Monday, July 29th, 2013

Build America Update

I write from Batavia, Ohio. It’s nestled in the woods outside Cincinnati, and home to Camp Allyn. We will be here until Friday, and I’ll tell you more about this camp next time I write. For now, I’ll try to catch you up on the other stuff we’ve been up to.

To recap, I’m participating in a service trip called Build America this summer through my fraternities Philanthropy Push America. We travel from summer camp to summer camp, building stuff to make the camps more accessible and more awesome for the campers. All the camps exclusively serve people with disabilities, and on weekends (between camps) we stop in other cities along the route to do smaller projects and hang out with different organizations. The first week, we were at Rocky Mountain Village, and you can read about that camp in my previous blog. I’ll try to catch up to tonight from here on out.

That weekend after RMV, we drove into Nebraska to meet with the Arc of Nebraska, and after they fed us some dinner we had a dance party and played yard games with the members of Arc.

From there we went to Iowa to work at a camp in Monticello. While we were there, we tore down a wall and moved it to make room for a walk-in freezer, we installed new doors on buildings around the camp, and we built custom sliding barn doors for their petting zoo. That camp was neat for three reasons. Tia, Amber, and Kelli. At each camp, we sit with different tables, and get to know campers. The first dinner we had there, I just happened to sit down with these three women. Amber and Tia were completely blind, and Kelli was partially, and all three suffered from mental disability as well. Kelli taught me a lot about horses, and I felt a strong sense of accomplishment when halfway through the week she started letting me guide her around by holding her hand instead of her counselors. Amber was one of the many campers that we meet that are constantly happier than most of us often are, and those kind of people always drug me with happiness. She got interviewed by the news crew that came through to do a story about us, and the smile never left Ambers face for the rest of the week because she was going to be on TV. But Tia was the most exceptional. I say that because Tia refused to say anything negative ever. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner with her for four days, along with doing evening activities with the group, and not once did she even admit to something being negative. But thats still and understatement. She went so far as to not even declare something to be her favorite, and I think that was because that would be a negative towards the stuff that wouldn’t be her favorite. As an example, (among many) the first night I had dinner with them, Tia was wearing a Duck Dynasty T-Shirt. So I asked her if she liked Duck Dynasty. “Oh of course I do! I love that show Duck Dynasty!” So I asked her who her favorite character is. “Oh I like all of them. They’re all my favorites. I like Jase, and Si, and Willie, and Phil, and Miss Kay, and Jep too!” So she was great to talk to, because everything she knew about, she loved. Music, TV, Movies, and all she wanted to do was learn more about those things. What company produced that song, what channel that show was on, what year it was made or first aired. But still the most impactful experience I’ve had on this trip was when we went to the ropes course. The first station at the course that we came to was a horizontal net with ropes that are maybe an inch wide in a mesh pattern spaced into maybe 6 inch squares. Net was roughly 30 to 40 feet long, and when I went across it I couldn’t believe they would try to make people with disabilities try something this wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. It was actually difficult, and remember, Tia is completely blind. Her counselor asked the group who would try the net first, and Tia immediately volunteered. We set her cane aside, walked her to the front of the course, and explained what lay in front of her and what she needed to do. We helped her find the ropes to walk up into the net, and guided her hands to the first few “rungs” of the net. I could clearly see on her face that she was terrified. The stable ground is some unknown distance below her, and while our hands hovered only inches away from her to catch her in case she slipped, to someone who cannot see, she was alone. I asked her if she was ok, and of course she said “Excellent.” Her counselors reminded her that this is a voluntary activity, and she didn’t have to go any further than she wanted to. As if that mattered to Tia. She shakily took her right hand off the rope, and reached out ahead. Feeling for next rope. She kept reaching lower and lower, feeling for the next step. Her whole frame was tense and every bit of my body language reading skills told me she was miles from her comfort zone. Then she found the next rope. She latched onto it, and repeated the process with her left hand and feet. Within maybe three cycles of shaky movement across the ropes, she had a handle on how far the ropes were spaced out from each other, and she stepped through the course as fast as you or I could. When she reached out to find the wooden horizontal bar at the end of the course, she felt around for the uprights to help her stand on the cross bar she stood up and turned around to face our applause. As clearly as I could read her body language moments earlier, I could now see a triumphant “What’s next?” The name for this camp is not some idle idea for rainbows, warm feelings, and pretty butterflies. It’s a testament to the strength of their campers. Camp Courageous.

We said our good byes to the campers and counselors, and we didn’t have a weekend stop, so we went straight on to our next camp in Missouri. It’s namesake is an understatement. Camp Wonderland. It’s a big camp, and we were fortunate to have a whole bunch of projects to work on for them. Including a BB gun range, a bird blind, the walls for a mini-golf course, a new wagon for hayrides, new shelves, a new wheelchair ramp, a horseshoe pit, a facelift for a chapel, and probably the most important project – a new dinner bell. I spent almost the entire week ripping out the rocks and dirt lining the mini-golf course, then placing bricks and concrete along the edges to make the course actually playable. It’s surprisingly difficult to lay the bricks, and we ran through almost 40 bags of concrete. But if I do say so myself, that course looks hella good. Upon completion, we obviously had to verify the safety of the course and the work we had done, and what better way than a quick round with my buddy Jordan from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (a.k.a. “Bama”) who worked with me through the week to complete the course. We finished the course the morning of the last day of work, so I hadn’t been able to see pretty much any of the work the rest of the team had been doing. Bama, Munkel (Queens University of Charlotte, from Nashville) and I went out to the bird blind the team had built to dig some post holes for bird feeders. I learned that a Bird Blind is essentially a wall with holes in it that blinds the birds from the humans that want to watch them eat and bro out on the feeders. The holes proved to be more difficult in Missouri clay than they had been in the Colorado sand. Well, my hole was more difficult. More than a few times Bama reminded me that three guys chose where to throw a hole, and the only ginger among them managed to find the spot with a bunch of rocks. But we got it done, and once the camp throws some bird feeders up and the wildlife get used to them being there, the campers will be able to watch the Missouri birds. By the time we got the posts up, the rest of the team had completed all the projects except the largest one. A BB gun range with three shooting positions and movable targets. We call the last day of work at the camp crunch day, and I find that fitting. I helped to put in a few of the last pieces on the range, the horizontal supports that campers will lean on when aiming down the range. We finished just in time for dinner, and the newly installed dinner bell rang for the first time calling the campers in for evening munchables. Wonderland is a wonderland, and I like to think that all the projects we completed added a nice cherry to the top of this summer sundae.

The next morning we were off to St. Louis for the weekend. We arrived at Lodging and despite being told what it was ahead of time, I was still stunned when we walked into a huge building that houses an indoor hockey rink and two soccer fields. We spent two nights sleeping on the turf of the smaller soccer field. We woke both mornings to our Project Managers evil little prank of hitting the score button on the hockey rink at wake up. If you’ve never been to a hockey game, the buzzers are loud, and annoying, but by god they’ll wake you up. For lunch we got to have a St. Louis classic with a few alumni and Pi Alphas from St. Louis, Imo’s Pizza. It’s takes thin crust to a whole new level, and I consider myself quite a snob when it comes to Pizza. Imo knew what he was doing. The Alums sponsored our meal, and later that night we got to play probably my new favorite game. Demolition Ball. Essentially a cross between Lacrosse and Bumper Cars, you are given a stick-spoon thing, and told to throw the ball at the net. Hit the net, two points, hit the backboard, get one point. 14 minute games. Too much fun. Once you get the hang of driving these things, you start messing up peoples passes and shots by crashing into them. My team lost both games. I’m still bitter about it. The next day we moved all the stuff for DASA (Disabled Athletes Sports Association) from an old facility to a new huge office. DASA of St. Louis recruits athletes with disabilities, trains them, and helps them get to competitions around the country. They have Soccer teams, Kayakers, Triathletes and a range of other sports. They’ve trained people who have gone on to compete for the United States in the Paralympics among many other national and international competitions. It’ll be awesome that they will now have an awesome new office to work out of and I was glad to hear that they are growing rapidly and doing really well (the soccer team was competing in nationals while we were working). That night we got to go to a Cardinals game, and were among the first 25,000 fans through the gate, because we all got free jerseys. Not that I’m a big Cards fan or anything, but it’s a nice jersey. The family that arranged for our lodging (The Forestals) and most of our meals that weekend got us Penn Station for dinner after the game, and the next morning we were off and running to the next camp.

