What do the Ivy League and the University of Chicago have in common? Besides being decent schools, they both have plenty of ivy. What’s different? The University of Chicago has lots of ivy.
Known for its academic rigor and intellectual atmosphere, the University of Chicago (UChicago) is a private university founded in 1890 by John D. Rockefeller, and has been the nesting ground for an extraordinary number of Nobel laureates—I’m afraid that if I give a specific value right now, my article will be outdated in a year. Nevertheless, UChicago claims affiliation with over 80 Nobel laureates, or 10% of all Nobel Prize recipients.
Despite this, many people have never heard of the University of Chicago. “Is that a public or private school?” (The answer is in the preceding paragraph.) I didn’t know about it either until earlier this school year, when I started applying to colleges. As a math person, I learned that it has a great math program (my interviewer graduated as a math major), though the subject it is really well known for is economics, in which the university has won a few Nobels. That isn’t to say UChicago is narrowly focused—it includes law, business, medical, and other graduate and professional schools, in addition to its undergraduate college with over 60 majors.
My visit began on Wednesday afternoon at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Although there were direct Austin–Chicago flights, we (Mark and I, from the same high school) flew first to Houston and then to Chicago, for it was somehow cheaper that way. (Think about the geometry of that for a moment.) Because of a delayed Austin–Houston flight, we arrived in Chicago at about 11 pm, which was later than I had expected. Nonetheless, I caught a curious view of the city from above—with its square grid of copper lights, Chicago looked like a giant microchip.
The next day was amazing. We arrived on campus at 8 in the morning, and saw an enormous number of prospective students there, seemingly over 500. Because of the size of this group, the planned activities were not really planned—besides an overall schedule, the events were open-ended. We signed up for classes, and it turned out that the economics classes were just about to run out of visitor spots. Mark got the last economics class, and I signed up for a math class instead. Also, we both signed up for the same sociology class. For me, both math and sociology would be in the afternoon.
The rest of my morning was thus free: I wandered around campus with a small group of prospective students. At 10 or so our group split as some had late morning classes, and another student named Sean (coincidentally) and I were left; ours were in the afternoon.
We explored the Regenstein Library, though I was not too impressed—the University of Texas at Austin’s Perry-Castañeda Library seemed to contain more books. The campus was of a reasonable size, as it was large, but not too large. Lunch for us was at Pierce (where I would later be staying the night); the food was certainly tasteful.
Afterwards we parted and I attended “Elementary Algebraic Topology.” Of course I didn’t understand much of it, but it was fun—the professor was very enthusiastic and had a sense of humor. The only math I really learned was how to construct a 2-cell on a genus-2 surface, as a couple weeks ago I read Trudeau’s Introduction to Graph Theory, which acquainted me with the basics of such surfaces. The algebra, however, was well above me. I did learn that math at the University of Chicago is intense.
Next was the sociology class “Self, Culture, and Identity,” which in itself was quite a relief—the class’s official language was English, not symbolic mathematics. It turns out prospective students weren’t supposed to participate in class discussion, but Mark and I didn’t know that, so we did contribute a little—the topic was Freud’s analysis of neurosis and his earlier idea of contention between the libido and the ego—we both knew a bit of Freud. Also, the professor didn’t know that his own class was listed in the class visit catalog; he didn’t know what Mark and I were doing there until class ended.
It was certainly windy, but not cold. We next sat in the Rockefeller Chapel for a student panel, and then met with our overnight hosts. Mine was Sam Scarrow, an awesome person busy for much of the evening, so I spent most of it with his roommate Xin Cao and other prospective students.
Mark and I visited the Harper Library, which reminded us of Hogwarts, and we encountered in it not a single book—perhaps we were just not on the right floors. Afterwards we visited the South Campus residential hall, which was very modern, as opposed to Pierce, which was more traditional. (Think metal, glass, and fluorescent lighting versus brick, concrete, and bulbs.)
It was about 11 pm or so that we, in a larger group by now, entered a frat party. Needless to say, I left after five minutes; I couldn’t stand second-hand smoke. (Mark, on the other hand…) I basically walked back to Pierce, and had some UChicago discussions with other prospective and current students.
Friday was even more relaxed in terms of the schedule, as a couple of friends and I explored campus on our own. I visited a third class, “Honors Calculus-3,” my second shot at a math class at UChicago. (Technically we were only allowed 2 class visits, but math classes weren’t even close to full.) This class was far more comprehensible than “Elementary Algebraic Topology,” as the topic of this lecture was infinite series, with which I was familiar—the theorems seemed quite trivial, only the proofs required a great deal of technical finesse, which I didn’t like as much. Some of the theorems just seemed to me intuitive, and I felt that the profoundness of the theorem was more significant than the mechanical detail of the proof, on which we spent most of the time.
But there was something nice in all three of my visiting classes: everyone seemed focused and wanting to be there. The other prospective student falling asleep next to me in the topology class was understandable, but everyone else listened and participated. This was especially true in the sociology class, which was basically a seminar discussion, and everyone spoke. The professor talked for maybe 10% of the time. It was a very different experience from any high school class.
We had lunch at “The Medici,” a nice restaurant on campus. It was a discussion we had here that really defined UChicago for me. The distinctive factor of UChicago is the intellectual lens with which people see the world. People there are nice and normal, but also smart and willing to question things. My group consisted merely of prospective students, but we nonetheless had a deep conversation that was also able to jump broadly from topic to topic. I might have expected from a normal university that a discussion of epistemology would evolve into a discussion of drugs, but here at the University of Chicago, a discussion of drugs evolved into a discussion of epistemology.
Leaving the University of Chicago was difficult, that is, both emotionally and physically. It was tough to say goodbye, but it was even tougher still to find the correct bus out of it. When I arrived at the Chicago Midway airport, I knew the trip was worth it (even though I’m not going to the University of Chicago).