Applying to UChicago presented, among many things, the attractive possibility of leaving the Bay Area. Aside from family and friends, the weather, and my favorite restaurants and coffee shops, I could not imagine staying in the Silicon Valley bubble any longer. Every day, I’d hear students exclusively talk about the mediocre A- they got on an English paper, or a disappointing B+ on the latest math test. Classes were taught for the sole purpose of preparing us for an Advanced Placement exam in May, and goodness if you didn’t get a 5 on an “easy one”— $Fyou’d be ridiculed for doing “poorly.” Parents would repeatedly boast about their child’s accomplishments and pester other students about what extracurriculars they were doing. A parent at a family gathering would not stop being belligerent in asking me about everything I did to get into this school, disregarding the fact that I even had a close relationship to them or that I had passions. Everything was a competition; your peers would attempt to always one-up even the hobbies you engaged in for fun.
When I arrived at UChicago, I thought I would be leaving most of this behind, that maybe, just maybe, I could be immersed in learning for the sake of intellectual curiosity, rather than career advancement. Thankfully, many of my hopes have been fulfilled. I’ve met inspiring friends, am taking interesting classes, and have learned more in just my first quarter here than I ever did in high school. Yet, with every single week, I am slowly realizing that my new environment mirrors, in a few key ways, Silicon Valley; just with really difficult weather and a social sciences/humanities-focused curriculum.
We may be a Division III school, but we should be Division I in the struggle olympics. One quarter in, and I’ve already fallen victim to feeling as though I need to let people know just how much work I have to do. The perpetual need to show those around you how overwhelmed or stressed you are exists in much of the same way it did back in high school. “I got X hours of sleep” or “I have Y psets due tomorrow” are statements I’ve made too often, not really as a means to share with my friends literally how much I have to work on, but almost as a way to justify why I’m too often preoccupied and not present enough.
For the hundreds of fellow Bay Area students here, the same type of pressure that many of us grew up with unfortunately remains a part of our college lives. There may not be parents around, but climbing club ranks and planning the next step in our education before the first quarter has even ended is an all-too-familiar experience. That same urge to always have to do work is present here too, along with an eagerness to compare yourself against anyone with remotely similar interests.
Maybe my romantic image of UChicago was just naive, though. Did I genuinely believe that much of these similar trends, going from a competitive public high school to coming to a prestigious, intense university, would just magically disappear? Was I really just choosing to not pay attention to the fact that a Bay Area-like competitive environment would not produce the same trends in school?
Irrespective of how eerily similar much of this campus is to the Bay, I will not deny to myself how much more fulfilling it is to be here. Going to a school that values the humanities and social sciences with such emphasis is truly a first in my life. Being surrounded by other students who also share my interests and push me to think in truly unconventional ways is also gratifying. The opportunities to meet my heroes or watch a movie early at Doc Films or read political theory texts I’ve wanted to read for years are opportunities I really could not have anywhere else.
What I do know is that both of these factors can be true. I can acknowledge the very best of attending such an intellectually rigorous, liberal arts institution, but also acknowledge that the high stress academic environment I experienced in high school has followed me to college. Initially, my first few weeks here made me worried that I may live four more years within the same environment I was trying to avoid. Nonetheless, just like back home, I know I need to learn the ways to find solace and reprieve through the seemingly endless amounts of work. So, whether that is in writing, fueling my coffee problem, or getting back to ice skating, I cannot let this place become the place I felt, at times, that I was fleeing.
Noah Tesfaye is a first-year in the College.