We got to Camp Little Giant to be greeted by the ever friendly and ever passionate Vicky. If there is one thing she did that week, it was spoil us rotten with snacks and food. She brought us cake, cookies, Sunny D, and all kinds of other stuff to munch on when we weren’t working. With three camps under our belt, and crossing the halfway mark of the trip, we got a new blessing for this camp. A full day with the campers. Typically we work Monday through Thursday, 8ish to 5ish, minus lunch, then do evening activities with campers. At little giant, they arranged for us to rotate between projects, and each day a third of the guys would be playing with campers instead of working. Some would say I drew the short straw because I had to paint the first and last day, but they would be wrong for two reasons. First, painting is a very important part of making a project look good. You can cut every board perfectly straight and have every corner flush and plum, but if the guy painting doesn’t care to do it right, the whole project is going to look like garbage. The second, and far more important reason I was lucky is because I got to spend two days working with Steve. Steve is a local painter, and you can learn a lot about how to sling that sticky stuff on a house just by watching him work. He is precise and gentle, but works very quickly. Like most people who have been doing what they do for a long time, he made painting look stupid easy. Even though he was doing all the hard parts we were afraid to try to do. And on top of all that, he was as nice a guy as you could meet. He brought us peach cobbler and ice cream on Tuesday, Fried Chicken on Wednesday, and Watermelon on Thursday (But only my third got the watermelon, suck on that everyone else.) It was all delicious, and I really enjoyed my watermelon sitting on top of my best friend that I had gotten to know really well that week – An A-frame painters ladder. On Tuesday, my group ripped the roof off of a more or less shed attached to one of the cabins. The contractor that helped us do it was Wade, a good old boy who had been all over the world building log homes for people from Southeast Asia to Europe. Watching him work was just like Steve. A level of skill and quickness you only get from doing something for years. He was hilarious and cracked jokes the whole day, and could be seen at most any time somehow standing on a ladder in a way that seems physically impossible to keep upright, cigarette loosely hanging between his lips, and swinging a hammer or running a circular saw with one hand. It was awesome. He taught us all a few tricks, and I look forward to the chance to give them a try in the coming weeks. On Wednesday, I got to hang out with the campers for the whole day. That morning, I drove myself and two other guys off camp to a stable that specializes in therapeutic horseback riding for people with disabilities, and I got to walk alongside a few campers who thought riding a horse was just the coolest thing. After the stables, we had lunch and then went to the lake. They have a pontoon boat, canoes, paddleboats, and a dock that they brought the campers to every day. It was awesome to get to spend the entire day with a group of campers, and it’s very unusual for us to be able to do that.

After leaving Little Giant, we moved on to Louisville KY for the weekend. The organization that took us in is called Dreams with Wings, and we slept on the floor of their Office Building. It was carpeted, air conditioned, and we have air mattresses, so it was actually pretty neat to stay there. A good friend of mine from UT is from Louisville, so she came to visit us after dinner one night, so that was cool to get a taste of Tennessee on the trip. Not to mention all the sweet tea and awesome food we got from Dreams with Wings. On Saturday we put new decking on a patio for one of the houses where their members live, and they rounded up some tickets to the Minor League club in town, the Bats. We got to go to the game with the members, which was pretty neat to see them get fired about about the game. The next morning, we had breakfast at the house of the woman who runs the organization before heading on to Camp Allyn. Where I sit now. And would you look at that, I have 3 minutes until curfew when I have to be in bed, I apologize for any misspellings or anything, but I don’t have time to proofread.

“Building Leaders of tomorrow by serving People with disabilities today.”

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Saturday, July 6th, 2013

Build America

This summer I am participating in a service trip called Build America. Along with 22 of my fraternity brothers from around the country, I will travel from Colorado to Washington DC completing construction projects for people with disabilities. Most of the projects will be at summer camps during the week, and then on weekends we travel and complete small projects. But we only work from 8 to 5.

