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February 19, 2020

Winter to Winter

Exposing the myth behind the idea of one, “right” college for each of us.

My high-school self believed that applying to college would mean finding the “right” school for me. I got this idea from movies and books, from the people around me and from colleges themselves, including UChicago, which push the idea that there is a perfect school for each of us. They market the admissions process as a personality test of sorts. The message may be implicit, but it is strong: If you do your research and let your individuality shine through in your applications, you will be accepted by the one school that is truly aligned with your “you.”

I may have believed in this one “right” school myth in high school, but my own college experience has proven that it is exactly that: a myth, and a damaging one. Because of this idea that there is a “right” school for everyone, students, especially first-years, will spend valuable mental energy worrying that they chose “wrong” in the college process. They may wonder if they should transfer or resign themselves to an unhappy four-year slog. I have a solution: Stop believing the myth of the “right” school. No matter where we go to college, we can create our own spaces at that school—as Manya Bharadwaj suggested in her recent column—and create the college experience our high school selves imagined.

During my college application process, I thought I wanted to go to a mid-sized school in a city—one with a quirky culture, traditions, and, especially, a great English program. UChicago seemed to tick all of the boxes. When I got in, I was elated. I was sure that UChicago was the “right” school for me. Then, I actually got there.

I joined RSOs that appealed to my interests, but none of them made me feel like I was part of a community. I made friends in my house, but I quickly realized that I didn’t feel comfortable being my true self around them. So, I made a change, spending more time with a different group of house friends, and felt more socially fulfilled for a while.

These friends didn’t like to go out, though, and I wanted to dance. I wanted to explore downtown, but I felt that wouldn’t happen if I didn’t suggest places to go, things to do, new restaurants to try and thrift stores to explore. By making myself the planner of the group, I also made myself constantly worried that people wouldn’t like my plans. I felt drained from the effort of organizing these social events. And, despite really liking these friends, despite all the time we spent together doing the things I planned, I felt desperately lonely. I cried a lot during my first year.

Social media didn’t help. My friends from home seemed to be having the college experience I had hoped to have: truly close friends, fun parties, the freedom and new experiences we are taught to associate with college. They each seemed to have found the “right” school for them, and that “rightness” seemed to have been clear to them right away. I had hoped for that connection, but I definitely did not feel it at UChicago. If I stayed, would I ever find it? Had I simply chosen wrong?

Looking back on this time, I can see how much of a negative impact the idea of the “right” school had on my mental health. I had decided not to wait for a school that had deferred me initially. What if that had been the right place and I had missed it? I had been wavering between UChicago and Pomona and had chosen UChicago: Did I make the wrong choice? Well, I wasn’t happy at UChicago and didn’t feel that I belonged, so, according to the myth of the right school, yes.

Throughout my first year, I often fell into spirals of intense regret. I would think about each choice I had made during the college process and agonize over whether I should have taken a different path at this point or that one, whether I should have toured more schools or prioritized different criteria. My brain would feel too big for my skull and I would tie myself in mental knots that I couldn’t rationalize myself out of. These spread to the rest of my body, making me tense and on-edge, and I would wish that I could just turn it all off. That I could stop wishing and worrying and wondering and just be happy where I was. But I couldn’t, because I always returned to the same question: What if where I was wasn’t where I was “supposed” to be?

One day late in winter quarter of last year, I admitted to myself how unhappy I was. I opened a new window in my browser and searched “should I transfer from UChicago.” The internet had no concrete answers for me—shocking, I know—but I did find an article written by a 2014 Viewpoints columnist who had had doubts similar to mine. She had gone through the process of applying to transfer, but she hadn’t left UChicago. The process itself, she said, helped her reflect on what she wanted from the school—she, and others like fellow columnist Brinda Rao, realized they could change their experience without changing colleges.

Reading that article made me think through my own reasons for wanting to transfer, and I realized that I didn’t even need to go through the process of applying. I knew what my UChicago experience was missing: a sense of community. I knew that I wanted to be a part of a group of people with whom I could be myself. As I realized that I could figure out a way to find that without leaving UChicago, my faith in the one “right” school myth began to erode. Instead of believing that I didn’t fit, that UChicago wasn’t and would never be “right” for me, I had started to believe that, with a little work, I could make UChicago fit me.

I call my parents at least once a week, so they knew how I had been feeling. My dad also remembered how much I loved being a part of sports teams in high school. He suggested that I look at the list of UChicago’s club teams to see if any appealed to me, and, because I had recognized the feeling of belonging that I was seeking as a feeling I’d had on teams in the past, I took his advice. After looking through the list of club sports and exploring more team websites than I can remember, I found the Women’s Ultimate Frisbee page. I read through the website and the whole ethos of the sport seemed like exactly what I was looking for. I closed the tab, found the listhost, and joined it.

Once I let go of the idea that there is a “right” school and, with it, the idea that I was unhappy because I was at the “wrong” one, I regained agency over my college experience. My mental health is better this year than I could have imagined it being last year, and that is entirely a result of my commitment to being deliberate about the things I participate in on campus and the people I spend time with. This is a mindset many UChicago students arrive at, as Manya’s article demonstrates. For me, it was a direct result of deciding that I could make any school my school.

I have stopped trying so hard in my friend group and have been happier for it. I don’t worry about making plans as much anymore and—shocker, I know—we still have fun together. I have committed more fully to the RSOs I care about and have added ultimate frisbee to that list. At first, I was nervous to start a completely new sport on a team where I knew no one. But the frisbee community has been warm and welcoming and, even when I barely showed up to practice fall quarter, people made an effort to get to know me, to invite me to hang out outside of practice, and to make me feel at home.

The myth of the “right” college means that most of us will have doubts about the school we end up choosing. We will wonder if we made the “wrong” choice, if we would be happier somewhere else, and that incessant doubt is not something that we should have to struggle with, especially on top of our academic stressors. My advice, then: Try to let go of “right” and wrong.” UChicago can be made to fit you even if you feel, as I did, that you will never belong here. You can create a little solar system in the larger universe that is this school—a system that orbits around you and the things you care about, the combination of interests and priorities that only you have—and you can have the experience that your high-school self imagined.

Elizabeth Winkler is a second-year in the College. 

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