This is the first installment in a four-part series tracing the path of an incoming Northwestern freshman, from the first step on campus as an admitted student to the first day of classes.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending three Wildcat Days Activities Fairs, and they’ve all been a ton of fun. If you haven’t been there, just imagine a thread of purple-clad prospies and their bedraggled parents getting accosted by the loudest, most enthusiastic cross section of the undergraduate population; everybody in NUMB numbing everybody’s ears; three candy-lined lanes of booths feeding freshmen into a frenzied sugar high while promoting every sort of fun-tivity imaginable. Three days a year, the admissions office stuffs these elements into a single room in Norris and leaves them to stew and react.
Okay – you get the point. I love Wildcat Days. But I’ll be the first to admit that they’re a little overwhelming.
It’s not just these elements, though – it’s how intense we are about them. Northwestern is an exciting place, with incredible programs in a variety of academic and professional fields. To put our best foot forward, many of us try to convey that excitement with everything we’ve got – which is a lot, actually. Too much, maybe.
While I thrive off this too-much-ness now – indeed, now that I’ve marinated in the coked-up Northwestern “spice of life” for two years, I’m terrified of the impending withdrawal – my inaugural plunge was chilling. I imagine a lost puppy would’ve felt more at home in Norris than I did in April 2011; at least a lost puppy might’ve enjoyed the ceaseless attention and unconditional love showered on him from every angle. For me, the spandexed-up sailing team and the 50 genres of dance groups were terrifying. I thought that every Northwestern student was cooler than me, and I thought I’d have to start lugging an espresso machine to keep up.
I mean, I’m here now, sans espresso machine, and I’m okay. So I guess my first impression was fleeting, and a little misleading.
But it also characterizes a greater point, which is that this university's hyper-enthusiastic approach to absolutely everything stresses incoming students out. Don’t get me wrong – on campus it’s also very conducive to productivity, happiness and community service. For example, Dance Marathon raises over a million dollars a year, a feat that wouldn’t be possible without the thousand-plus students who work their asses off to achieve it. But organizations as intense as Dance Marathon require a level of zeal that is almost cult-like. Cults freak outsiders out.
Here’s an example of what I mean. This year I tried a little experiment. Over the span of two Activities fairs, I asked every student that came my way the same question.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. "A little overwhelmed!!!” they answered. Every single one.
“Dude, I was too,” I replied. “Don’t worry, it’s like that at first. But you should seriously come here anyway.”
I knew I’d go to Northwestern the moment I opened my financial aid allotment. So it didn’t quite make sense that I chose to attend Wildcat Days.
Wildcat Days attempts to persuade Regular Decision admits to enroll in “Chicago’s Big 10 School.” I didn’t need persuading though. Northwestern offered me such a great combination of student life, academics and cost that it became (despite its lack of tropical weather) the perfect match for me.
So I arrived in Evanston on April 16, 2012, ready to spend a vicarious day in the life of a Northwestern student. My parents and I agreed that it would be a nice break from high school, and it didn’t hurt that we had an easy one-hour commute.
The day started with me and a few hundred other high school seniors from around the world trying to navigate the mystery that is Norris. Louis Room is on the second floor, right? But what about those stairs between Starbucks and the revolving doors – is that another floor as well? By the time my parents and I had signed in, meet-and-greet breakfast time was nearly finished. Groups left Norris based on school, and so I tagged along the queue for McTrib to watch a presentation about why I should study journalism.
Afterward I took the typical prospie route: tour over here, tour over there – all the dorms are like Allison, right? Every physical slice of NU life became a treasure that day. The lanyard I received for my name badge spent the next five months on my family’s car keys. Student publications and brochures were read, reread and practically memorized. I even saved a Plex cookie for the ride home.
The most memorable scenes from that day, however, came from interacting with other Wildcats. One of my good friends here at Northwestern is a girl I know solely because we sat near each other at the Wildcat Days dinner. My freshman year adviser was the first Medill professor I ever had a conversation with.
What I left with that day wasn’t just a few T-shirts and snapshots. I left knowing beyond a doubt that this was the school for me. I got to spend a day sort of pretending I was a Northwestern student, and that experience was irreplaceable to me. Because of Wildcat Days, I was reassured and ready to enter Northwestern University.
I was legitimately freaking out as my Evanston-bound cab cruised out of O’Hare after a 24-hour flight from my home, Singapore. It was three weeks before Wildcat Welcome and it was my first time heading to Northwestern.
I didn't go to Northwestern because of friends I made or the dorms I toured during Wildcat Days. I picked Northwestern almost purely based on Google’s search results, which told me Northwestern had top-tier academics, was beautiful and had a prestigious journalism school. Having no conception of what Northwestern actually was before Wildcat Welcome was confusing at best and terrifying at worst, but ultimately I think there were benefits to showing up with no expectations.
Although I’m now enjoying life at Northwestern, the days leading up to my flight to Evanston were nerve-wracking. I could only rely on photographs to reassure myself that Northwestern wasn’t a dumpster. Learning about Northwestern’s multitude of academic programs and clubs through a labyrinth of HTML links back home definitely didn’t get me anywhere near what Northwestern would be like.
I found it overwhelming to deal with the hectic orientation schedule as I adjusted to the sprawling campus and tried to remember a ton of faces I’d only seen once or twice. Certainly, I realized, it would have been beneficial to have acquainted myself with campus before school started, if only to be a better idea what exactly I was getting myself into.
Two quarters into college, I think there are benefits to attending college with a clean slate, completely rid of any real expectations. Sure, some things about Northwestern were surprising. I’d thought Northwestern students were more politically active than they actually are, which was unexpected. On the upside, I was pleasantly surprised by how students here are so passionate and dedicated to everything. I might have learned this if I’d mingled around with other prospies at Wildcat Days and gotten a feel of the school’s culture, but I did fine riding the waves of surprise over the course of the school year.
After all, most people here must have revised their initial judgments of Northwestern, whether they attended Wildcat Days or not. After all, Wildcat Days is designed to showcase the best of Northwestern all within a few hours. No one’s going to show a prospie the Mid-Quads as a fine example of University housing. If I’d stepped into my dorm room having toured Hotel Allison, I could have been pretty disappointed. In that sense, I’m glad I came with no expectations. I didn’t get to feel cheated because I formed some kind of impression during Wildcat Days that turned out to be bogus.