CAMPBELL: Making sense of the smells around campus

Carlie_FINALLast week, I walked into Johnston Hall, which is something I do at least four times a week. This particular time, however, I was greeted with a distinct smell. I don’t think I could describe this smell, but it immediately brought to mind a memory of my freshman year. Not the memory of a specific event, but instead the memory of the idea of my freshman year. Late nights scrambling for stories for the Tribune, sitting in room 303 before its makeover three years ago, hearing Dr. Byers wish us “lives in interesting times.”

We all have certain memories that we correlate with physical and sensory experiences. Whether it’s the smell of popcorn at the movies or peanuts and hot dogs at a baseball park, smells have the power to bring back experiences and feelings to us. Smell is the sense most often correlated with specific memories.

As I have been walking around campus lately, I have been noticing more and more memories triggered by smells. On the few warm days we have had, the fresh smell of spring takes me all the way back to my sophomore year of high school, when I spent a spring break bonding with my friends over our newfound vehicular independence. When it’s mixed with that distinct “Milwaukee” smell of yeast and Lake Michigan, I am reminded of my freshman year Greek Week – slipping on a rain-soaked Valley Fields on a Friday night to win the first game of football I ever played.

When I catch a whiff of someone’s grill, I’m reminded of fall breaks spent camping in Missouri. And it’s not just smells that trigger these sensory memories. On a warm day, when I stop at the Brew for a Cooler by the Lake or a Strawberry Sunrise, I remember days during finals week when my friends and I would drag blankets to Westowne Square or Central Mall and pretend to study, but really just end up napping in the sun. The first snow of the year carries with it a crisp, cold smell that makes me think of Christmas music, Chinese food and late-night “Gilmore Girls” marathons.

Just as life is not solely made up of positive experiences, not all my sensory memories are happy ones. Certain buildings on campus remind me of classes I despised or days I felt overwhelmingly homesick. Some smells bring mixed emotions. The musty air inside St. Joan of Arc Chapel reminds me of Tuesday night masses freshman year, evenings that brought a homesick girl much comfort and calm in an emotionally taxing time.

It’s not just Marquette that brings these memories. Visiting my sister’s grade school, where I was a student for nine straight years, reminds me of recesses and art classes, science fairs and field days. I even notice that the house I grew up in has a particular smell to it that stays on my clothes for a few days after I’ve been home for a break and reminds me of my family.

What’s funny about all these smells and memories is that I know I did not recognize them when I first experienced them, obviously because they were not memories then but first-time experiences.

As senior year draws to a close, my friends and fellow classmates have been reminiscing about the last four years. It is almost too difficult to sit back and conjure up random memories that occurred long ago. But when we taste or smell something, like fried mac and cheese at McCormick, or hear a song that we thought was ridiculously overplayed our freshman year, we experience those memories more vividly than we ever could just thinking about them.

Caroline Campbell is a senior in the College of Communication with a major in journalism and a minor in history. Email her