I’ve come to believe that when a student finishes their first year at UChicago, any lingering freshman naiveté is instantaneously replaced with a smug condescension toward anyone about to go through what they just did. Suddenly, they’re experts on all things UChicago, eager to dispense advice that, although occasionally useful, often serves more to bolster the advice-giver’s ego rather than to provide a useful roadmap for the advice-recipient.
It’s not all bad, and I doubt any upperclassman advice-giver has malicious intent, but the truth is that incoming first-years will wind up receiving advice that is not just unsolicited, but actively unhelpful. There’s the blatantly misleading “You’ll meet all your best friends first week and they’ll stay with you forever,” the blatantly biased “You have to join Greek life if you want to party!” and the blatantly condescending “Oh, you think you know your major? That’s cute, but it’ll definitely change!” In fact, aside from a few purely practical tips (“Don’t go to Bar Night every week. Don’t take UChicago Secrets too seriously. If you climb buildings on campus, make sure the way down is at least as easy as the way up.”), I think the majority of good advice I received as a first-year can be summed up like this:
It will be okay.
You might meet your best friends during O-Week—but many people don’t, and that’s okay.
You might meet your best friends during O-Week and then find you’ve all changed so much by the end of winter quarter that you spend all spring starting over socially—that’s okay, too.
Your house might become your family on campus, or you might decide you prefer to meet people through Greek life, or the debate team, or work-study, or on the bus.
Maybe the major you checked on your application will be just what you thought, and you’ll decide to focus on a joint master’s degree in lieu of exploring other fields—that’s great. Maybe you’ll realize that you need to take classes in lots of areas before settling on a major, and that’s also cool. And maybe you’ll find your dream major, just to change your mind again and again. That’s okay, too.
Sometimes, it won’t feel okay at all. You might have to pick between your first real relationship and an A in a hard intro sequence. You might pick the A and still get a B. You might wind up feeling like you don’t have time for anything but school, and then spend your few free minutes looking around and wondering how other people manage to date, go to the gym, party, and join RSOs. You might rush Greek life only to find that your new brothers or sisters aren’t people you relate to. The professor with great class evaluations might turn out to be a bad lecturer, or a great professor might not have time to give you any feedback on your writing. There will probably be times during your first year when you feel lonely, and times when you’re embarrassed, and times when you’re really, really, really tired.
But hey. I hope and believe that these moments of suck will come interspersed between goofy adventures, great conversations over Fourth Meal, and crazy fun nights. I can only speak for myself, but after a year, UChicago is one of my favorite places in the world. From the branches of old oaks on the quad to the gleaming Ratner ellipticals to the lofty 11th floor balcony of Logan, I’ve found pockets of magic and refuge on campus where I go when things don’t feel okay, and I hope you find the same.
And now, having spent a full column bashing not just advice to first-years, but advice-givers themselves, I’ll indulge in the input impulse for a moment and dispense some advice I hope is not misleading, biased, or condescending:
You’re smart. So are other people. How happy you are at UChicago tracks pretty closely with your ability to hold those two facts in the same thought and not let either take away from the other.
Stay in your own movie! You know why you came to UChicago, or, if you don’t, your first year is a good time to find out. Nobody else is here for the same reason as you are, and their joy and success don’t detract from yours. Conversely, if people make you feel bad when you’ve done well, they’re not on your team or in your corner. You get to decide how much time and energy to offer those folks.
Find older people on campus whom you admire and who are willing to talk about their path to and through UChicago. It doesn’t have to be networking, and there doesn’t have to be any professional endgame. Whether they’re older undergraduates, graduate students, researchers, or professors, whether they’re in your field or just people you think do great work, it’s helpful to remember that life is long, and that your immediate struggle, be it for a grade, internship, or social life, is probably just a monster of the week.
Good luck! Have fun, and seriously. Don’t go to Bar Night every week