The first thing I learn about Alex Sowell is that he lived in the room across from me two years ago.
“The location is so convenient!” he says. “You’re like five feet from everything! The bathroom, the laundry, the bike racks, the parking lot—“
“The kitchen,” I finish. “Which is so great, but so dangerous.”
“Um, nahhh. Just great.”
We laugh as we sit, and Alex leans back in his chair, already comfortable. There’s a boyish ease to him as he sprawls there, a backwards Texas Rangers snapback resting over his dark hair, tank-top emphasizing biceps bigger than my fist whenever he crosses his arms. He has these thick black eyebrows that would make him look stern if he weren’t so cheerful. He talks to me like we’re already friends.
A few minutes into our conversation, he mentions that part of the reason he wanted to serve as a residential staff member was the way his own staff members comforted him when his mother passed away freshman year.
I hesitate, then ask him to tell me more. He assures me that he’s fine talking about it, that he doesn’t mind because it’s been a couple of years. As if I might be feeling discomfort discussing the darkest time of his life, so he wants to make me feel at ease.
It began during his freshman winter quarter on a Tuesday night. He came out of a physics final to learn that his mother had collapsed and been rushed to the hospital with an inoperable brain aneurysm.
Alex finished the week, and by the time he flew back for spring break, his mother was stable. Her face was paralyzed, but she could move an eye and acknowledge those around her with winks. By the end of spring break she was starting speech therapy and rehabilitation, and Alex was going back to school.
“I didn’t think [taking a quarter off] was a thing,” he explains. ”I thought I had to go back.”
He doesn’t say this with the type of bitterness that would be understandable from a first-generation student whom nobody bothered to notify about leaves of absence.
“From all the signs, it just seemed like she was going to get better with rehab,” he says, his eyes turning a little glassy. “She was responsive; she was still paralyzed and probably wouldn’t have been able to walk, but things looked like they were going to be fine, and then —”
His voice hitches and he trails off. I wonder if I should give him a tissue, but he resumes talking a few seconds later, back in control.
Even knowing what he knows now, Alex still thinks coming back for spring quarter was the right decision, though his head “probably wasn’t in a good place,” and his grades suffered. His mother, along with the rest of his family, wanted him to “do the college thing” and graduate in four years.
Alex hadn’t wanted to let anybody down and didn’t want to admit that he might need help. He called his mother from campus every day and sent morning videos for her to watch in the hospital. Two days after she was moved from the hospital to a rehab facility, she passed away from apparent heart failure.
“I was expecting to go back home for that summer and that she would be at home,” he says. But Alex, though he got the chance to express his love for his mother, never got a goodbye. When his sister called him in tears, he knew what had happened.
After he got off the phone, he slammed his door shut. His RCC came out of his room to see what was wrong and knocked and, when a crying Alex answered, simply gave him a wordless hug.
That was exactly what he needed at that moment. “I don’t know what I would’ve done, now that I have the perspective of a former RA, “ Alex says, “but [the staff] didn’t push or pry. I could tell that they were there, and I appreciated that.”
The following summer was one of maturation. Alex had to care for his father, who’d lost his life partner, and his little sister, who was in high school. In the process he let himself fall by the wayside. He didn’t want to be around people asking how he was doing or if he was okay, so he threw himself into working 60-hour weeks at two jobs instead.
His then-girlfriend was part of a family of devoted Christians. Her mother had been best friends with Alex’s mother, and thus her family had been impacted too. They noticed that Alex was stubbornly bare-knuckling his way through his grief and pushing everyone away.
Alex had never felt much connection to his faith despite growing up in the Catholic Church. “A lot of times, there has to be some sort of catalyst for you to turn to your faith or to realize you’re not in the place you would like to be,” he says. “It’s sad that for many people it takes that drastic thing in life to trigger that, and for me, that’s unfortunately what it was.”
His girlfriend’s family helped him climb from the hole he’d dug for himself.
Now, Alex emphasizes that his relationship with God is the thing that ultimately gave him the strength to keep going. It didn’t make him forget about what happened, but it helped him cope and become a better person.
Still, by the end of that summer his relationship with his girlfriend had changed into more of a friendship, and they separated. Alex began sophomore year with a clean slate.
That winter, he interviewed to staff junior year but wasn’t matched anywhere. Along with his roommate, who had also been rejected, Alex re-evaluated his life. “We were like, ‘Well, that sucks,’ and realized we had each other but didn’t know a lot of people. So we rushed for fun … kind of a ‘let’s just see what happens — what’s the hurt of trying this — screw it,’ sort of thing.”
Alex pledged Sigma Phi Epsilon, and the process of rushing helped him open up his shell. Towards the beginning of junior year he also began a long-distance relationship with his current girlfriend, whom he first met at a leadership conference.
Anytime she’s mentioned, he grins and starts speaking too fast for me to jot down everything he says. He smiles everywhere — at me, at the floor, at the window — when remembering how their relationship progressed and all the things that drew him to her.
By senior year, between his freshman dorm friends, his Sig Ep brothers, his powerlifting community, his girlfriend, his faith and his Rinc frosh (on his second try, Alex offered a staffing job), there were a lot of good things filling his life.
Now Alex is co-terming, which he jokingly describes as “an introduction to a full time job, where school is your job.” He commutes to class, and at the end of the day he goes home to the five-bedroom place he’s sharing with six other guys. After he finishes his master’s in electrical engineering, he hopes to get a return job offer in Houston.
At one point he quotes his favorite verse to me: John 13:7. “You may not know why I am doing what I’m doing, but you will later.”
“This is just my perspective,” he says, “but situations like [my mother passing away] and sharing [them] … can be impactful for other people and help them in the future. And it’s already happened to me. So if my obstacles and my hardships from the past can, in some way, help somebody else, then that’s the ‘why.’”
He seems very happy, sitting at my roommate’s desk with a cup of blue PowerAde and a bowl heaped high with chocolate almonds. Sharing.
I put the food leftover in a Ziploc bag for him to take home once our conversation is finished. Before we part ways, I go for the polite side hug, but he laughs and gives me an easy two-armed hug. “I’m a two-armed hug type of guy,” he says.
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Contact Katiana Uyemura at kuyemura ‘at’ stanford.edu.