Westminster Students Reflect on “The Year That Changed My Life”

Tell me about the year that changed your life.

Below, 11 Westminster students share their answers – deeply personal, poignant, harrowing, heart-breaking, inspiring. Their personal reflections give voice to the diverse experiences of a global generation.

Hailing from Arkansas, Arizona, and Missouri, from Great Britain, Gambia, Somaliland, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, these 10 Westminster students tell of tragic losses and new beginnings, of sudden epiphanies and fears conquered, of times of trial and journeys to independence.

The students are members of Dr. Jeremy Straughn’s Fall 2014 seminar “1989: The Year the World Changed.” As a prelude to their historical journey, Dr. Straughn, who teaches transnational studies, asked his students to write reflection essays on the subject of “the year that changed my life.”

The year 1989 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of many world-changing events—the opening of the Berlin Wall and the revolutions in Eastern Europe, the beginning of the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the historic pro-democracy demonstrations on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the development of the first World Wide Web server, and many more.

“1989: The Year the World Changed” explores the life worlds of the Cold War era, the revolutionary events of 1989, and how they set the stage for pivotal moments that have occurred during the lifetimes of today’s undergraduates.

Straughn believes that contemplating a time of personal transformation helps students grasp the human impact that 1989 had on those directly and indirectly affected, and vice versa.

“This is a history and sociology lesson, but it’s also a life lesson,” Straughn says.

In a future assignment, students will conduct oral history interviews with individuals in different parts of the world whose lives changed in 1989.


Gordon Allison Westminster College MO“The snow had begun to melt leaving a much smoother and therefore a faster run than I had ever experienced.  A wave of realization flowed through me when I saw what nature had laid before me.  I couldn’t stop.  As I had this epiphany, my world went dark.  It felt like an eternity before I regained consciousness.  All I can remember from this time that I was unconscious was the images of me dying on that slope.  Although I was only unconscious for a few minutes, I awoke feeling fear and utter loneliness. I saw no one, and for a brief while, I had no memory of who I was.”

Gordon Allison ‘17, Fayetteville, AR

“The entire dynamic of my family shifted after my niece was born. My parents, my older sister, my brother and myself all wanted to spend as much time as we could with the baby, which indirectly translated into spending more time with one another. I could feel our unity, as a family, growing; we were bonding over the new member of our family….  On February 10, 2012, at eight months old, my niece passed away. The two weeks leading up to her death were spent sleepless and hopeless at Phoenix Children’s Hospital….  My brother held her in her final moments while we all sat around and watched what we loved most, leave….  We grow up with our families and we kind of take them for granted, rushing to move out as soon as we can…. But what I learned through this experience is you only get one family, no one or nothing is ever guaranteed and no one is invincible.”

Erica Flores ’15, Tempe, AZ

Andrew Davey“In August of 2001 my family and I were on holiday in America and we visited New York which included a trip to the top of the Twin Towers – less than a month before the terrorist attacks. Whilst the events of 9/11 and the subsequent media coverage have become a flash-bulb memory in my mind ever since, the fear factor that (I assume) was felt by many Americans was not felt across the pond in Britain.…  However, the [London subway bombing] attacks on the 7th of July 2005 finally drove home what should have been apparent in 2001, which was the fear factor at the vulnerability of everyone when it came to this global threat.”

Andrew Davey, exchange student, Winchester, U.K.

Mustafe Elmi Westminster College MO“It was October 29, 2008.  I was thirteen years old.  It was late summer, and early fall.  To say the least the weather was perfect.  I just started my last year of middle school.  It was 10am when a terrorist attack happened close to the cafeteria where I was about to get my brunch….  [T]hat day I did not get my sandwich. That day that changed how I view the world….  This is when I decided to be a critic of any type of right wing religious organization. This would forever change how I view particular groups of people who are manipulated by dogmas….  Terrorist organizations are good at recruiting short-sighted people, and they are the kind of sociopaths who can commit crimes against humanity….  I think it is time the world could stand up to these kinds of ruthless radicals who are endangering the lives of millions of innocent civilians including women and children.”

Mustafe Elmi ‘17, Somaliland

Karim1989“[T]he event which changed my life completely is coming to United States for my undergraduate degree three years ago, when I was only nineteen….  Leaving the home country and going to a completely unknown world was a really challenging task for me….  Since it was my first time living outside the home country I have started noticing differences, the cultural shock was inevitable.  Gradually, I started adopting the culture, which made me think differently and on the global scale….  I became more confident, aware and supportive of global community due to the new knowledge and culture I was in touch with….  Ultimately, moving to United States…was an extremely important change in my life that made me the man that I am today.  I am no longer only a citizen of Bosnia, now I am also a citizen of the world ready to react to any situation I find myself in.”

