When I left Indonesia for the U.S. in August, I was brimming with excitement at the possibility of being there when the first African American or the first woman was elected president.
But just seven months later, I found myself instead witnessing yet another American tragedy.
I was on the fourth floor of Northern Illinois University (NIU)'s majestic Founder Memorial Library when the tragedy struck, and I watched it unfold from afar.
An NIU graduate, who'd earned a dean's award for a paper on prison society, stepped out from behind a screen on the stage of Cole lecture hall and opened fire, killing five students, most of whom were in their early 20s.
When I arrived at Rockford Airport last year, I couldn't shake the niggling, underlying feeling that something like this might happen. And I would often feel unsafe walking the streets at night, imagining somebody shooting at me from a passing car.
Call me paranoid, but I am living only an hour's drive from Chicago, which has one of the highest crime rates in the U.S. (Overall crime rates are declining, albeit only slightly, the latest statistics show.)
But DeKalb is not Chicago.
A small county town founded in early 1800 by the farmer who patented barbed wire, Joseph Glidden, DeKalb remains a small suburb with a population of around 30,000. Subtract the more than 25,000 NIU students and you arrive at the actual population.
The only famous person I know of who has come out of DeKalb is supermodel Cindy Crawford.
Downtown DeKalb is typically Midwestern with its main streets populated by a post office, Irish bars, a couple of five-and-dime stores and only one decent record store.
People there are extremely hospitable and not at all aggressive. They smile and say "hi" to strangers, and motorists patiently wait at stop signs.
Crime rates are low, with the most common offense being the occasional robbery of a student out late at night.
The DeKalb City Council rejected plans to build a train station for fear the crime rate would increase, with more passengers arriving from Chicago.
Those who wish to travel by train to Chicago must drive to Elburn, the nearest city with a train station.
It is all the more shocking the shooting took place at NIU, of all places in DeKalb.
One of a number of public universities in the northern part of Illinois, NIU is an ideal school for study-oriented students from places like Rockford, Cicero, Naperville and Geneva.
Until a threat was posted on the wall of an NIU building last December, studying at the university was a relaxed affair.
Hanging out in bars on Friday night and rooting on the Huskie football team, which is not even close to cracking into the top tiers of college football, are major pastimes for students.
Students and university staff alike were in a state of shock Thursday.
"It's surreal that this is happening so close to home," NIU student Mike MacQueen was quoted by The Associated Press as saying.
Having been too close to the crime scene for comfort, an American friend told me: "I hope the shooter is still alive and I can beat the s**t out of him."
Amid their mourning, members of the DeKalb community were asking the big question of why. The Chicago Tribune went with an all-black front page and the headline "Why?" on Friday.
"DeKalb will never be the same again. It's a different town now," my landlord told me.
An Indonesian friend was troubled to learn he had shared a workplace with the gunman, 27-year-old Steven Kazmierczak. They had both been working in the sociology laboratory at Dusable Hall, which is next to Cole Hall.
It is difficult to come to terms with the shooting.
"Meanwhile, I am thankful that each of you is safe and I am deeply sorry for the loss of lives. It is impossible to make sense out of senseless violence," Kurt Thurmaier, a director at NIU's political science department, said in his email to students.
When the dust finally settles, debates will likely rage over the same old issue of gun ownership, something which the community in Chicagoland has been grappling with for decades.
And while the debate continues, the spiral of violence will likely continue, and gun control or otherwise, the lingering question will be why.
-- M. Taufiqurrahman