Saturday, July 9, 2016

New Destinations: Touring Northwestern and Downtown Chicago

Dramatic train tracks
Today was another adventure chock-full of activities, starting at 6:30 AM with a morning swim with Ernestina and breakfast at the hotel. From there, we took off to tackle the streets of Chicago to get to Evanston, IL for a tour of Northwestern University. We took public transit all the way there, with plenty of navigating, transferring, and walking in between. We even had time to learn a new card game called Presidents from Ryan while waiting for a train (Ernestina and I basically destroyed everyone. I'm sure the boys will redeem themselves next time!) I particularly enjoyed the walk through Evanston to get to Northwestern, because it gave us a sense for the town around Northwestern and the off campus options available. The neighborhood seemed very high end and peaceful, with well kept sidewalks and buildings and hydrangeas abounding. The weather was lovely today -- a little on the warm side but with periodic breezes to cool us off.

Right on the beach!
Arriving on the campus of Northwestern, the first thing I noticed was a mix between modern designs and old-fashioned looking buildings. We passed some pretty amazing, castle-like fraternity houses before arriving at the main lobby for check-in. Everything inside was pristine and polished, and there was a super cool interactive touch screen and pamphlets about the university available.While the campus at WashU had seemed pretty subdued due to the rain and minimal attendance at the info session, the lobby at Northwestern was packed with prospective students. Through a glass window from the lobby we could see the magnificent Lake Michigan beachfront, where tons of students were swimming, kayaking, and basking in the sun.

The presentation started with a video followed by a presentation. The speakers were Stephanie, a graduated sociology major working in the admissions office, and Stacey, a senior majoring in human development and psychology. For me they weren't as relatable as Nancy and Sankalp from WashU, and the presentation seemed more polished and impersonal than the WashU one. However, I think this was more due to the enormous number of people in the room than the presentation itself. In a lot of ways I was startled by how similar the two info sessions were, in structure and, in most cases, content. Northwestern talked about diversity first, then the structure of the school, then their interdisciplinary options, then clubs and campus culture, and all of the other subjects in practically the same order as WashU. Later in the evening at dinner, Simon Cohen pointed out that almost all organized college tours like these will be extremely similar.

Diversity at Northwestern was very similar to WashU, and it seems that a population of 40-50% caucasian and the rest divided up into smaller groups is the norm for racial/ethnic diversity at many other schools I have looked at in the past as well. Northwestern talked about a lot of the similar values that had resonated with me with about WashU, like interdisciplinary study and a holistic approach to learning. There were parallel stories about people changing majors four times before settling on a double major and still completing it in 4 years, quirky clubs and student groups, enthusiastic and open professors and lots of counsellors, etc. One thing that really stood out to me was the financial aide at Northwestern. While WashU's financial aide also seemed fairly comprehensive and realistic, the fact that Northwestern promises to meet 100% of demonstrated need without loans (only in the rarest of cases are loans necessary, and then only small ones) was a huge plus for me. Another important distinction was the quarter system v.s. semester system, which was explained more in depth on our tour.

Incredibly beautiful campus of Northwestern
The campus tour after the presentation was the best part of the sight visit, mostly due to the high energy of the tour guides. My tour guide was a theater major named Justin, who showed us the beautiful campus and gave us history on the buildings and details on some of the different schools. My favorite parts about the school were the huge open lawn with wifi access, so that you could sit outside and work on homework on a sunny day, and the rock that students have a system and traditions for painting on special occasions. Justin was super forthcoming and friendly, and answered all of our many clarifying questions. One of our longest discussions was about the difference between the quarter and semester systems. WashU has the semester system, and the panel of students explained that they were still able to take just as many classes but without the stress of frequent midterms and finals and with more time to settle in and get to know each professor. But Justin put a new perspective on things. Although there might be tests a little more often on the quarter system, it's nothing you can't get used to. The quarter system curriculum is not just a a similar amount of curriculum jammed into a shorter time, but instead is specifically geared toward the amount of time you have so as not to be overwhelming. The quarter system also helps you take lots of classes, between 12 and 15 a year, so that you have plenty of time to explore before picking a major or plenty of time to pursue multiple interests without doing everything at once. And best of all, with the quarter system, after every quarter there is a REAL break. With your quarter completely finished before each break, there are no assignments or expectations until you are back for the next quarter. He said that this was very important for his mental health.

Northwestern didn't click as quickly for me as WashU did, but as the tour progressed and as i am sitting here contemplating it after the fact, Northwestern actually seems like it could be an extremely good fit for me. Ms. Scott reminded me after the tour not to be biased by which university I saw first, and I think this was really good advice. WashU and Northwestern have very different vibes, but each speaks to a different part of my personality and I am honestly quite torn as to which I like more (not that I have to choose right now, it is just interesting to reflect on this and learn about myself). I am glad that I got the opportunity to look at both of these places back to back.

After Northwestern we enjoyed a dinner at Bandera in downtown Chicago with two UChicago students, Simon Cohen and Will Smith (no, not that one. but still pretty awesome!). I already knew Simon from my high school, and Will was quite friendly and easy to talk to. Both are going into their third year as political science majors at UChicago, and they had plenty of insight about the city and the ins and outs of the school. We talked about so many things, from the ILC experience to Illinois politics to good places for food in Chicago to the college application and selection process to the quirks of UChicago and more, and I was so thankful for their eagerness to share information. The food was delicious, and there was a live jazz group playing in the background! This was extremely exciting for me as a jazz enthusiast, and it really made my night to have my first taste of Chicago jazz!

Guess who?
After dinner, we walked around Chicago for a while and made our way on to the gorgeous river walk while we waited for our ferry architecture tour of Chicago. This was a super informative tour, and a unique lens through which to view the city. This boat tour took us down the Chicago river, and gave us a history of the city by pointing out important landmarks. The architecture in Chicago is way more complex than I though, and to the trained eye of our tour guide tells so many stories about the changing eras of human history and the attitudes of the people. Our boat was named the Evening Star, and the tour started at twilight so that we got to see the evening stars come out! As we went we watched the sun set and the city light up. The only downside was the high concentration of inebriated people yelling at us from the streets, but out tour guide made a joke out of it and courteously moved on. While it was a magical experience, by the end of it the many late nights and huge amount of walking started to hit me and I got a pretty bad headache. After such a full day, I'll definitely sleep well tonight!  

Chicago River

Cohort on a boat!

Reflective buildings glowing in the night


  1. Wow and wow. What a day. Northwestern sounds marvelous. Can hardly wait to read your next adventure.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the jazz at Bandera - Chicago is known for it's ubiquitous music and art. Simon is right - attend enough information sessions and they will all start to feel the same. This is why it's so important to walk on the campus, talk to the students, and find those intangible nuances that make you feel at home. Love that NU tries to stay away from loans as the major part of financial aid help. Also, the pic of the cohort on the cruise is adorable!