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Deborah Thurston

Deborah Thurston

Gutgsell Professor | Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering

During move-in week ’19, we asked UI faculty members to tell us a story about their own experience of leaving home for the first time. Here’s 32-year faculty member Deborah Thurston, the UI’s Gutsgell Professor of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, who earned her bachelor’s degree on another Big Ten campus (Minnesota ’78) and her master’s and Ph.D. from MIT.

“I attended the University of Minnesota, only about 20 miles from the suburb where we lived, but a world away.

"Coincidentally, I just visited campus recently, and got to see my old dorm room. The memories came flooding back. Those first days, I felt terrified and disoriented.

“My roommate’s name was Sheila, a really nice girl. But she turned out to be one of the students my professor was referring to when he said on our first day of class ‘Look to the student to your left ... now look to your right. Two of you will be gone after the first year.’ Sheila didn’t even make it past the first quarter.

“I also felt sad about having to give up gymnastics. I had the opposite experience as Justin Spring, the U of I gymnastics coach. In an article I read, he said he had been interested in majoring in engineering, but someone told him he really wouldn’t have enough time, so he majored in something else.

“In my case, I had wanted to walk onto the gymnastics team, but our professor told us not to engage in any activities outside our engineering studies, so I didn’t. I guess it turned out OK, though, since he went on to the Olympics, winning the team bronze for the U.S., and I went on to become an engineering professor.

“But I mainly felt free, free, free. Free to do whatever I wanted outside class hours. Free to just wander down the dorm hall and listen to records I’d never heard before on other students’ stereos. But mostly free to create a whole new identity.

“No one knew me, and I could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be. It was wonderful. I did a little experimenting with my appearance, and all I can say is thank goodness there were no cellphones or internet in the ’70s.”

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