“Oh you’re from Brooklyn? Cool! Why would you ever leave New York?” I have gotten this question in many different iterations over the course of my four years at the University of Chicago. ‘Honestly,’ I tell them, ‘I was looking for a warmer climate.’
When I started the college search the summer before my junior year (I have always been a big planner), I started looking for schools with the most interesting sounding majors. By the time my parents got involved, I had amassed a healthy list of probably somewhere near 60 schools that sounded interesting. We quickly changed tactics, first identifying what it was that I wanted out of a college experience. I knew that my ideal college was a small liberal arts college in a city. In my quest to find such a school, I realized that New York City had skewed my expectations of city life. After all, New York City is one of the greatest cities in the world, and not just because I live there, with a ton of cultural offerings, food, and a simply incredible number of people everywhere at all times. It’s not that other places don’t have these things; it’s just that New York does it on a whole ‘nother level, and I wondered if it would be possible for me to find all of these things outside of my home.
And so I started to think that I was going to have to relax some of my standards- maybe a big city or a New York-like big city was not in my cards. But as concerned as I was about not rocking the boat TOO much, I was not scared of leaving NYC. Going to college was going to be a big change in itself, and I was ready to fully embrace that change. I was excited to explore a new part of the country and test out my newfound independence. As I evaluated my college options, UChicago kept creeping ever nearer to the top. With around 5,000 students, it wasn’t tiny, but it certainly wasn’t large. Its core curriculum highlighted a strong commitment to providing students with a strong liberal arts background, perfect for mostly undecided students such as myself. And it was located in Chicago, the second (but still great!) city, where a staunch non-driver could access all that the city had to offer. When I realized that it was the only school on my list that perfectly fit my criteria of being a small liberal arts college in a city, its spot in first place was virtually uncontestable. While I might have been happy going to any of the schools on my list (an important consideration when making a college list), it was UChicago where I saw myself having an experience that would be challenging, fulfilling, and where I would be surrounded by curious people who were also excited about what they would be studying. That the campus was a gorgeous collection of Harry Potter-esque neo-gothic architecture didn’t hurt either.
Upon arriving on campus the summer before freshman year, what struck me, more than the differences, was how similar Hyde Park was to my homey Brooklyn neighborhood. Walking amongst the houses, apartment buildings, bookstores and cafes, I almost felt I hadn’t left. Going downtown, the buildings weren’t nearly as tall, but there were the shops, the restaurants, the taxis, and the car horns denoting traffic. Rather than boroughs, Chicago has neighborhoods, 77 of them, distinct in their own ways and all the more fun to explore because of it. I found the greatest differences between me and the 90 or so other people in my house, and I was happy for it- diversity was something that I expected from my college experience, having seen so much of it at home. It was interesting to see what experiences were universal, and which were not. Most New Yorkers will know what I mean when I say Field Day, or that one day in a school year when your school goes to a nearby park with grassy fields to expose their students to nature and outdoor fun. It was only 2 months ago that I learned not every school kid had this.
The true revealer of geographic origin though, is how you pronounce Mary, merry and marry, and it was during a story about a girl named Erin and a boy named Aaron that I realized that not everyone pronounces those names distinctly. Or when I was in Blackstone Bikes, the nearby bike co-op, talking about my Schwinn (a Chicago brand!), that the woman next to me said, upon finding out I was from New York, “Ah, I knew you spoke a bit differently.”
Four years of being in Chicago has definitely changed me as a New Yorker. I walk a bit slower now, and time has somewhat erased the map of the subway system that used to be imprinted on my brain (I jumped on the Q train going in the wrong direction and ended up in Queens earlier this summer. Rookie mistake). There are few things that I will begrudgingly admit that Chicago does, I won’t say better, but successfully differently, than New York. Whereas in New York I feel like someone should be paying me to take the bus, Chicago seems to have figured out a relatively on time system. The alleyway garbage collection system makes it such that the only thing you see piling up is snow, and not black trash bags. But going to college in Chicago made my New York homecomings all the sweeter. Only a short two-hour flight away, bustling New York was now my leisure city, and I found that being home on “vacation” meant that I got to see a lot more of New York than when I was living in it. Friends always want to come visit you at home, and actually on one such trip I traveled further into Staten Island than I ever would have had cause to before, in search of a well hidden (and I mean way far off the beaten path) collection of Tibetan art. In going away to UChicago, I had gained two cities to explore, and call home.