Kerim Karasalihovic ’15, Bosnia and Herzegovina

“[W]hen the coup d’état happened, everything changed in my family. From speakingNyima1989 our minds, to choosing our words carefully.  I could sense the secrecy in the room whenever I enter.  My parents would whisper when they talk about politics and my sisters and I had to change schools closer to home. We were not allowed to attend any government schools again but only private schools. I was not happy with that decision because I used to be that kid that loved travelling and getting dropped off at school, and after the coup d’état was announced that passion was snatched from me….  It took my family two years to live in freedom and not fear that the then-government would take them away and we would never find them again.”

Nyima Njie ’15, The Gambia

Erin Smith“The year was 2007, and it was the year I figured out what I wanted to do with my life—the year I knew I wanted to help resettle refugees….  At fifteen, as a birthday present, my grandmother took me, herself, and my mother, her daughter, abroad to England.  It was my first time out of the US, and more than anything I was nervous….  In the months after my trip to England, after my thoughts finally settled, I became aware of just how lucky I was to have had the chance to go abroad….  I became very aware of how privileged I was for many reasons, and that I really wanted to help those that didn’t have the same privilege I had….  Soon after 2007, my motto became: ‘If I help one person, I’ll think that my decision was worth it,’ and hopefully I get the chance to help that someone.”

Erin Smith ’15, St. Charles, MO

Camille Todd Westminster College MO“Even at the start of my college career, I never would have thought I would actually study abroad for a semester in England. My parents were of course terrified, and as the date of my departure neared, I found myself scared as well. But my time in Winchester was like Westminster 2.0 for me. I was even more independent than before, with communications to my family and even my friends very limited. And once I got over that initial anxiety, I realized that the world was in front of me, and I took full advantage of it.”

Camille Todd ’15, St. Louis, MO

Bridget Watkins Westminster College MO“One of the biggest changes in my life happened when I started to school at Westminster College.  I had just transferred out of University of Missouri Columbia where the student population was close to thirty-seven thousand, to the small tight knit campus of Westminster. I came in only really knowing a handful of people….  I really learned insight into the person I wanted to be and how important my individualization and independence was to me.  Not being so tied to one particular group of people meant I was open to making friends with just about anyone.  It broke down stereotypes for me and made me realize that people I thought I would never mesh with actually became some of my closest friends….”

Bridget Watkins ’15, St. Louis, MO

Dillon Williams Westminster College MO“September 11, 2001…is remembered for the terrorist attacks made on the World Trade Center towers of New York City, New York.  This event caused changes in my life, but the event itself is not the cause.  A boy at the age of eight was changed, in the end, by the response to the tragic events.…  Classes began as usual, but then the teacher went to talk to another for a moment….  This was still nothing to be very concerned about, until I noticed that the teachers were worried about something….  The teachers never told us what happened, but small interruptions came throughout the day….  Finally, the end of the school day was near, and an announcement came that all after school activities were canceled….  I was picked up from school at the end of the day and driven home like usual, but there was still no mentioned of what happened. When I arrived at my house and entered the door, I saw my first glimpses of what happened in New York on the television….  This event caused several changes in my life. The changes in society and its views on increasing security have affected me, of course, but I had several more personal changes as well. I saw something that had the teachers at school worried and saw for the first time that teachers were regular people that were also teachers….  This event also helped make me more interested in world events and news, since I saw just how important it can be.”

Dillon Williams ’15, Fulton, MO 

Azza Abuseif“When my family lived in Egypt, my mother was getting ill very often…. Somewhere down the line when we moved to the United States, my mother started to get ill again…. I came home after this amazing weekend to see my mother looking down and just not herself.  I asked, ‘Mama are you tired?’  She replied, ‘Yes, and I miss you.  You are never around as much anymore’.… The next morning around 4 am, I woke up to my mother’s screams again….  I had classes that day, so my father took her to the ER, and I said I would take the night shift….  A few minutes after my arrival, a distraught nurse comes in and asks us to go to a private room to talk.  ‘There were complications, but your mother is fine’….  So I run up to the bed. ‘Mama,’ I said, waiting for a reply. I did not get a reply. ‘My mother is not breathing!’ I screamed.  I was numb…. All I wanted at that point was to get another chance to just tell my mother, ‘I am sorry, I will try my best to spend time with you more often’ and ‘I love you’….  A few minutes into this, one of the doctors came out and told us that they have successfully restarted my mother’s heart…. This has really changed my life. It made me love harder and appreciate every moment with all the people I love.”

Azza Abuseif ’15, Mesa, AZ

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