What I Wish UChicago Had Taught Me
This past June, I graduated from the University of Chicago. For those of you who aren’t my Facebook friends or may not know about UChicago, it is one of the most rigorous and prestigious universities in the world. There’s a running joke that it’s “where fun comes to die”, but I (mostly) had the opposite experience.
I’d like to think that I took full advantage of all the opportunities UChicago had to offer. I walked into South Campus Residential Commons on my move-in day, so excited to finally be starting college, with my single mother to my right and my grandmother, who had raised me since the day I was born, to my left. I did not want to waste a single penny of their money (which turned out not to be true — I’m sure I’ve skipped enough Organic Chemistry classes that I could use the money from those lectures to buy a domesticated leopard), and so I decided to become as involved as possible (and got little to no sleep). I joined Peer Health Exchange, I became a tour guide, I became the President of my House as well as serving as an Orientation-Aide, I started volunteering at the hospital, and I worked in a lab, all in my first two years. In my last two years, I worked as a Campus Campaign Coordinator for Teach for America, I became an RA for a House that would become my family, was the Volunteer Coordinator and then Chair for the Undergraduate Admissions Office, worked as a non-profit consultant for the Community Program Accelerator, started to do stand-up comedy around campus, and joined Organizing for Action as a community organizer.
Now fast-forwarding to the present, I currently work as a Health & Benefits Specialist in a rotational consulting program, and am involved/have improv shows coming up with Second City. As I meet new people who went to different universities and come from a variety of backgrounds, it seems to me like everyone seems to be generally okay with their lives right now. To be frank: I am not. I am struggling like crazy. I feel sad, because in these past few weeks, the place I’ve felt the most comfortable has been at my weekly dinners in my old dorm with my former Resident Heads, who have easily become family to me in the past year. It’s saddest to me because the place I feel safest, most at home…is no longer my home.
Now whenever I reminisce on the good ol’ days with my friends, or talk about how I actually miss RA training (not lying), everyone’s response is always “wow, you really miss it.” There exists this mindset at UChicago, where students are encouraged to inhabit a mindset of being for the future and being told to always be looking forward. As a disclaimer, I will say that I had a hell of a second year and have not always been happy at UChicago. Throughout college, my anxiety worsened, my OCD was at its peak worst in my second/third year, and I sometimes could not make it up the steps to my room because I was too emotionally exhausted by life. I don’t think these experiences are unique to UChicago, and as such, I loved my time in college and saying goodbye has been the hardest thing I’ve had to do. These sentiments have been stated over and over again by countless others before me, but I miss the convenience of having all my friends in one place. I miss being able to go to the Reg to finish a paper at 10 PM on a Wednesday and know that I’d find someone to sit with on the first floor. Perhaps most importantly for me, I miss my House. The RA who’s replaced me has been gracious and wonderful enough to be my friend and still include me, as much as an alumnus of the College can be. But I still struggle with knowing that I’m not there anymore, and this experience has been difficult to transition into.
At a school like UChicago, where there’s so much weight on things like prestige, you get wrapped up in this mentality that you take this education you receive from legions of scholars before you and change the world. Maybe I’m ashamed that all I want is to be back in school learning, not using my education to better the world (am I even capable of that? Stay tuned.), or maybe I’m ashamed that as graduation was approaching, everyone was so excited about where they were going next, how ready they were to free themselves of the school they called home, but all I could think about was “I’m not excited about the future. I don’t want to go into corporate America. I want to plan House trips still.” Now, maybe that makes me a loser (it 100000% does), but it’s something that I was so proud of and still am. When you go to a self-deprecating, prestigious institution that strangely has an inferiority complex because nobody outside of the academic world seems to know what UChicago is (UChicago is not a state school, work colleagues!), many people develop this personality where Housing is lame (and maybe it is, who am I to say?) and being “UChicago quirky” is not something you want to be called. And so maybe that’s why I’m having such a hard time opening up about it and being honest with those around me, because missing things like rosters of first years and talking about why I chose UChicago to high school seniors could be seen as lame. But when it comes down to it, I wouldn’t want to trade the love I have for these activities in college with anything else.
Housing was way more important to me than it was for most people, and more than I think most people realize. It’s hard to get really into it, though, when most of the people I befriended were itching to move off into their own apartments, or found communities elsewhere on campus and simply saw the dorm as a place to sleep (which is totally fine!). It’s also challenging to express the emotions and love I have for Housing as stated before when most RAs are seen as warm, loving people and I am simply…the worst. As an RA, I was always floating in and out of my dorm, and was definitely not the most present. I got complaints throughout my two years of RAing that I was “hardly around”, and that my study breaks were sometimes rushed. That all being said, I think I tried my hardest; I led a house trip almost every Saturday, I baked homemade study breaks, I hosted Netflix night once a week, and above all I tried to make my residents feel like they belonged to, at the very least, one infinitely welcoming, dynamic community. While I probably only ate at the dining hall ~7 times a week with my residents, I did try and make them feel like they were noticed and known when I bumped into them on the Quad, when I saw them as I gave a tour, when they came over to a tabling event I was staffing. I thought it would make our House feel more like a family if I didn’t have regulated, organized programming, and instead treated them like younger siblings in an immigrant Asian household (which I always explained when I would roast one of them in particular). My house has been the hardest goodbye, and I’m not even sure when that really ends…but for now, it’s still happening and has made life after Coulter a bitch.
I know everyone experiences post-graduation in different ways. Some people who hated college leave and say “I’m never coming back! Hasta la vista FOREVER, so glad to be moving on in my life” Some miss their frats and sororities, and some miss being able to play Spades in Hutch Commons every Sunday with their friends. Some people become depressed and take a while to get over it, and some rebound the day after graduation, ready to start the next chapter of their lives. As someone who derives anxiety from almost everything that exists in the world, I struggle with change once I get comfortable. There’s something so wonderful about finding a community of misfits and truly feeling like you belong. I can empathize with the characters of Glee, and I understood what Harry Potter must’ve felt when he left Hogwarts after his first year looking back at his school from the train. College, if you allow it to be, can be a magical place. What I wish UChicago, or college in general, had taught me was how to deal with the lows you get after the high of living in a cocoon of warmth, safety, and knowing that while not every aspect of the University may have your back, the community you build for yourself always will. I know that if I were to call up my best friend who now lives in New York at 2 AM because I’m having an anxiety attack, he would (begrudgingly and groggily) answer and help me. But ultimately, this transition is something I have to do on my own, and it’s something that billions of people around the world have had to do before me. I just wish there was some kind of preparation for it instead of waking up one morning and realizing that your ID no longer gets you into the place you called home.