If there has ever been a place where the phrase “Work hard, Play hard” applies, its here. This past week we were at a camp for people with disabilities called Rocky Mountain Village near Empire, CO. During the day we cleared a trail that went up into the woods, and extended the wheelchair accessible ramp further into the woods. We also put handrails on the existing ramp, and built a number of benches that will be placed around the grounds. Everyday at 5, we would pack up and get ready for dinner. At dinner we would help serve the food and bring it to the campers, and then eat with them to get to know all of them one on one. After dinner there were activities planned for us and the campers. The theme this week was “Zombie Attack” where we got a white paste schmered all over our face and then a black waxy stuff around our eyes and mouth to make us look like zombies. If the campers didn’t want the zombies to come attack them, they had to scare us away. The only thing that we as zombies are afraid of is dancing. So whenever we would walk into their activity with our zombie mask on, the campers would jump up and dance towards us to shoo us away. It was hilarious every time, because lots of the campers would get really into it.

The third night in camp we had “Kangaroo Kourt” where campers could accuse their counselors or whoever of camp crimes. As a team, Build America was accused and found guilty of taking too long to bring the campers their food, and the punishment was getting covered in spaghetti. Some counselors were accused of being too good of counselors, working too hard, or being too nice. They were all found guilty. The Zombies were the last to be sentenced, and they were accused of being awful. Our sentence was having to jump in the pond. Now I need to go over a few things about this pond for you to appreciate this situation. First, it was 46 degrees out when we jumped in that pond. Second, that pond relatively high up in the rocky mountains, which doesn’t exactly create the most ideal conditions for warming the water. Third, that pond was not deep. Fourth, that pond is way overstocked with trout. Which is great for campers that want to catch a fish, but not great for gingers who hate anything and everything that has to do with things that live underwater. I wore a size small T-Shirt and jumped in with a few of my brothers. We volunteered. We’re idiots.

The fourth night at camp we were to be cured of our zombieness, using a mixture of ingredients that campers had been finding through scavenger hunts throughout the week. Turns out the cure for being a zombie is water with some pink arts and crafts paint mixed in it. A bunch of the campers were given big pitchers of this antidote, and we zombied into the amphitheater where they were having a concert to lure in us zombies. When we were all close enough to the stage, the campers emptied their pitchers all over us and we quickly wiped away the stuff on our faces so we looked human again. And then we danced. A lot.

The last night at camp was a closing ceremony that is called vespers. It was a chance for campers to sing, dance, share stories, and highlight their week. One of the guys who has been on the trip before told us that for a lot of campers, this week is way better than Christmas, and anyone who heard what these kids were saying at vespers would understand how incredibly true that statement is. They absolutely had a blast at camp, and I was really excited to be able to contribute to that experience for them. Later that night we had a more formal dance, where all the campers dressed up, some using old prom dresses and suits from the prop room, or simple stuff they brought from home. You could tell it meant a lot to them that they were dressed up when people told them how nice they looked. And then we danced. A lot.

For now, I’m in Grand Island Nebraska, before we head on to Monticello, Iowa for our next camp.

Read more about our adventures and the trip at http://www.pushamerica.org/pushcontent.aspx?id=370

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Monday, February 25th, 2013

Places I’ve lived: The MV Explorer

After a wild 3 days in Freeport, Bahamas with my little brother and a bunch of brand new friends, I moved my stuff on board of the MV Explorer. The MV is home to the floating campus of the Semester at Sea program. The MV Explorer is a cruise ship. Originally built to be a Casino Cruise ship, this beast can take around 720 undergrads, plus faculty and staff across the Atlantic in just a few days, and look good doing it. My cabin was as you would expect it to be, small. But we had a big window and I could shower standing up (see blog below) and my roommate was Larry. Big Lawrence was a Hoss to say the least, he recently got cleared to serve in the United States Military, it won’t be long before the giant badass is pulling drowning fisherman out of freezing waters somewhere. Living on a ship is awesome. I was there for 2 months, and I really got to like it a lot. It would sway in with the ocean, and I quickly learned I have been blessed with an awesome stomach. I never got seasick, and I was one of about 4 from my voyage that can say that (let me just brush my shoulders off…). The staff was incredibly nice, and I made friends with lots of people from all over the United States. For the first time since I have cared, I didn’t have access to the internet. I could send as many emails as I wanted, but I couldn’t get on facebook or text or call people in the states. That was difficult. While in port, we would go out into the city, see the sights and experience all sorts of new stuff, but at the end of the day, that ship was home. We could go back there to a made bed, a proper meal, a safe environment, and a beautiful view of cities from the port. Few get to experience that while seeing the world.

