My UChicago Extended Essay
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 me 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.