Now that the first week of the quarter at UChicago is over, I thought it might be fun to celebrate by looking back at the essay I wrote which helped earn a spot at this institution.
The University of Chicago is known for its wacky essay prompts which include statements such as, "What's so odd about odd numbers?," "So where is Waldo, really?" and "Find x." Some even go as far as to have writers create their own idiom or describing a portal to an imaginary world. For my essay, I picked a more straightforward prompt: "What is square one and can you go back to it?" Here is my response:
"This fall, I went back home after a year studying abroad in Germany. Before I left the USA, many people from my exchange program told me what a serious commitment studying abroad is. They mentioned that there would be times when I would feel more loneliness than ever before, would have to fend for myself in a foreign environment, and would have to essentially begin my life over again. But what everyone failed to mention, was that the most difficult aspect of studying abroad was not my time spent in the program, but rather, my return 'home.'
On the outside, at first glance, Pittsburgh should be my square one. I am familiar with the city, am a good student and have both close and extended family there. My life in Pittsburgh certainly feels very comfortable. I go to school every day, enjoy what I learn, socialize with friends, and partake in my activities outside of school. After living in the same place for 16 years, I had developed a routine. Yet, somehow this routine was not enough, and, on the inside, kept me away from square one. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed my life and was very grateful for what I had—but still, I found myself feeling drawn elsewhere. That feeling brought me to Germany.
On the outside, at first glance, Germany should not be my home or my square one. At the start of my school year abroad, I was missing three essential aspects there; I was unfamiliar with the city, I was not fluent in the language, and I had no family there. I was thrust into the second largest city in the country and forced to rely on a complex system of public transportation, something completely new to me. I was taking all my classes in German, and pushing the boundaries of what I knew in each subject both with content and vocabulary. On top of all this, I was trying to assimilate into my new family, something that did not always go off without a hitch. These three aspects combined to place me, on the outside, about as far away from square one as it gets.
Interestingly, after some time, Germany started to feel comfortable. The challenges appeared less daunting. What at the beginning of my time in Hamburg seemed to be a system of transportation designed only to confuse foreigners eventually became a means of access—I was free to travel and bike around the city—more freedom and responsibility than I ever had before in my life. Early in my first semester, I struggled to maintain relatively high grades in school, and I failed a few exams despite my extraordinary efforts to prepare. Taking classes in a foreign language forced me to rethink my goals and set new ones; specifically, trying to focus on learning instead of earning perfect grades. Initially, I also faced a few problems with my host family. Due to our cultural barrier, my host family had been hesitant to tell me that my habit of keeping my door shut—something that I thought would save on heating—was actually leading them to believe I wanted to be isolated and spend less time bonding as a family. However, by turning toward the problem, I was able to create more dialogue with my host family and ultimately form a stronger bond.
While these challenges made me more uncomfortable than I ever had been before, paradoxically, I was also more myself while I was in the midst of overcoming them. I realized that I am the best version of myself when I am able to prove that I am capable of doing something which I did not think I could. This feeling is what I lacked at home in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that I initially struggled to navigate the city, to succeed academically, and to build a connection with my host family, overcoming these challenges in Germany ultimately brought me to square one. While Pittsburgh is still, on the outside, my home, Hamburg is the place that gave me the confidence that I am trying to go back to.
So, in a sense I did return to square one, when I went home to Pittsburgh; however, that feeling of internal longing for a challenge did not go away. Here at my old square one, I am looking forward to the discomfort I will find as an undergraduate and welcome the opportunity to prove to myself that I can overcome it. I want to get back to square one, and I believe I can at the University of Chicago."
I think these essay prompts capture part of the UChicago experience so well because of their zaniness and their clear enjoyment in outlandish academic pursuits, which force you to think differently.
The photo is of Tan Tan Bo Puking - a.k.a. Gero Tan from Takashi Murakami. I saw this piece as part of the The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
I am officially a senior in college!! I am so excited to finally be the big fish in the pond. I'm excited for all my friends to finally turn 21 so that we can live our dream of sipping cosmos and dishing on the latest men in our lives like Sex and The City. I'm excited to finally graduate! I'm just kidding. I am the complete opposite of excited. My college town in Chico, California has become my second home away from home. It's my comfort zone. It's where I have grown up the most. I have made friends that will last me a life time as well as friends who I learned were not the best of people to surround myself with. One of the most inspiring moments I have had in college was studying abroad in Torino, Italy. Or Turin if you're a real Italian ;) The picture above is The Colosseum in Rome!!
