“Is it really smart to let yourself fall in love with a snack? Of course it is! Especially when it’s Smartfood Brand. We’re talking about the fresh-tasting, light-textured, air-popped popcorn adorned with the smooth, white cheddar cheese flavoring you’ve grown to love. You know you want it. You know where to get it. Now go out there and be Smart about it.”
That’s what it says on the back of every individual-sized bag of Smartfood Popcorn White Cheddar. I know this because every time I spend .89 points on this particular bastardization of corn, I read the high-gloss description that runs alongside the nutrition facts.
For me, it’s a fascination with understanding what I’ve bought into, understanding a decision I’ve already made. But this is advertising, obviously, meant to persuade the average student strolling through the C-Store to make this popcorn their afternoon snack. They can only read the back and guess how it tastes, based on the promises the packaging makes.
This is what I want to say to the students accepted to the class of 2012: A bag of Smartfood Popcorn White Cheddar might illuminate the position that they’re in right now. Prospective students making their college decisions have gathered as much information as brochures, pamphlets, tours and even overnight stays will allow ‘em. But the information that they are digesting is essentially propaganda. No one knows for sure what’s inside their popcorn bag — and what they’re really getting themselves into — until they’ve shipped their stuff to Evanston, Ill. And even then, it’s just beginning.
A recent article on this site about Northwestern admission figures prompted a small comment war, which raged over the following quote by incoming freshman Adam Docksey:
NU seemed cooler and more friendly than the uptight rep that the Ivies have. After the perpetual stress of high school, loading up on APs and freaking out whenever any test came along, I’m looking forward to do something I want to do, not something that just satisfies the system. NU is so outside the box, I can’t wait to live there, learn there, and grow there. I have a strong feeling that place is Mecca.
This kind of sentiment is the mortar that holds together the bricks of the Northwestern 2012 Facebook group. There are 182 threads, which range from “Any Asians in the House?!” to “You on Youtube.” My favorite, though, is, “what specific things are you guys excited about???” started by Nicola Paracchini. Her personal list of excitements:
-the actual college classes
-jogging along lake michigan
-going into chicago
-eating in evanston
-living on my own
My instinct is to make fun of this fresh-faced idealism. I know and you know that they absolutely don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Eating in Evanston? When your work-study can barely fund your last EV1 run? And being excited for internships? Sure, until you write 13 cover letters. You and I live “the Northwestern experience” that the pre-frosh try so earnestly to predict, so it’s laughable that we’d look forward to “actual college classes” when we’re two clicks away from dropping Intro to Stats.
But I can’t make fun of the Class of 2012, and I won’t. Thing is, I was accepted to Northwestern on Dec. 10, 2005, under Early Decision. When I saw the word “Congratulations” on the computer screen, I screamed so loud that my brother thought I was being mugged.
Unfortunately, I still had six months of high school and three months of summer left. I had Odd Day lunch — or was it Even Day? I’m kind of startled that I can’t remember — with two of my best girl friends. The three of us would bemoan over sandwich crusts how we were so done with high school, how it was so unfair that we had to still be there. We developed our own catchphrase: “Is it college yet?”
College, to us, was something of Adam Docksey’s “Mecca.” We would take classes that we would be passionate about — no more Spanish IV or Personal Fitness. The boys would find a smart girl attractive, not intimidating, and we would transcend our high-school identities. We could be anyone: theater kids, intramural tennis enthusiasts, business-picketing political activists. And we would be, we assured each other: We’d be that and more.
But, looking back, I don’t understand why Northwestern was my first choice — or rather, I wonder how a 17-year-old kid in South Florida decided that a Midwest school she’d never seen was the most perfect college for her to spend the next four years.
And I’ve come to understand that I, myself, read the back of the popcorn bag.
Until I came to Northwestern, I couldn’t actually experience Northwestern. Instead, I experienced a simulation of the school. You did this too: You read pamphlets and brochures that undergraduate admissions sent you. You clicked collegeboard.com, you scrolled College Confidential. Maybe you dragged a copy of the Fiske Guide to Colleges into the bathroom. You took a tour of campus, you went to a prospie weekend. And that was Northwestern to you.
