As I stood outside the ground floor of Norris for only the second time, my mom had one ever-important question: “What do students do about haircuts?” She had to ask the tour guide (who’d later become my peer adviser) in front of our whole Wildcat Days tour group. I didn’t expect the question, but the embarrassment registered instantly. I forget the answer now, but it was probably that students just … walk downtown and get a damn haircut.

We joke about it now, that it was probably the first time our tour guide had ever gotten that question. But my mom never went to college, and she was mostly raised by my grandmother, a hairdresser by trade. Of course she wanted to know!

My mom’s question made me cringe and laugh, but a few weeks after I got to Northwestern in September, I faced a quandary: What would I do about a haircut? Back in Kansas, I looked forward to my appointments with Cindy every six weeks, when we’d talk about music and school and her motorcycle trips. I never found the same thing in Evanston — or Paris, or New York — but my yearslong struggle to get a decent haircut at college taught me more about life than some whole classes.

1. Trust yourself.

I didn’t know where to start when it came to haircuts in Evanston, so I relied on the advice of a friend. He told me he’d gotten a haircut at an independent shop on Sherman Avenue, so that’s where I went for my first trim. It was empty and quiet — nothing like nothing like Cindy’s studio, where there’d always be a basketball game playing and a conversation rolling. The days after my haircut, I’d look in the mirror, puzzled: Had it always looked like that? I threw some product on my head and made it work, and when six weeks rolled around, I went back, because I didn’t know what else to do. Of course, I hated it just as much. My friends couldn’t notice a difference, but to me it was there every time I looked in the mirror.

2. Own your mistakes.

The signs were there from the moment I walked into Art & Science, the only other barber shop I’d heard of by freshman winter. The hairdressers looked impeccable and classy, as did the clients. Barbers offered you bourbon before your trim. The prices weren’t posted! How much could a haircut cost? I asked myself as I sat down for mine. As it turns out, $45. After I became the first customer in the history of Art & Science to ask about a student discount, I called my mom, who laughed. It was just a mistake, she told me, and I’d learned my lesson. If I didn’t in that moment, I did when I paid my credit card bill.

3. Make time for yourself.

As school got busy — something something overloaded Northwestern student — I started to test how long I could go between haircuts. I’d finally find the time at 9 p.m. on a Monday night, and trek down to the only place still open, Great Clips. Against my better judgment, I had multiple of these 9 p.m. Great Clips haircuts. They weren’t as bad as my first in Evanston, but I just felt tired and unhappy afterward. When I finally switched it up and went to The Hair Cuttery on some weekday afternoon, I saw a light, and not just because the sun was actually shining.

4. You’re hot.

After a breakup in the middle of sophomore year, I stopped shaving for a week or so out of apathy. My friends, bless them, thought I was trying out a new look, and told me I looked good with a beard. I started to see it too, so I committed to it — and decided I needed a new haircut to go with it. So I walked into Floyd’s, which had just opened, and asked the hairdresser to do something different to my hair. It was the first time I’d had the confidence to do that, and I walked out with even more confidence (even if he didn’t change that much anyway).

5. You can figure it out.

If no one was worried about getting haircuts in Evanston, everyone was worried about them in Paris. When someone on our study abroad program would come to class with a haircut, we’d throw questions at them: Where’d you go? What’d you say? Was it different? On my turn, I went to a shop close to one of our campuses that was cheap and took walk-ins. The barbers didn’t speak English, so I told them six millemètres on the sides and un doigt on top — and somehow, it worked. Sure, they missed a strand of hair both times (how?), but I just trimmed that off when I got home.

6. Notice your world.

I went to New York the summer after my junior year for two back-to-back internships, with a fresh haircut and a mustache that I didn’t keep for too long. One Saturday, I was walking around Brooklyn and noticed a sign for a barbershop. Walk-ins only, $30: Nothing short of a steal in New York. So I became a regular there for the next five months, taking a train line I wouldn’t usually take to a neighborhood I didn’t often get to visit. Gone were my days of struggling to find 30 minutes for a haircut — I started to look forward to the trip as much as the cut itself.

7. You might not know what’s next, and that’s OK.

I was set to get another haircut the week after spring break, when I’d no longer be tied down by classes and campus life. As social distancing and lockdowns dashed those plans, I faced a choice: Would I buzz my hair or let it grow? I’d always been told my hair would look good long but never tried it, although I did know from middle school that I looked silly with a buzzcut. So what better time to try than now, I figured, when I’m only seeing my roommates. I haven’t had a haircut in over four months, and I’m loving it. My hair is long and soft, and I run my fingers through it all the time now that I don’t use product. I'm no longer worried about messing it up because, well, it's just a wonderful mess. Even as hairdressers go back to work, I don’t know if I want to get my hair cut anytime soon — I like how it looks right now, and I can't wait to see what it looks like tomorrow, next week or in a month. My cause for worry has become a source of excitement, and I don't want to cut that out of my life right now.