For many of us, coming to college is the first extended period spent away from home, parents, and the familiar. I’ve seen, and experienced firsthand, the many ways people abuse this new personal freedom—from binge drinking to sleepless nights studying. As someone who has been in your shoes, I am here to tell you my story, what I learned, and my advice as you begin your journey into a world of near-complete personal freedom.
I came to UChicago feeling much the same way you probably are now—excited, nervous, and daunted by UChicago’s reputation. Given how successful everyone around me seemed, I felt as though proving myself academically was the only way I could make friends and be one with the UChicago community. So during autumn quarter of first year, I enrolled in four classes—Mechanics, General Chemistry, Calculus II, and Readings in World Literature (my humanities Core sequence). I joined a multitude of extracurriculars—I walked onto the cross-country team, applied to be a columnist for The Chicago Maroon, and did orientation for Alpha Phi Omega (the community service fraternity). I also wanted to join a lab. Meanwhile, I tried to attend parties every weekend, make friends in my house, and spend time with the friends I had made during preseason.
What I failed to take into account, though, was how new I was to most of these things. I had never taken chemistry properly, had a dodgy understanding of mechanics, and, in high school, rarely had reading assignments that exceeded 40 pages. I had never written for a newspaper and, given that I come from a town of around 2,400 people, had never been in a school club with more than 10 members. I also ignored the fact that many of my peers were familiar with what was new to me—in General Chemistry and Mechanics, many had already taken AP Chemistry and the entire AP Physics sequence, respectively; a lot of the cross-country athletes had been recruited; and nearly everyone I met grew up in a city.
By the middle of the quarter, I was burnt out and overwhelmed. I withdrew from Mechanics. I injured my knee and was unable to run. I stopped attending Alpha Phi Omega meetings and ended up quitting altogether. I never sent an email to the researchers whose work interested me. I also closed myself off socially—I stopped going out as frequently, spent long nights alone in the Reg, and became a house ghost.
What truly helped me was a simple walk around campus with two of my close friends. It was a lovely evening to begin with—amber sunlight flooded campus, and the air was brisk. We wandered around the upper pews in Rockefeller Chapel as the setting sun illuminated its stained glass windows, we stumbled upon a tango class for the elderly, and we talked—genuinely, openly, and nonjudgmentally—about how we felt. To my surprise, they too were anxious, overwhelmed, and unsure of themselves. Knowing that others felt the same way was reassuring, to say the least.
After that walk, I began trying to focus on what made me happy regardless of how I thought others perceived it. I devoted more time to making new friends, learning how to write columns, and exploring Hyde Park. I said yes to more spontaneous outings—eating dinner downtown, auditioning for the Moda fashion show, and attending a frat formal. As a result, my grades stopped suffering. I noticed myself smiling more often, and I felt happier overall. I began to recognize the fact that people, at UChicago and beyond, are more willing to accept you if you pursue what you love. And, above all else, I truly internalized a lesson I thought I’d already learned: You must always listen to yourself.
In the end, it is you who makes the decisions, you who paves the way through college—no one else. Now that eight-hour nonstop school days will be replaced by three to five hours of sporadic class time per day and the feeling of your parents breathing down your neck will be replaced by the frigid Chicago winds, it’s important to remember that with complete freedom of choice, you should always choose yourself, your well-being, and your happiness—even if it means adapting some of the things you valued before to suit you better now.
Maya Ordoñez is a third-year in the College.