A whole new world

A student stands in front of a building and a field.

Bilal Ahmad arrived from Qatar after a 16-hour flight to Illinois, where he was one of five international students. Photo by Roshan Fernandez

On my first day at the Medill cherubs program, I walked around campus, visiting the different buildings. Then the once cocktail-blue sky darkened, and I felt the cold, firm droplets of rain followed by cold gusts of wind. I had come unprepared for the weather. Within a single day, I had experienced my country’s average annual amount of rainfall of three inches.

At 6 a.m. on June 29, I left Doha, Qatar. After 16 hours and 7,000 miles, my plane finally landed at O’Hare International Airport. I somehow made it through immigration without passing out. I anxiously pulled my suitcase behind me as I walked out. I was greeted by one of my dad’s close friends, someone who I had not seen in over eight years.

During our drive, I marveled at the abundance of greenery and brick buildings. As we neared Evanston, I noticed the shimmering iridescence of Lake Michigan. Coming from a hot, dry country where the color palette is predominantly pale and silver, my eyes had to adjust to the rich and vibrant colors of my new, temporary home.

When I reached my dorm on July 1, I walked into the lobby, checked in and climbed three stories to my floor. I met my roommate from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and my fellow cherubs. Unlike back home, where most of my classmates are Middle Eastern, here I was exposed to a multitude of cultures, ethnicities and religions. I talked to people with Persian, Hispanic and Jewish backgrounds. (Ask about everyone’s hometown; you will hear some of the most awe-inspiring stories.)

Over the next few days I ventured into Evanston, still coated in droplets of water from the night before. As I walked through the streets and alleys, I noticed the people going about their daily routines. From the barista at Einstein’s Bagels to the waitress at the Golden Olympic Restaurant, the Evanston community was tightly knit. It felt like I was part of a big family.

I liked walking throughout the city, even the 2 mile trek to the Fourth of July parade. Coming from a country where the average summer temperature is 115 degrees Fahrenheit and the average hottest temperature is 120 degrees or more, Evanston’s average of 75 degrees was heavenly.

If there is a single experience I will miss the most, it would be the opportunities to explore such a beautiful city. In retrospect, I realize the program director was wise to prohibit the use of motorized transportation.

Evanston gave me opportunities to discover, photograph and meet new people and places.

The one weekend I overslept, I felt like I had wasted my entire week. I can’t take back the time that I spent lying in bed burning daylight. I do not suggest being the person who isolates themself in their dorm room. Explore the city, meet its people and indulge in its diversity.