Break Out of the Box

Creative outlets are integral to academic success, especially at UChicago.

By Luke Contreras

The University of Chicago markets itself as a community of “out-of-the-box” thinkers, but in practice, the rigor and packed schedule of UChicago academics doesn’t take me out of the box—it puts me in one (my room, that is). The quarter system squeezes semester-long courses down to nine weeks, fills my schedule with a never-ending sea of deadlines, and steals away hours of my sleep. All this work locks me in certain spaces—my room, the library, or a classroom—for long periods of time. But amid the stress of the quarter, it’s important to find activities that will occasionally draw you out of your box and help you take care of your mental health.

About a month ago, I stood on the lakefront by the Adler Planetarium with my camera mounted on a tripod, facing the skyline. The sun had set several minutes earlier, and a faint glow in the cloudy sky painted the crowd of glass skyscrapers with shades of blue, indigo, and purple. I hoped to get several shots of the city during twilight, especially in a location from which I had never taken photos. As I snapped several long-exposure photos, I enjoyed the tranquil scene of families and friends walking along the shoreline. The sound of their voices and laughs floated into the air over the lake like bubbles, rising in random directions until they disappeared. “This is much better than sitting in my room,” I thought.

On my bike ride back to Hyde Park, I reminisced about the many memorable experiences photography has brought me, like meeting a freelance photographer from Canada underneath the El on Wabash Avenue, witnessing evangelism in the form of a minivan driving up and down Lake Shore Drive, and getting stuck in an elevator on my way up to a rooftop with magnificent views of the city. Without my interest in photography, which only began about a year ago, I would not have these memories.

UChicago’s rigorous academics create a stress that is present throughout all of campus. I know that I am not alone in frequently feeling confined to spaces for long periods of time, held captive by a seemingly endless list of tasks and assignments. Moments like these are inevitable in an environment that is designed to test our resilience, advance our knowledge, and challenge our capabilities. It is sometimes necessary to sit for many hours at a desk diligently working and studying in order to succeed. However, endless cycles of this behavior can become unhealthy, trapping us in our own little box.

In times like these, we need a personal catalyst for change. It is important to find something that actively draws us outside of our boxes and creates a space for us to forget about college-induced stress. It can serve as an important reminder to take care of ourselves and live in the world around us rather than existing in one place. Momentarily departing from this stressful environment is critical for our mental health, and it can refresh and motivate the mind, allowing us to continue working productively.

For me, this catalyst is photography. My hectic schedule doesn’t often allow me to spend time taking pictures, but when it does, photography leads me to new places and gifts me with unique experiences. Beyond the memories, it pulls me away from the intensity of a UChicago quarter and gives me the opportunity to relax for a short time. Most of all, it draws me out of my box here on campus and tosses me into a new environment.

We may be a community of out-of-the-box thinkers, but I fear that the academically stressful environment isolates us from the outside world and from each other. The result is a body of students who never allow themselves to take a moment for themselves, each living in their own space and focusing on the endless amount of work that they need to complete. This is neither healthy nor necessary to succeed at UChicago, and I believe we should strive to prevent ourselves from becoming trapped in our work. To be fulfilled and keep up our “out-of-the-box” thinking without burning out, we all need to find something that will ultimately lure us out of our boxes.

Luke Contreras is a third-year in the College.