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Monday, February 25th, 2013

Places I’ve lived: The White Cross: Innsbruck, Austria

When I went on an engineering study trip to Innsbruck, Austria, I lived in a hotel room for 4 weeks. It was right in the touristy district of downtown Innsbruck. Right up the street was one of the main tourist attractions, “the golden roof” or something like that. It was being repaired while I was there, so it was covered by a tarp that had a picture of the roof painted on it. I thought that kind of took the appeal out of the roof, but that didn’t stop the billions of tourists who wandered through there from taking pictures in front of it. The hotel was established in 1465, and Mozart is one of the people who has stayed there. I shared the room with Patrick, who happened to be an old acquaintance from back in my days at Hess. Our room was less than great. The hotel in general was awesome, our room….not so much. Specifically the shower. It was a corner room, so we had to deal with the slated ceiling, which wasn’t an issue in the regular part of the room. Unfortunately, that ceiling was directly over the bathtub/shower….4 feet over it. I’m 6-3. If you’ve never had to shower bending over the entire time, take my word when I say: its not great. The hotel basically had a little Italian cafe downstairs, and they set up tables outside. On nice days, I would go downstairs and sit on wifi while I had a beer or a glass of wine. My hotel behind me, the golden roof towards the right, a busy pathway with a few street performers to my left, tons of tourists passing in front of me, and the Alps in every direction. Innsbruck is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen during the day, and though I didn’t get a good shower until I left Innsbruck for Vienna, I had a blast staying in the White Cross. Or the “Hotel Weisses Kreuz”.

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Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Places I’ve lived: Ren 4, Senior Year

I got back from Japan just in time to move into Ren 4 with Greg and one of his fraternity brothers Scott. (Who is sitting across from me right now watching Book of Eli) I moved into this glorious apartment with a balcony that overlooks worlds fair park, hardwood floors, my own bathroom, a huge kitchen, a big bed, a big TV and my roommates were Greg and a guy I had only ever met once. I began pledging the fraternity while I lived here, and I started to really experience people growing up and moving on after college. I was friends with people who were getting married, people who were getting real jobs, and people growing up. I started cooking a fair amount, and I have become really close with Scott since we have lived together for almost 2 years now. I’m going to come back to talking about this apartment, we’re not done here.

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Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Places I’ve lived: Carnemolla House, Nagasaki, Japan

At the end of March, I got on a flight to Japan with a fully stocked Japanese Vocabulary at my disposal. And by fully stocked I mean: I knew how to say I’m sorry and thank you. I moved in with the Carnemolla Family, in a little suburb of Nagasaki. The house was about a 10 minute walk from my university, and I had a 9 year old little brother, and a 6 year old little sister. My host mother was an amazing Japanese woman that taught me a lot about living a life that will make you happy and making the most of a bad situation. My host Father was from Australia, and he showed me how westerners fit in in Japan. I had to learn to sleep on the floor, take traditional Japanese baths, eat food that I didn’t want to try, speak with my hands and my tone, and most importantly how different Americans live from Japanese People. I fell in love with Japan, but I also fell in love with the United States and how we do things. You don’t appreciate a lot of things until they are taken away from you, and now I recognize how much I love my pick-up truck, a hot long shower, buffalo sauce, big rooms, dr. pepper, and my cell phone. Japan is an amazing place, and it taught me to love traveling and made me want to see the rest of the world.

