We were roommates during junior year at the University of Arizona — two young women from very different backgrounds thrust together by the whims of a college admissions office. For at least one of us, that random assignment set the course for everything that would follow.
Marilee was pretty, petite and seemed very sophisticated to me. Her long, blonde hair hung straight and shiny to the middle of her back. She had wide blue eyes and thick lashes that curled up toward her brow. Her skin was flawless.
The daughter of a successful car dealer, she’d grown up in a large house in the town of Brighton, Mich., west of Detroit. Her childhood experiences included travel, expensive dinners at the country club and a motor home her family drove to the lakeside cottage where they spent much of the summer. As soon as she could drive, she had her own car (a new one, of course). Her parents were paying her tuition and living expenses. Her life seemed easy, stable and enviably secure.
Next to her, I felt like the gawky, unattractive poor relative. I was a head taller, heavier and uncomfortable in my own (often blemished) skin. I was on scholarship, work/study and student loans. My only mode of transportation was a bicycle. I didn’t take my first plane trip until the age of 19. My childhood was spent in six different cities in four different states. My family had recently moved to Phoenix, which meant I’d lost the security of a comfortable community to which I could someday return.
Even temperamentally, Marilee and I were very different. I was serious, studious, prone to keeping to myself. She was restless, social, someone who enjoyed parties and going out. I’m not sure why we became good friends, but we did. Maybe because I wanted to be more like her; I saw her as brave and daring in ways I was not. (Now that I am older I recognize that some of her ways — smoking, for example, and eating habits that veered perilously close to an eating disorder — were not examples to admire.)
Perhaps most exotic about Marilee was the fact that she had a boyfriend who was traveling somewhere in South America. Though I don’t remember how she met him (I think he may have been a friend from home), the fact that she had this long-distance romance in her life — with a guy who seemed to be quite an adventurer — intrigued me.
One day, Marilee told me that her boyfriend was moving to Guam, and that he wanted her to go with him.
She thought he was crazy. I thought it sounded wonderful. I offered to help her do some research so that she had some information to shore up her pitch to her family. I went to the university library and pulled everything I could find about Guam.
There wasn’t much, which worried her — and enthralled me.
I was a journalism major and someone who wanted to spend her life telling stories. A place about which little was documented seemed rich with opportunity for someone like me. So I did what I could to shore up Marilee’s confidence.
Then she asked me to go with her. When she pitched the concept to her parents, she used the fact that I would be with her to win them over.
To be an entrepreneur, I’ve often heard, is to be an inherent risk-taker. I think of myself an inherent risk-follower. Marilee and I did move to Guam, and so did her boyfriend. They didn’t like it as much as they’d expected and they quickly transferred to the University of Hawaii. I had spent every bit of my savings to get out there and had no financial safety net to give me options.
When Marilee and her boyfriend left the island, I was stuck. But it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me.
Thanks to Marilee, I took the biggest risk of my life. When it didn’t work out the way I’d expected, I had to make it work. Which I did. And that ended up being the greatest gift of my lifetime: the certainty that, no matter what happens, I can get through it. — Karen
On Jan. 2 of this new decade, I launched a project called “1,000 People to Thank Before I Die.” It is my version of a “bucket list” — an attempt to acknowledge the people who have guided and influenced my life before I lose the opportunity to do so — and was inspired by the book 1,000 Places to See Before I Die.