”
And while feisty in the pool, outside she is noticeably laid back, letting her busy schedule push her through the day.
The first-year student bounces between NCAA compliance meetings, kid’s swim camps or study hours at Bierman athletic complex.
Even outside of mandatory team events and class, James is usually out with teammates.
Last Friday night was dedicated to teambuilding.
When drizzly weather prevented a camping trip, a swimmer’s house in Eagan became the destination for the “cheesy,” but enjoyable, bonding time, contrasted by the following night.
She described Saturday’s party thrown by gymnasts and attended by some swimmers, as “a little crazy for my tastes.”
First day mix-up
The layout for a first year swimmer is like that of any other dorm dweller.
Her lofted bed and desk sit arms length from her roommate and teammate Kristina Walsh’s. A Canadian flag magnet is stuck to the mini-fridge, a nod to James’ background.
The room has been reorganized at least two times in the first week of school.
James is confident that she will be able to manage her class schedule that includes French, a few chemistry courses and a class for student athletes.
Her lack of concern is echoed by her mother, who doesn’t worry about James’ classes, but spends her numerous calls being assured that things like laundry won’t become an issue.
The transition to college hasn’t been flawless, however. The first class of the year even posed some problems.
“The teacher didn’t say what class it was until we were about 15 minutes in,” James said. “And I was like ‘whoops, wrong class.'”
But after smoothing out her schedule, the swimmer is usually early to morning class, coming straight from practice in a Minnesota swimming sweatshirt and wet hair.
This week things pick up for the swim team, as it starts practicing full time, which means not only two hours in the morning but also another two in the afternoon.
But in the coming months weight room reps must turn into faster times and study hours into a slot in the school of nursing for this semester to be a success.