Good news: Feeling “at home” at Northwestern isn’t a class, and you don’t have to be midterm ready by week four. It’s OK to not feel like you belong right away, and, to be the bearer of more good news, what it means to belong differs from person to person, meaning that there’s no right answer.
All students would probably rank feeling at home as one of their top college priorities. Students stress “the perfect fit” as much as colleges do when talking about the application process and many dream about fitting in socially and academically on top of staying healthy, feeling at ease and surviving the quarter system.
As an early decision admit, I felt a ridiculous amount of pressure to not just think, but feel like Northwestern was the right choice. Since I basically gave up everything else, it’d be disappointing to find that purple wasn’t my color. I longed to live up to what I thought Northwestern students were like and find like-minded people as some sort of reassurance that I was Northwestern, as my admission packet boldly claimed.
In the process of speeding up the fitting in process, I found it easy to jump to conclusions and see everything through purple-tinted glasses. Everything was telling of whether or not I fit in, and I would mentally take stock of how I was doing. But my indicators were wrong. Early decision or not, no one should be under pressure to fit in fast or live a particular Northwestern experience since feeling at home falls into place more than it's built.
During orientation and pre-orientation activities, I’d be excited whenever I found someone “like me.” It signaled to me that I belonged and legitimized my choice of school. For example, during Wildcat Welcome I had a conversation about two of my favorite plays with my bus buddy on the way back from Millennium Park. We talked about the “fascinating themes” and said semi-pretentious things like “You really have to study them together to appreciate it.”
Um, let’s take a knee. We did study the plays side-by-side in our English classes as they’re both part of the modern theater canon. Our thoughts about theme were probably recaps of in-class discussions, and the plays are frequently compared because they have similar characters. Oh, and they have similar characters and themes because one inspired the other.
Even though the conversation wasn’t earth-shattering, I thought it was at the time and assigned it a lot of importance. “That’s so Northwestern,” I thought to myself, feeling like I had made it – and in the first week, too! When I told my high school friends the story, I was not only convincing them, but also convincing myself, that this was where I belonged.
I wonder sometimes if my bus buddy felt the same way and used that event as an anchor to remind himself he was in the right place when he was in doubt. Because that’s what I had done and continued to do the entire Fall Quarter. I’d collect these so-called Northwestern moments, squirreling them away to comfort myself when I doubted my place here. Having conversations about literature with a stranger, referring to alcohol by its organic makeup, knowing all the words to Mean Girls – these “classic Northwestern” moments made me feel like I could do another 11 quarters.
But there were other moments that shouldn’t be overlooked. My first year wouldn't have been as wonderful as it was without suite shenanigans, good conversations and bad coffee, plus the other little parts that make a whole. In fact, these anecdotes are quite generic (and could have honestly taken place on any campus), but they anchor me to Northwestern more than any purple-tinged moment could.
What it means to attend Northwestern will be different to each of us no matter how well we adhere to the stereotypes, no matter how smart, nerdy or Mean-Girls-obsessed we are. Our time here will be shaped by the people we gravitate to, shared interests, good conversations and those, in a sea of 8,000 undergrads and too many possibilities, will be very varied.
Fitting in is a process and not an endgame. Overthinking it or hurrying the process will just weigh down the struggle bus you’re probably on. Plus, every quarter will be different in not just classes, weather and friendships, but because you’re at a different point in life with different goals and values. Going with the flow is probably the best choice.
As much as colleges talk about fit and as much as it’s validating that they picked you, fitting in immediately is certainly not guaranteed. If fitting in were an exact science, there would have to be as many colleges as there are people. It’s important to feel like you’re at home, but home at Northwestern is what you make of it, and there’s no expiration date on that. Besides, there is no one Northwestern experience, so we can’t try to live it anyway.