"What I am doing here matters": the life of a non-traditional student

Najera Milijevic
Staff Reporter

  Julie Berger (center) meets fellow classmates Sandy Sanchez (left) and Brianna Buttell (right) before class to study. Photo by Najera Milijevic.

Julie Berger (center) meets fellow classmates Sandy Sanchez (left) and Brianna Buttell (right) before class to study. Photo by Najera Milijevic.

“Even if I come out of this whole college experience with no money and no job, I still changed those two little lives,” Julie Berger says proudly, a smile tugging at her freckled upper lip. She’s a senior English major, an avid reader, a library lover, a restaurateur and business owner. But at the beginning and end of every day, she’s a mom who loves her family more than herself.

“I live with my dad, my husband, and my two kids,” she explains. “And my brother, he lives across the alley with his family, so we’re all pretty tight,” she says, drawing an invisible map of their homestead in the air above her head. Her forehead scrunches in concentration.

Berger lives in west suburban Franklin Park, a community that has been home to her family for a nearly a century. Her predecessors served the community as firefighters and, for the past fifty years, her father’s old-fashioned pizza joint has been recognized as a suburban pizzeria gem.

“I spent a lot of time in Jake’s Pizza. My younger brother and I grew up with a good work ethic,” she says proudly, remembering the days when she regularly helped take orders and run deliveries. “When it got busy, even if you had plans on Friday night, you still had to go down and help your dad. It kept money on the table and a roof over our heads. We weren’t allowed to say no.”

But Berger loved the job so much that she carried on the family tradition by opening up her own restaurant in the western suburbs. Although it was successful and she enjoyed running the business, something was always missing.

“When I gave up the restaurant business, everyone asked me what I was going to do, and I’ll admit that I didn’t have any computer skills, but for some reason I said, ‘I’m going to school,’” she says, exaggeratedly demonstrating her archaic typing style on her MacBook laptop.

Berger always had the support of her late mother in her business ventures, but when she decided to pursue her English degree at Elmhurst College, her mom was nervous.

“At first, she thought I was crazy. But after she saw my first semester grades, she told me I could totally do this,” she recalls dreamily, remembering her mother’s encouragement.

After a long pause, she looks over her pink-rimmed glasses and laments her mother’s recent passing. It affected every facet of her life, so much so that she had to take a break from school.

“Since my mom died a year ago, my kids have become my greatest motivators,” she says. “My daughter is in the first grade, and my son is in the fifth. They used to talk about going into a trade like their dad or owning a restaurant like me, but now they’re dreaming about going to college. Me being here at Elmhurst has totally changed their dynamic,” she says with a wide wave of her ring-clad hand. Fulfillment blossoms in her eyes.

Today, Berger sits at her spot at the classroom table, an assignment half-finished on her glowing laptop screen, a worn copy of J.D. Salinger’s “Nine Stories” lingering closely by her side. She comes to class early so she can catch up with other students and ask questions about the work.

Being a full-time student is not easy. For Berger, it means late nights spent doing housework and early mornings scribbling at her dining room table.

“I can’t just sit down and write a paper,” she says plainly. “My only uninterrupted time is in the early morning. We’re talking like three o’clock in the morning,” she says seriously, the sleeplessness evident under her darkened eyes.

She suddenly remembers something, and her soft face breaks into a wide smile.

“You know what? I overslept today. I actually slept in until five and I’m pissed,” she declares. She laughs openly and warmly, like she’s telling a joke to an old friend.

Brianna Buttell has known Berger for a while, and she admires the way Berger treats everyone like a close friend.

“In the classroom, Julie asks interesting questions and gives insightful comments,” says Buttell. She considers Berger’s life experiences as important assets to classroom discussions.

For Berger, making an impact on other students is powerful.

“I really like meeting all the younger students and hearing their different perspectives,” she says sheepishly. “ I mean, it’s fun to watch them get excited about achieving their dreams before they are forced out into the real world,” she says with a dash of cynicism.

Classmate Alissa Johnsen appreciates Berger’s distinctive voice in the classroom.

“I think Julie is a great writer, and she’s passionate about her education,” says Johnsen. She marvels at Berger’s time management skills and dedication.

As she nears the end of her undergraduate experience, Berger reflects on her experience as a nontraditional student as dynamic and rewarding. And although she doesn’t know where her journey will take her after college, she is ready for any challenge that life brings her.

“I still changed something. I still made a difference,” she repeats critically, her eyes reflecting like mirrors. “What I’m doing here matters.”