I knew I made a huge mistake when the student speaker at my orientation said, “We’re all here because we’re smarter than everyone, right?”
He was a triple major of some sorts and tall with a wide grin but not handsome. I tried not to panic as I stood on the lawn surrounded by thousands of other grape-purple-clad students.
Okay, the truth is I knew I made a huge mistake well before this moment. I knew I didn’t want to go to Northwestern at the pre-orientation trip, when I curled up in my forest green sleeping bag, zipped it up all the way, called my parents and cried.
Fine, I knew I made the wrong decision even before that. It goes back to when I got my acceptance letter. Initially, I was excited because I felt that this prestigious school had validated my efforts during high school. That excitement was based solely on my ego and my desire to impress my parents and my peers. It was, therefore, fleeting.
There is a lesson here which may seem trite or obvious: do not do things because other people want you to. All the people that cheered for me when I got into Northwestern weren’t going to take my tests or live in my 60-year-old dorm or go to my subpar sports games.
Anyways, despite my pleas to drop out before classes even began, my parents urged me to give it a go. I moved into the all-freshman, all-female floor of the party dorm which was named the Virgin Vault. On the first night, my floormates and I received harsh lecture from the RA demanding we all refrain from drinking during week one so we could all actually get to know one another.
We filed out of the activities room and queued up in line for the bathroom, throwing on our best outfits so we could hit the frats and get wasted.
This was the first of many nights that struck me as odd. Here we were, supposedly the best and brightest from across the country, pretending to be dumber than we were so we could go hang out at anachronistic gender clubs until we threw up.
Classes began shortly thereafter. I took French, film studies, painting and sociology, hoping my light courseload would lend itself to an easier adjustment. Instead, I used that free time to escape to Chicago and hang out with old high school buds who were attending art school in the city.
While I was on campus, I got involved in non-Greek activities. I joined WNUR, the college radio station and Mayfest, a student-group that throws a music festival on campus every spring.
Through WNUR and Mayfest, I found a nice little niche. I went to WNUR parties and Mayfest dinners, meeting a wider cross-section of people that I has seen on the party-oriented side of campus. The only problem was that many members of these organizations also belonged to fraternities and sororities, and it was clear that those obligations came first.
The first quarter was challenging to my mental health. I was lonely without my loud Moroccan family. I was anxious without any real goal to work towards. I didn’t know what I wanted to do study or if I even wanted to be a student.
Winter quarter provided a different health-related challenge.
There was a cold wave brewing over the Midwest which was later given the sensationalized name, “The Polar Vortex.” A few days hit 20 degrees below zero with the wind chill, which meant a balmy 10 below without it. The average day hung around zero, sometimes climbing into the low double digits. I remember a classmate rejoicing when it was 22 degrees and sunny, thrilled she could finally go to the market.
In the midst of the cold spell, I contracted mono, strep throat and pneumonia. When I got an X-ray of my lungs, half of the right one was drowning in fluid. I took a medical leave of absence and never went back.
In hindsight, I don’t regret leaving. While Northwestern is a great school if you know what you want to study or you are interested in traditional campus life, Northwestern was not the school for me.
I don’t remember much from my classes but I did learn something. I began to know myself and I began to gather the courage to make choices that are right for me.