I barely remember my O-Week. Not due to regrettable levels of intoxication—my memories are hazy simply because I felt so completely overwhelmed by the new environment, the new people, and the incredible amount of information with which I was barraged. It’s no wonder that the week was a blur for me, because UChicago’s efforts to inform new first-years during Orientation are truly impressive. There’s a huge amount of work that goes into making sure the incoming class has more information, events, and resources than it could possibly need.
What I do remember clearly, however, are the nights during the following weeks and months of my first year that I spent plagued by homesickness and anxiety. I really missed my family and was pretty sure I had no idea what I was doing, but surely I should have gotten the hang of things by then, right? What happened to all the orienting I had done during that first week? Now, two weeks into the first quarter, as the summer camp–like vibe of O-Week fades into actual college life, I worry for the current first-year students who may feel the same.
The College understands that incoming students face an enormous and often tumultuous transition. So it greets new students with a full week of Orientation activities, a schedule full of Core classes to ease them into college-level academics, a staggering amount of information about the resources available to them, and the promise of living the “life of the mind.” Acclimation is paramount—at least in the beginning. But after perhaps the first few weeks of fall quarter, when the midterms hit and social ties are established and it becomes less acceptable to wander around the quads with your ID on a lanyard and a lost look in your eyes, it will be assumed that the class of 2017 has figured things out. However, if their first-year experiences are anything like mine or those of many of my peers, they probably won’t even be close.
UChicago has a freshman retention rate of 99 percent according to US News & World Report, placing us at the top of the list nationwide for this particular metric, tied with Columbia and Yale. Freshman retention rate is often cited as a measure of student happiness, an indicator of how well a university looks out for its new undergrads. The higher the proportion of first-year students who, at the end of their first year, are prepared to return to their college, the more said college can boast about the quality of student life.
Despite this impressive statistic, between the two of us, my roommate and I could name at least a dozen of our peers off the top of our heads who had, at one point, thought about leaving the University of Chicago. This sizeable handful of students—ourselves included—felt lost and unhappy enough to apply to or seriously consider transferring to a different school—one that was closer to home, or cheaper, or less notoriously rigorous. It seems that some UChicago students do in fact want to leave—but something changes their minds.
That something, I think, is timing: Transfer application deadlines come in the middle of winter quarter, widely acknowledged as the worst and most depressing time of year. It isn’t difficult to imagine why students, still reeling from the transition to college and probably developing frostbite while trekking to the Reg, would be dissatisfied with their current environment.
So the students who were warmly welcomed to campus in late September find that, in the middle of the academic year, they think they might be better off somewhere else—and then spring comes. Along with transfer decisions, spring quarter at UChicago brings warmer weather, bustling quads, Scav, Summer Breeze, and the promise of three months’ reprieve from academics at the end of the year. I found that spring was when the whole college thing seemed to finally “click,” and many of the students around me seemed to share the same opinion. For whatever reason, spring quarter here is enough to make us want to return when we previously weren’t so sure.
It’s certainly fortunate that almost every first-year student feels at home enough at UChicago that they’re willing to come back for more. But the College can’t expect a week of overwhelmingly front-loaded Orientation and the passing of a few months to do the trick of adjusting hundreds of wide-eyed 18-year-olds to the reality of living away from their parents, working harder than they ever have before, and staring their future in the face. Orientation efforts in the fall are admirable, as is the range of activities and events offered in the spring that create a sense of active student life. But that the middle of the year seems to be ignored—a time when students apparently feel most unhappy and uncomfortable—severely undermines the College’s attempts to create a community that welcomes and supports students during their first year of college. UChicago needs to make a concerted effort to check in with their new first-years and ensure that their emotional and academic needs are being met even after O-Week. It just might prevent students from the unnecessary trauma of reactivating their Common App accounts.
Clair Fuller is a second-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies.