College and Other Liminal Spaces

Living off-campus can create the separation needed to shape an experience of your own and to build a new appreciation for UChicago.

By Rachel Ong

A friend of mine recently asked me why I prefer living off-campus instead of living in the dorms. What was meant to be a quick text in response ended up being a five-paragraph essay: I found myself recalling Sunday grocery shopping trips and making eye contact with the mouse that would (more often than not) make its weekly appearance scuttling across our kitchen floor. Certain routines unique to taking care of your own space—putting away dishes in the quiet of the morning, checking in on my roommates at strange hours of the night—had become concrete.

These small moments breathed life into my experience at UChicago in a way that living in the dorms hadn’t. Most of my college experience had been insulated within campus, and my dorm’s close proximity to the rest of the school had forced a closeness between myself and the school that I desperately needed in my first two years here. But now, by having space from the College, I’ve become closer to it than I’ve ever been. We need to be able to build our own lives outside of the College to occasionally perceive it as a liminal space rather than the point of destination.

A few months ago, I worried that living in an apartment would mean a clean split from UChicago and its culture—I wasn’t exactly ready to let go of that yet, nor was I ready to start officially adulting so soon. To be so distant from the University almost felt like a command, a not-so-gentle reminder that we weren’t kids floundering about amongst the real adults anymore. You are too old to be here! There are new, younger first-years that we need to take care of! It hadn’t sunk in yet that I was nearly 21 and had my own keys to an apartment. It just felt like I had blindly taken on the expected “next step” of upperclassmen instead of properly thinking through all options.

College was the focal point of my past two years, a medium through which all of my experiences had been filtered. When I reflect on my college experiences—the slog of exam seasons, the panic of the pandemic, the occasional instant ramen dinner—I think about how much of it was spent within the four walls of my dorm room, anxious and alone. Without access to most resources on campus and the persistent struggle of maintaining a work-life balance, college felt like a never-ending online course where the stakes seemed extraordinarily high.

Now, college inhabits a different role in my life. The weight of assignments feels less pressing when I’m busy planning meals with my roommates or dealing with mold on our bathroom ceiling. I feel much more protective over these quiet moments that I call my own.

Perhaps college belongs in the negative space. In an apartment removed from the campus web of libraries and lecture halls, I can still enjoy what this University has to offer without letting it swallow my life whole. When I walk to class now, I spend a little more time taking in the familiar scenes of autumn on campus: professors chatting over coffee on a bench, the frisbee players sneaking in another game before class, someone in a hammock soaking in the warmth of October (a rarer appearance now, as the weather has turned). There’s a lightness that didn’t exist before—or maybe it just needed some time to settle.

While there is certainly encouragement to create your own sense of self in the first two years of living on campus, it’s often drowned out by the noise of campus culture and social expectations. After two years of optimistic autumns, long stretches of winter, and burgeoning springs, I hadn’t realized how many moments were fraught with a fear of absence—the absence of knowing what college was actually supposed to feel like, the absence of making college a home. Echoing my previous columns, it can be easy to feel like you’re never really doing college right—everyone else feels the same way.

Even if living off-campus hasn’t completely erased that feeling, it’s offered a new thesis on how to go about these next two years left at UChicago. Joy doesn’t have to be sequestered, nor does it have to be earned. It belongs at the forefront—it always did—despite the need to make it an if, not a when.

Rachel Ong is a third-year in the College.