By Jenzo DuQue (Class of 2015)
The look is always the same. It usually starts with a gaping mouth, and then the eyes swell out of their sockets, followed by an eyebrow reaching for a hairline. That’s assuming there is a hairline; most of the time the gawkers are pushing sixty or have stressed their locks away by grad school. But regardless of whom I’m telling, it’s the same old song and dance each time.
“You go to the University of Chicago?” they gasp, a fork poised precariously before their lips.
“Yes, I do.” I say, balancing two plates in my left hand and another on my forearm. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
It’s hard for some people to stomach that I’m a waiter and a UChicago student. Shouldn’t I be off making breakthroughs in the Pirahã language or in cancer research? Probably. But I’m not. I’m doing what I’ve been doing since before college—just working because I need the money and honestly, it’s kind of fun. And I know you’ve heard about what happens if fun and our campus cross paths.
When I first started in the business, I was bussing tables at an independent marketplace called Fox & Obel, the perfect job for a kid coming out of high school. The clientele was wealthy; the beer we drank on the job was gourmet; the higher-ups were too crooked to notice any of the petty misdeeds going on in our department (to be fair, the company went bankrupt and was accused of cooking its books, so clearly they were busy). Best of all, no one knew I was Chicago-bound, nor did they think I was slumming. I was just a guy who liked to bitch about taxes like the rest of us, who worked fifteen-hour shifts every now and then. I was normal—there was no maroon C stitched to my breast—and I kept my head down while having a good time there.
As the summer came to a close and my first year drew nearer, I began to say my goodbyes to the staff. My friends already knew I was heading for Hyde Park, but most of the employees didn’t. That’s when I first started getting the look. Apparently, I had some brains. I wasn’t just a deadbeat dropout. I was going somewhere, and the managers congratulated me. I kept brushing it off, but the pattern did start to annoy me. Still, what really stuck with me were the farewells from my coworkers.
“You’re going to come back and talk down to us.” They cautioned. “Once school starts you’re going to forget that this even happened.”
The whole scene felt like something out of a bad movie—hero continues journey only to return home and realize he’s not the same, hero feels devastated and cries out to the heavens, fade to black. Would I really change that much during college? Would the life of the mind reshape how I looked at others, especially the people who had known me before I had ever set foot on the quad? My friends from high school had expressed the same concerns; even my sister worried about how I wouldn’t be able to relate to people outside of the university community. The theory was every year of undergrad would cost me some percentage of my sociability. I’d start talking in math. Nietzsche and Foucault would become my bosom buddies. And hygiene? Not before hitting the Reg first.
Thankfully, this hasn’t been the case. Don’t get me wrong; I love the UChicago culture and the zany bubble that is our society. Our traditions are awesome and I’m proud to belong to such a dynamic group of freaks and geeks. I’ve met some of my closest friends here—people who share my beliefs and others who challenge them, both forcing me to grow in unexpected ways. I’ve managed to advance myself academically and figure out what I want to do professionally (ah, the timeless pre-med to humanities major switch); however, I’ve also developed as well, just as a person. I’m confident about where I’m going and who I’ll be when I get there, and that’s a lot easier said than done. Looking back it’s clear what was key to my success.
I worked. Nothing fancy—during the year, I was a clerical assistant for a graphic design company on campus, mostly lifting heavy boxes and printing posters. During the summer, I waited tables.
Your inner millennial is likely freaking out. What about internships? What about summer classes? What about “getting ahead”—that’s what everyone else is doing, right?
It is. And I’m not trying to dismiss the importance of those endeavors. I can vouch for apprenticeships and brushing up on material you’re interested in. But there’s also more to your college experience. Career advancement has you covered, and the harsh curriculum will prepare you for the next step, whatever it may be.
What the university doesn’t give you is breathing room. No matter where you go, you’re going to be surrounded by people who are either worried that they aren’t doing enough or are telling you about how much they’re doing. It’s competitive, cutthroat and pretentiousness in its purest form. It’s the fear-based culture that plagues our country’s best schools and it’s going to hinder you as an individual. Your career path won’t suffer. But the adult you’re trying to become will.
I worked at that graphic design company for three years. It wasn’t a résumé builder, and no, I didn’t even learn how to use Photoshop. Instead, I was humbled. I was just an average joe, standing around the water cooler with my coworkers. Whenever I clocked-in, all the pressure, all the competition and all the tension disappeared. I could breathe again. And best of all, the friends I made there are among some of my most treasured because they’re real people and not the country’s intellectual elite trying to knife each other in the back. We didn’t talk about the applications or the awards we were winning. We were just guys who bitched about taxes like the rest of us, who worked fifteen-hour shifts every now and then. We were normal. I was normal.
Trust me, you’re going to need a regular dosage of normal during your time here. Push yourself, and not just academically. Find that community, that home away from home, where you can stop and remind yourself you’re an individual first and everything else is ranked second. Mine has always been on my feet, taking orders or delivering lab manuals around campus. There’s more to life than grades, living in the library, and boosting your career. Because you’ll want to be well equipped for the world by the time you graduate. And you should never let school get in the way of your education.