Eighty-four cherubs and their instructors pose for a picture after the "Junior Junior Olympics," a bonding activity on Northwestern University's Lakefill. (Photo by Joe Grimm)
Sunny Hills High School

Northwestern’s Medill cherub program was the experience of a lifetime

Before the summer Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute (which we fondly call “cherubs,”) I’d had exactly one close white friend.

Before cherubs, I’d probably met one Jewish person.

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

Author Noah Somphone (left) stands with his friends in front of the sunrise at Lake Michigan. Students often woke up early to spend time with others, exercise or eat breakfast before a morning lecture.

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

At Sunny Hills High School, everyone in my friend group is Korean, Chinese or Indian American. At my church in the San Gabriel Valley, everyone is Japanese or Chinese American. In my community, everyone eats ramen noodles, kung pao chicken, kimchi and drinks boba milk tea on a daily basis. I used to idolize UCLA over the 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.

Cherubs get a behind-the-scenes look at ABC 7 WLS-TV Chicago’s 11 a.m. show. Students met the anchors and had a chance to explore Chicago’s Millennium Park afterwards. (Photo by Andrew Rowan)

I’ve learned that people are just simply people. Just because they look different from me doesn’t mean that 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 on July 7, I remember feeling happy that my instructor, Mary Lou Song, was Asian. As I told her what I was feeling, Song encouraged me to keep an open mind and to continue making friends regardless of our backgrounds. As an extrovert, I felt that wasn’t that hard to do.

It proved to be the most influential advice I received from the five weeks I was there.

Author Noah Somphone (second from left) stands with instructor Mary Lou Song (right) and her instructor group. The program divided all 84 cherubs into eight instructor groups, each meeting regularly, competing in group games and bonding over five weeks. (Photo by Mia Zanzucchi)

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 attended by 83 other rising high school seniors, I found my group of six. 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 that I had no limits as 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.

Students pose in front of Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate, more fondly known as “The Bean.” Cherubs had two opportunities to explore Chicago which included: a boat tour and field trips to either the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago Art Institute, Michigan Avenue’s shopping district, or the Chicago History Museum. (Photo by Alex Dengas)

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 Northwestern’s 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 that 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.

Cherubs write down notes after interviewing Charles Whitaker, Medill’s interim dean. The students wrote 11 articles in one day based off an all-day story created by program staff. (Photo by Mia Zanzucchi)

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

All the people 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 cities. Let’s just say, my phone contacts now take up a lot of storage.

The application for 2019 opens Oct. 31. If you’re a high school junior, I cannot stress it enough. Apply. It’ll be the best summer of your life, taught by the best instructors in the world and spent with your future best friends. You will never regret it.



Original article posted on medillcherubs.org, the student-made website created at the Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute.