Going Off Mute

Returning to in-person school can be daunting to introverted students, but embracing the discomfort can open us up to new experiences.

By Rachel Ong

It started with a ringtone. As the staccato rhythms rang throughout the classroom, sleepy heads snapped from their screens to search for the culprit. The lecture immediately came to a halt. In one swift motion, the student stashed their phone into their coat pocket. The professor took a second to recalibrate before continuing the class. This is certainly a quintessential, if somewhat embarrassing, experience to have in college, but being in the moment made me realize how much I had missed out on while stuck on Zoom. Now that many of us are newly minted In-Person College Students, there is no more mute button to save us from these fleeting moments of public scrutiny.

When fall quarter began, I was ecstatic about the novel experiences of entering a busy student-run coffee shop, walking into a library without scheduling an appointment, or watching students out in droves on the quad. But there was, naturally, a lingering discomfort that came with this transition. Attending college online meant that I could lean into my introversion and avoid the potential calamities that came with speaking up and speaking out. There was something distinctly comforting about Zoom classes: You surrender yourself to the equalizing effect of being one out of many small boxes on a screen. It was a safe space for the socially anxious and the quiet types of people with whom I identified. But recently, in between going to coffee chats, studying at the Reg, and feeling more perceived than I have ever felt in my life, I realized that being out in the entropic world of actual, in-person college has changed something in me fundamentally. It made me listen, finally, to the inner extrovert that had been there all along.

Don’t get me wrong—I love a good moment of alone time. If I’m being completely honest, I tick most of the boxes of textbook introverts. Described in report cards as “reserved and quiet”? Check. Prefers lectures over small discussion groups? Sure. A thoughtful listener? Of course. But this introvert identity has largely felt more imposed on me than something naturally understood. It’s shaped by the environments I’ve grown up in and how comfortable I’ve felt in them: The family dynamics with which I’m familiar, my steady friend groups, and my limited experience with public speaking. While I would love to be the person that naturally delivers fervent speeches—or even just basic opinions—in front of large groups of people, I often don’t out of fear that I will jumble all the words. Attending school online assuaged this fear of being launched into the spotlight against my will. For some reason, though, having to engage in the real world and go outside of my dorm room isn’t making me shrink into myself. Instead, it’s allowing me to be more aware of how much I truly want to connect with people and how much I enjoy the little things about social life that simply weren’t satisfied by the virtual reality of online school, like witnessing groups of people on the quad, grabbing a spontaneous meal at Pret, or cramming last-minute assignments with strangers in the dorm study room.

If you’re struggling to adjust to life post–Zoom University or if you find yourself wanting to expand your social life, I encourage you to venture out of the metaphorical screen and try something new. You could sign up for a low-key RSO, sit in the first floor of the Reg, or attend a dorm event. Although it’s common advice to just “get out there,” not many people follow through with it. UChicago culture is known for being quite isolating, and not just in your first year. Trying something small—whether it’s sitting in a cafe for the first time or chatting with a neighbor—makes an enormous difference. You can stay within your personal boundaries while trying something new. Hopefully, this will nourish the part of you that thrives on connection, and at the very least, it’s a way for you to experience our campus in new ways.

There’s a myth that introverts fall under the more studious types. I used to believe that staying inside meant that I would miraculously become more dedicated to the Life of the Mind. But life at UChicago is, to me, an inherently social life, and I don’t mean the kind of life that demands plans with friends every weekend or bestows the confidence of someone who speaks first in class. College life thrives in social spaces, fed by both smaller and larger interactions with the real world around you. While much of the personal growth that happens here can be individually experienced, it’s also shared among peers and friends.

Being at this school can make you feel like you can only be on opposite sides of the social spectrum, but that isn’t the case. Convincing yourself to commit to that extra step is a way to explore what you’re comfortable with. As someone who considers myself fairly non-opinionated in most social settings, content to form hot takes, crack jokes, and do deep dives on serious topics only when I’m clanging away at a keyboard, I’ve learned a lot by making the choice to leave my comfort zone. If your fears of reentering the arena of in-person school start to compound or if your phone suddenly rings during the middle of a class, try not to panic. It might be freeing to lean into the discomfort.

Rachel Ong is a second-year in the College.