During my 4 month stay in Torino, I traveled to 7 different countries: Germany, France, Spain, Netherlands, Ireland, Prague, and of course Italia Bella. :)
I could go on and say all the cliche' things people usually say about being abroad like, "it was an amazing experience", "it was so much fun", or "the partying was insane" but none of those statements come anywhere close to what living and studying in another country is like. The truth is that if you go and live in another country you will discover more things about yourself and the world around you than you ever imagined. I have a confession to make. I am still infected with the travel bug!!! I came back from Europe this past December but my soul still remains wandering the cobblestoned streets of Italy sipping on espressos and munching on a panini. I graduate from Chico State in Spring 2015 and right now I want to teach English in Europe! (The above picture is Pope Francis in Vatican City, technically it's own country located in Rome!)
It’s early morning, and I have just gotten off of a six-hour flight from the US to the UK. After all the prep work that it took to get here, here I am at the final step – Heathrow Airport Customs. I am tired and groggy and have a strong desire to take a long shower. Miraculously, I make it to the front of the line, even though my flight had over 100 students on board, and I managed to sit in the middle of all of them. I’m feeling pretty nervous, not just for this last step of acceptance into London, but because I don’t know what to expect once I crossover. My close friends are all back at Syracuse, putting up with the recent dump of snow, and here I am feeling more alone than ever. However, don’t get me wrong! I am beyond excited, but at this point, the anticipation is driving me insane. I weave in and out of the maze of rope barriers. Customs is pretty deserted this morning and because I am the first person in line, I quickly make my way to the front.
When I finally manage to get to the first desk. I hand over my documents, and a woman takes my paperwork. “How long will you be in the UK?”, she asks. I tell her I am studying abroad, and will be here between January 19th and May 8th, slightly stumbling over my words. I then quickly correct myself, realizing she was probably just looking for a simple “four months”. To be honest, I am not exactly quite sure what she said after that, but it was something along the lines of “you’ve got to be shitting me.” (Actually, I think those were her exact words, no joke.) She looks behind me with a look of dread at all the other students. “Are all of you studying abroad?” At this moment, I literally have no words to respond. I can’t tell if she’s being serious or sarcastic. I just want to make it into London. I just want my semester to start. Her next response is something along the lines of, “Who would ever want to study here?” What? Now, I am beyond confused. Is this really happening?
Thankfully, she explains that this process used to be a lot quicker, but with new regulations she has to go through all this annoying paperwork. It takes longer, and makes her life harder. She just wants to go home, and now she has to go through the motions for each and every one of us. Luckily, she’s sitting next to another customs officer, who has a friendlier personality. He seems to calm her down, calm me down, and make me smile. He cracks a joke about the whole situation, and the tension is defused. I start to relax realizing that this isn’t really my problem, It’s hers. I answer the rest of her questions. She fills out the paperwork. I make my way through, and she “smiles” and says something like “have a nice semester.” However, at this point all I can think about is that I finally made it in. Thank God!
It’s taken me a long time to think about what to write for my first “Critical Incident Essay.” (Okay, to be really honest, I’ve been slightly procrastinating. However, in my defense, I couldn’t really think of a moment that I deemed significant enough to write about.) Recently, I have been thinking a lot about my role as student here, and how I feel about being labeled a “foreigner.” The scene I have just described was my first realization of my place here in the UK. Looking back at this moment, I realize what was really happening. One, this moment was a reflection of my anxiety about coming to London. Everything in this moment magnified itself in my head because I was tired, nervous, and anxious to start my semester. Two, this situation reminded me that everyone isn’t as excited as me about my semester here abroad.
Since this experience, I have learned that the UK government is nervous about students studying abroad because many of them try to stay here afterwards as permanent residents. The customs officer was upset about all the paperwork, but she could very well have been upset about all these people, all these American students coming to live in her country for four months. Or, maybe she simply wanted to go home after an exhausting night’s work. Thinking about this a little further, I also wonder if the change in border regulations reflects this fear of students studying abroad. Could the extra paperwork customs now has to deal with be a way to regulate and keep closer watch over the students studying abroad here? I’m not sure, but this is an interesting thought.