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September 24, 2020

To Succeed at UChicago, Build Your Life from The Inside Out

During a virtual quarter, resist the temptation to lead a virtual life.

Usually, the Orientation issue of The Maroon is about as sunshiny as this paper gets. We run recaps of campus goings-on, guides to hook-up culture at UChicago, and optimistic op-eds full of advice about how to make the most of one’s time as a Maroon. Admittedly, I love this stuff. It’s exciting to welcome new students to Hyde Park, introduce them to the quirks of our school, and pass on tips and tricks for making it at the place where fun comes to die. In fact, in last year’s O-Issue, I wrote a piece titled “Dear Incoming Freshmen: It Will Be Okay”. It was a tongue-in-cheek advice column that covered the difficulty of making lasting friends during first year, finding one’s place on campus, and balancing RSOs, classes, and self-care.

This year, it’s hard to strike that traditionally cheerful tone. I don’t know that I can tell new students in good faith that everything will be okay, or that they’ll get the college experience they expect and deserve. Instead of a roadmap for a goofy, exciting first year, I worry that incoming first-years need a zombie apocalypse-style survival guide.

I don’t have a survival guide, but I do have some advice for learning at what might, at times, feel like the end of the world. To find joy at UChicago during a remote quarter, build your life on campus from the inside out, not the outside in.

As you start college, you have the chance to transform yourself. If you want, you can adopt different interests, a different look, a different social circle, a whole different persona than you had in high school. The choices you make—to change, to stay the same—can feel overwhelming, and you run the risk of winding up with a life at UChicago that you’ve built based on how you want people to see you, rather than how you want to be.

We all know what that feels like. It happens when you’re in a beautiful place or spending time with people you love, and you find yourself planning the Instagram post you’ll make about it instead of being present. Performance is at play when someone asks about your favorite book, and you panic, trying to think of a suitably impressive title, and when you scroll through job opportunities on Handshake and can’t help but focus on how impressive a particular position sounds, instead of on finding work that you’ll genuinely enjoy.

All of that—that’s building a life from the outside in. You start by thinking about how you want to be perceived and then go about constructing and decorating an intricate visage for the viewing pleasure of everyone but yourself. Often, that visage is in pursuit of perfection: the life you show to the outside world is in fact a reflection of what you believe people want to see. At UChicago, that often means assembling an image that’s smart, altruistic, funny, quirky, attractive, ambitious, and self-aware all at once.

This will be more relevant than ever this quarter. During the fall, most of your introductions—to peers, professors, and student organizations—will be virtual. You’ll have to set a million profile pictures and write a million introduction posts, each an opportunity to edit yourself. In the absence of conversations at your house table, video game tournaments in the house lounge, and downtown excursions with new friends, there will be fewer opportunities to get to know people in a nuanced, three-dimensional way. Instead, you’ll probably learn about each other largely through Zoom backgrounds, clothing, Canvas posts, and social media feeds. It will be tempting to fixate on those surface-level indicators of personality and get stuck trying to create a perfect external image while losing sight of what really matters: how your life at UChicago feels to you, the person living it. But by resisting that temptation and instead building lives from the inside out this fall, we might just forget that we seem to be living in the Upside Down. Forming real relationships and developing genuine interests are hallmarks of a normal college experience, and by November, I think all of us will be longing for more normal college things.

So how does one build a life at UChicago from the inside out? Start by seeking ways to escape the march of profile pictures and icebreaker questions and instead get to know people in a deeper way. It will be harder during a pandemic, but consider taking socially distanced, masked walks with people instead of just texting, joining RSOs that genuinely spark your interest, or scheduling a weekly Zoom movie night or gaming session with someone cool from class. Form these genuine relationships using time you would otherwise spend perfecting your Tinder bio, networking with peers on LinkedIn, and obsessing over whether your Zoom camera angle makes you look like the girl from The Ring.

In addition to seeking more three-dimensional interactions, also make sure you’re not putting too much store in two-dimensional ones. Deleting the Instagram app off my phone for most of my first year was probably the best decision I made as a freshman, not that that’s saying much. If you find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about how you come across on a particular social media platform, try taking a break for a month or so and get to know people who aren’t on that platform and thus don’t already know you from your feed. UChicago has fun, zany online spaces (think Memes, Secrets, and Crushes), but conversations there can turn into bloodbaths quickly as people signal their political and philosophical affiliations and trade insults as well as approval. So post your memes, submit your crushes, and tag your friends in Secrets posts—but remember that in those spaces, everyone’s putting forth their own persona, and who we are online is not our whole self.

Perhaps the most important reason to pursue a life at UChicago that is joyful and yours, rather than one that impresses other people, is that it is the first step in escaping our notorious culture of perfectionism. After all, most of us were introduced to UChicago with a glossy brochure or admissions sales pitch. The admissions website shows grinning students and pristine Gothic buildings—an encapsulation of what college should be. But once you get here, you realize that UChicago isn’t perfect. Our campus is beautiful, but it’s paved with an ugly history of gentrification and policing on the South Side. Our intellectual output is impressive, but campus stress culture too often distracts from genuine learning. UChicago’s academics are among the world’s greatest, but good luck getting into a class with a full professor as a first year.

I love this school, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, but it’s nothing like a college brochure. UChicago isn’t perfect. But once you realize that, it means that you don’t have to be either.

Ruby Rorty is a third year in the College and editor of Viewpoints.

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