My Generation

Had It Not Been for 4-H House

A cooperative housing unit at the University of Illinois made a profound difference in my life. May it continue to do the same for generations.

Aside from the obvious - things like my family and my husband - there are basically three things that have made me the person I am today:

1. God
2. The University of Illinois
3. 4-H House

And pretty much in that order.

For purposes of this blog, I'm going to skip to number three.  

4-H House rocks. It was my home-away-from-home in college. It's a cooperative housing unit for women on the University of Illinois campus, which until now, required five years of 4-H experience. The girls do their own cooking and cleaning (serious good times, masquerading as work), and the whole place costs a fraction of what residence halls charge.

It was that place where, the moment I landed there, I knew it was right. When my parents pulled the loaded Caprice Classic up to the curb at 805 W. Ohio on a hot August morning and a dozen girls descended upon it, grabbing boxes and bags and hauling them – and me – upstairs, it just felt right.

That's the essential premise of 4-H House: to live and work together, to reduce costs of living, to promote the natural camaraderie that comes from working together, and to create a more affordable place to live on campus. And, as an aside, to create a community of women of similar backgrounds, anchoring them to what they know in order to give them the ability to branch out and experience all the best of the university. When your roots are strong, you can spread your wings. Or something like that. That sounds like a plaque but I totally just made it up.

Anyway. There's an oddity at 4-H House right now, or at least it seems so to me. Over time, 4-H enrollment has declined, and with it, some degree of interest in 4-H House. The house, of course, has no ties to the Illinois 4-H program; the requirement was simply a way of gathering young women from rural backgrounds – not surprising when you consider the women who first organized the house did so during the Depression and paid their house bills with home-canned goods. Given that history, it seems impossible to believe that in a time when college costs have sky-rocketed and when our economy is as troubled as it is, that a low-cost housing option for rural women would see less interest. I very clearly remember standing in the foyer at 4-H House with my dad and a 4-H House girl when I came up to interview, in the spring of 1994. At that time, residence halls cost between $4,000 and $5,000 a year. She told us that 4-H House would cost just $900 a semester. Dad – a southern Illinois farmer not so far removed from the '80s – looked at me and said, "You better get in." Point taken.

And yet, here's the house in 2012, with fewer applicants.

So, what to do? For years, alums have debated whether to lower the requirement. And now they have. This year, for the first time, applicants will be accepted who have either three years of 4-H experience or three years of recognized leadership in another organization. That is, intentionally, wide open: it could be FFA, student council, youth group or more. 4-H House alumni will vote on this measure later in the year, but in the meantime, the alum board has opened up the application process for this spring.

My wish, I suppose, is for the high school girls who are considering the University of Illinois to really, deeply consider what 4-H House could do for them. There is so much value in living under the same roof together. I cannot overstate that. That's where the living happens.

That's where the practical life skills happen, too. Like how to unplug a toilet. (Thanks to House Manager Jane Bickelhaupt, who, in teaching me to be house manager, pulled me aside and showed me the finer points of toilet plunging and toilet repair. I have never seen anyone attack a toilet the way she did. It was, in a word, impressive. I just used that knowledge to help Jenna's piano teacher fix her toilet. See? Practical.) Also, conversely, how to make massive amounts of mashed potatoes. How to plan pork chops for 50 people. How to show up, do a job, do it right, and move on. And how to get along with 55 women, to work in a group, and to do your best when everything else seems to go wrong. Amen.

It was also the place where I was encouraged to give back. To join a worthy cause, to work hard and to use whatever gifts I might have to better the people and the places around me. There's very little like having an upperclass woman you look up to grab your hand and say, "You need to go to (fill in the blank). You will learn a lot. You will meet good people. Let's go." That's powerful motivation.

For me, most of all, it was the place of deep, valuable, long-lasting friendships. Friendships that were carved out while baking party potatoes, while figuring out how to lead a houseful of women, while cleaning bathrooms together and painting porches. Friendships that were made during late-night conversations, rowdy half-hours and saran-wrapped dorm beds (use heavy-duty saran and a hairdryer, just a tip from me to you).

I have written before about my dear, sweet, silly friend Rachel, who died so suddenly just six years ago. I can hardly overstate how heart-wrenching it was to lose her; and how every day, still, I think of things to tell her that only she could truly appreciate. I was blessed to have a friend so wonderful that it hurt so much when she was gone. Yet some of my most favorite memories of Rachel were of late-night talks, of sleepy-Rachel-in-the-morning, of all of us in our 4-H House sweatshirts and laughing until it hurt. Of crazy answering machine messages and silliness and fuzzy blue slippers.

What I would have missed out on had we not lived together. Had it not been for 4-H House. That hurts to think about.


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