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Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Places I’ve lived: Home

From December 2010 through the end of March 2011, I lived back home with my parents in NY. I had an internship at an electric company, and got more of an education in that 3 months than I could ever learn in a classroom. I say that in two ways. First, I don’t want to be an engineer. I don’t want to sit at a desk, solving math problems, and telling overly ambitious people that their ideas are nice, but won’t work out in the end. Paul was my boss, and who I followed around everyday. Easily the most brilliant man I’ve ever met. He knew the answer to every question that anyone ever asked him, and you could tell that he had been doing what he does for 30 years. He had that pure understanding of everything about the business that you can only get from doing it for a long time. I loved working with Paul, but I learned that I wanted to do what Greg did. Not Greg my little brother, but Greg the CEO of the company. He traveled around, he shook hands, he made phone calls, he wore suits, and he was a complete boss. Paul was obviously smarter than Greg, and had a better understanding of everything, but Paul was happy doing what he did. Greg wanted to be out of the office, making moves and playing the game. He was good too. The things I learned during that internship were: I like shaking hands and doing business with people, I don’t like doing math problems, and that you should take notes all the time. Constantly write stuff down. Keeping the women of the office happy is also a good idea, we all know that women run this world, and my girls in the front two rooms were the most amazing women ever, but they subtly made it very clear to Me, Paul, and Greg that they ran the show and not to forget it.

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Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Places I’ve lived: The Commons Fall 2010

It was my junior year, my little brother Greg was starting classes at UT, and his dorm room was the very same room I had lived in the year before. Ol’ J-529. I was living in an apartment complex called the commons, a relatively cheap, simple apartment about 10 minutes walk from my classes. I was fine with the apartment, but I got to live with Max and Patrick, which was awesome. Plus it was a 4 bedroom, and we only had 3, so Greg slept in the other room all the time. Back then I hated engineering. A lot. I was in it because my dad wanted me to be in it. Living with Max and Patrick and having Greg around played a big part in keeping me happy and sane. Greg was pledging back then, and I still didn’t know anything about Greek life, and I learned that living away from campus means that you have to more actively spend time with your friends. You can’t just walk outside anymore to find people you know.

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Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Places I’ve lived: The Commons Summer 2010

In the summer of 2010, I went random once again. I needed a place to stay for the summer, and one of my friends set me up with a guy who was trying to sublease. His roommates turned out to be some of the chilliest guys I’ve ever met. Jordan and Chris were both awesome. They had an endless supply of girls moving through the apartment, and completely opened my eyes to the world of partying on a large scale. We had keg parties, they drank every night, they lived college the way that we see it in the movies. Living with them taught me a lot about how to let loose and have fun, and they are still guys I see at the bar all the time. I saw Jordan last night in fact. Probably the best memory of that summer was a party we had and this gorgeous little cheerleader was my Pong partner. She was no taller than 5 foot, and I picked on her all night about not being able to see over the cups. Well into our first game, we were down 5 – 2. She was like “we need to get it together or we’re going to lose.” I gave her a puzzled look and said “what are you talking about? We’re winning.” and she gave me a very puzzled look. I decided to go for it and pull out my greatest pong trick, the old “HI-LO”. I told her to yell HI-LO! as loud as she could, and then shoot the ball, Imagine it going in the cup and let it ride. She did as I suggested, though skeptically, and as the ball left her hand, I bounced it in. She also made her shot, and after getting the balls back and making another shot, I said “told you so.” That game began a 7 party – 18 game win streak for me that summer. If only I had any game, cause that girl was beautiful.

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Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Places I’ve lived: Hess Sophomore Year

My freshman year, I had been friends with a lot of the guys on the floor above me. Their RA was a boss and let us get away with murder, so he arranged to have us all live together again, mostly having super single rooms. I basically had roommates on my floor. We were all friends, we all got along, we all shared a bathroom, and we all got close. This is where I met Max and Patrick. They were these two freshman who just happened to get placed into one of the rooms that we hadn’t found someone to fill. They quickly assimilated into the culture we had developed, and within a few weeks of living down the hall from them, they both became really good friends of mine. I also spent a lot of time with Nick over in Gibbs, because I had my meal plan there. I made friends with lots of people over there, including Patrick, who I just had wings with a few hours ago. I had a super single bedroom, which basically meant I had two of everything I needed, and a room to myself. I bought the ugliest green carpet you could ever imagine for that room, I had two beds, a huge TV, and all my Ties hung over the pipes that crossed the back of the room. I loved that dorm room too, and I developed a lot of friendships that year that are my strongest ones today.

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