By Naseem Jamnia (AB ’13)
When I first set foot onto the quad—actually, it was the Ida Noyes courtyard, stone arches and grassy front—I was a goner. The Core’s opportunities thrilled me, even though the gym requirement totally blew; Northwestern, which I had visited that morning, sucked. What sealed it for me was when my tour guide paused by the Oriental Institute and asked which famous archeologist worked at the UofC.
If only the snakes were just the literal kind.
When we arrived, we were finally faced with our own worst enemy: ourselves. We looked around and saw not mirror images, but our murky reflection cast against the lake. How does admissions choose us, with applications starring perfect GPAs, dozens of extracurriculars, strong goals? We were all the same, though at the time, this was far from being a problem. Many of us felt that we had finally found where we belonged; everyone was like us and yet interesting! We had been the outcasts or nerds, the ones that either dominated class or didn’t speak up because it was too simple. We turned into the kids and the Scavvies; the techies, non-TAPS UT players, always-in-rehearsals; locked up in the Reg or Harper; ha-you-have-it-easy-you’re-not-a-science-majors; stop-complaining-about-crossing-the-Midway-Broadway-is-so-far away—by the end, we couldn’t even pinpoint where we had started because we had forced ourselves to go our separate ways.
Here—and I think it’s funny that I say here, because I’m not here—we’re taught competition. It’s something we whisper, from pre-meds to econ majors to physicists; Nusbaumean anthro majors to “what does it even stand for’” HIPS and “who majors in Fundamentals?” Every group has been attacked by another, even unintentionally. We always know which kid wrecked the curve in Sanderson’s class, or wanted to slap that kid in biochem. Of course it’s stereotyped and often racist and always dehumanizing: that’s the language we’re taught. Funny enough, we can’t point to where we learned it, or who we heard it from first. I can’t remember the first time it happened, nor the last.
In order to give the appearance that we’re afloat, we must tear each other down. We’re showing we’re still in the game. It’s not as simple as getting a higher grade: it goes into the number of internships you have; what types of classes you take; whether your weekends are booked hour to hour. It’s a point of pride if you’ve stayed up longer than your housemate and had more cups of coffee. Oh, you had a p-set and paper for Civ due in the same week? I had two p-sets and a biochem lab report and eighty pages of reading, besides the usual a cappella rehearsals. UChicago is not where fun goes to die. It’s where spirits go to get broken.
The saddest part is that we give the College the tools to do it. Like the others, I held standards far out of my reach and climbed toward them. After all, how else could I give the illusion of success but to say there was more to go? So we pushed ourselves. The College pushed us. Our rank rose; the number of people mistaking us for UIC decreased; the praise of Look at how much the College has done and all of the opportunities we’ve given you plastered everywhere from our advisor’s offices to our inboxes to our own heads. These were the glory days, but the UofC giveth and the UofC taketh away. We began to understand what it means to be here. Oh, you must be such a smartie; I bet you’ll get into whatever law/medical/graduate/job/internship/space station/country/kingdom you want. But you went to UChicago, so of course you’ll be fine wherever you go.
UChicago has become synonymous with not only excellence but with exceptionality. We hear about the Goldwater and Truman scholars, or the Student Marshalls, or the outstanding student leaders handpicked by the College. These people are the ones who made it through mostly intact. I’m grateful for what they represent and what they do. The ultimate goal is to be in that crowd, right? To know that you scraped by, or did better than that? Sadly, there are too few minor wounds. It’s the crowd of black robes limping behind that is often forgotten. Some of those black robes have undergone the tried and true test: UChicago, 1; us, 0.
Here’s a strange story: I loved my time in Hyde Park, and I owe so much to the College. My classes and professors were amazing; I will sing the praises of the fantastic people I’ve met. I haven’t had an intellectually engaging conversation since my house table; in the real world, no one wants to debate Kant and Hegel for fun. After four years, I didn’t come out cursing the university and everything it stands for, the opportunities it dangles only to snatch back. When I visit, it feels like I’m going to the childhood home my parents sold: crucial to my past but no longer mine. Yet, it’s hard to forget that I watched it attack my friends, even felt its heavy blows to my own spine. It’s a balancing act. One year after I passed under Hull Gate, the remains of my education dripping away, I have to wonder who had the last laugh. Was it the students whose GPAs meant that they had yet to confront failure? The humanities majors who took their education down their own path instead of prerequisites? Was it the College, knowing it had broken yet another student? Maybe, standing here, it’s me, because I’m another tick mark on the scorecard: UChicago, 1; us, 1.