I used all of those means to envision what would surely become my life at Northwestern. I’d learn about politics, probably sink right into College Democrats, and I’d start playing tennis again. I would take only classes that I was genuinely interested in (and never anything before noon!). From what I’d gathered, The Daily Northwestern was the be-all, end-all of college journalism, so naturally I’d join right away, climb the ranks, eventually take control, get a great job out of college, somehow make money in journalism, be rich and successful, and die happy and inexplicably married to Edward Norton. Fin.
Needless to say, my life at school resembles nothing of what I imagined back in 2005. Club Tennis is really competitive, and I’m not that good. I experienced my first hangover the morning I was supposed to go door-to-door with the College Dems. And while I wrote two (kind of shitty) articles for The Daily, and still believe it’s a fine paper, I realized that I’m too narcissistic of a writer to know an inverted pyramid from a sugar cube.
Northwestern will not be what admitted students think it will be when they announce, “Here I come!” They will likely not take it by storm, and it will not take them by storm (unless as a snowstorm). The kids who miss snow, the kids who can’t wait to take classes at the Medill School of World-Renowned Journalism, the kids who are so focused on picking a dorm that’s crazy but not too crazy but still kind of crazy because it’s (woo!) freshmen year — they will find themselves knee-deep in a pile of slush, too late to class to stop and admire the picturesque lake, cursing because their feet will now marinate in drenched socks for the 12 hours before they can return to their crazy but not too crazy but still kind of crazy dorm, because there are classes to go to and meetings that are absolutely pointless, and the classes that you were genuinely interested in require the most reading, so it’s going to be a long night, kid, a long night at the library you glimpsed on the campus tour, and you better get used to Smartfood Popcorn because tonight’s dinner is courtesy of the vending machine.
This sounds pessimistic at best. I know. But it is day-to-day life. There is an upshot, though, and here it is:
I fucking love Northwestern. I love that I go here and that I chose to go here, and I would never go back and apply to any other school. And this is where it circles back to Facebook.
The class of 2012, like the class of 2011 before it, like the class of 2010 before it, has frenzied Facebook with questions such as: Where should I live next year? What are you most worried about? How would you describe the person above you? How would you stereotype the person above you?
At some point, each person in that group will preference her dorm and sign up for classes. She’ll make the best guess she can. And at some point, these decisions she is lightheartedly typing into cyberspace will come alive. Allison Hall the idea became Allison Hall the place where I slept and did laundry and had shopping cart races and met my best friends. Social Inequality: Race, Class and Power became the class I swore I’d take because I was genuinely interested in it… and then it became the class I dropped. And yeah, stereotyping the person above you becomes stereotyping the real people you meet.
What I want to say to pre-frosh is to stop worrying about the perfect Northwestern experience. Guys, you can’t create it until you get here and create it; and honestly, there is no single “Northwestern experience.” It’s different for every person, truly. The thing that unites us all is that we each saw something here that made us see ourselves here.
College is not a mecca, and usually not a place of transcendent transformation. But it doesn’t need to be. Whatever dorm you end up in, you’ll be fine. Maybe it will smell, maybe it won’t. I can tell you that Bobb is not a zoo, as the discussion threads have insinuated, though the rumors are true in so far as that the furniture is chained to the walls. You’ll probably change your major 12 times, no matter how sure you are about your future. You’ll probably sleep through the class you had to lie, beg and steal to get into, and you will fucking hate snow by February.
But you will discover the intangible joys that could never be captured by a rankings list. You will discover how to run wildly, half-buzzed and laughing like a little kid, to catch shuttles at night. You will discover amazing individuals who get your crazy sense of humor, don’t care that you’re messier than Middle East politics, and like you for the pasted-together collage of a person that you’re slowly becoming. You will discover yourself in the middle of one of those outside-the-classroom philosophical discussions that you never thought really happened or, while splitting a bottle of wine with a close friend, debating what it means to be in love. And you will discover snow when the first flurries fall like polite confetti over the dark surf of Lake Michigan.
You will fall in love with Northwestern. It will not be the Northwestern that you envisioned, and it will not be what the packaging on the proverbial popcorn bag said it would be, but you will love her all the more for it. And maybe, like me, you will wonder how you made the best guess of your life.