How bursting a bubble created lifelong friends

Seven students pose for a photo at night on the beach.

Medill cherubs, including Noah Somphone (second from left) pose for a photo on the beach. Photo courtesy of Noah Somphone

Before cherubs, I’d had exactly one close white friend.

Before cherubs, I’d never met a Jewish person.

Before cherubs, I’d never been in a high school classroom where Asians were the minority.

Wake up call: My hometown of Fullerton, California, wasn’t the real world. I lived in my version of my “dream life,” where everyone looked the same, talked the same and acted the same.

At my school, everyone in my friend group is Korean, Chinese or Indian-American. At my church, everyone is Japanese and Chinese-American. In my community, everyone eats ramen noodles, kung pao chicken, kimchi and boba on a daily basis. I used to idolize UCLA over University of California, Santa Barbara, because the demographic at UCLA was exactly what I wanted: more and more Asians, all 9,809 of them.

Looking back on it, I realize how sheltered I was, living in this bubble I didn’t know I was in. It’s safe to say that coming to cherubs was a culture shock—an amazing one.

I’ve learned that people are just simply people. Just because they look different from me doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy a good bowl of poke or want to grab boba in the dead of night. I felt like I would be the one “culturing” my fellow cherubs about my heritage. Instead, they cultured me about theirs.

In our first meeting, I remember feeling happy that my instructor, Mary Lou Song, was Asian. As I told her what I was feeling, she encouraged me to keep an open mind and to continue branching out. As an extrovert, I felt that wasn’t that hard to do.

It proved to be the most influential advice I received.

Even as an outgoing person, I was also worried about who my friends were going to be. Back home, I had a solid group, but interestingly enough, I told myself that I would only miss a few of them—I was determined to start cherubs with a clean slate.

In the beginning of the program, I found my group of people: there were six of us. Then, I found some more—20. And some more—35. The problem? They were in different groups. I told Mary Lou about it during our next meeting, and she told me there were no limits to how many cherubs I could befriend. From then on, I didn’t hold back. I tried to meet as many people as possible, but on an intimate level.

I tried everything:

I watched the sunrise at 5:30 a.m., walked 2.5 miles to see a bench that a famous photographer sat on, went to the beach and talked about life on top of lifeguard chairs in darkness, filmed iCarly music videos on our dorm floor, sat in a circle on the roof of the visitor’s center and accidentally fell into Lake Michigan.

During the Fourth of July parade, I searched for air conditioning in 90 degree weather with new cherubs who became some of my closest friends. I made memes of everything related to the program, helped make two different Instagram accounts, two Snapchat stories, two huge Snap groups and endless group chats. I slammed into other cherubs in the doorway in the rush to print our stories, ran around campus to write 11 articles in one day and rewrote a lead 30 times until it was perfect.

I climbed into a tree above Lake Michigan and visited the Deering Observatory in hopes of it being like “La La Land.” I couldn’t see the stars that day because it was raining, but I still felt like I was in the movie, living life to the fullest.

And on the night before we left, I sat with my best friends wrapped in blankets on the Lakefill, watched the sun rise over the lake and cried because it was almost over.

Every person I met taught me something different. It was never about if they looked the same, talked the same or acted the same. I discovered the true meaning of friendship that transcends religious beliefs, ethnic backgrounds, political views and other endless arguments that may drive people apart.

The instructors say we’re one of the most caring classes they’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s impossible to imagine a world where we aren’t loving and supportive in everything we do.

During cherubs, I’ve always said that your real friends are the ones you’d call when you visit their city. Let’s just say, my phone contacts now take up a lot of storage.