[Pictures explained at the bottom of the post.]
Over the past year, I have said goodbye to so many individuals--friends--whom I will never see again. In my summer (2011) in Belgium, this semester at the University of Illinois, graduating seniors at Olin, and in the coming three months in Palo Alto for summer 2012.
I was recently at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign for the Spring 2012 semester. I took this opportunity to experience life at a big public university, a chance that I probably would never get again after I left Olin. Going from a 330+ student school to a 30,000+ student school was a great big change. And it was a wonderful experience. In the end, it made me appreciate my temporary visit there as well as the culture of Olin that I will go back to in the Fall.
I came to the U of I very well knowing that if I was to survive -- rather, if I was going to have a meaningful time-- I needed to put myself out there. Illinois is 100x's the size of Olin; no one knows everyone else on campus. No two people have the same agenda for the whole day. Green Street (the 'downtown' of campus) has a Starbucks, a Chipotle, and a Pizza Hut -- seriously, what? This was a mini-city full of macro-minded college individuals. And if I wanted to leave the place in a few months with a refreshed outlook on college (or something like that), I needed to make my 4-month interactions with people usable. Both to them and to me.
At Olin, I was a junior who had my group of friends, who had my social 'standing' in the student body, who knew what people expected of me and what I of them. But now, I knew 3 of 40,000 people. I could be whomever I want to be. I could wear a new persona every day and see what happens. This was my opportunity to test my social behaviors on a clean slate. And my approach to finding out more of myself? I observed how I behaved and reacted and engaged with strangers. Could I make my interaction with them usable for both parties?
The results to this experiment have been diverse and in some cases, wonderful and bizzare.
1. In weeks 1-3, I walked up to random people in the Allen Dining hall and sat down to eat dinner with them. It was almost like cold-calling someone, except no a telephone wire to hide behind. One interaction lead to having a penpal to whom I will start writing letters (fancy!).
2. I met a guy when we both attended a lecture, and we ended up talking for a few minutes about the speaker and what she really meant with all of her lingo. It was a budding friendship, and in the last few weeks of school, I had a once-in-a-lifetime conversation with him. I was the first to hear that he was dropping out of college at U of I to pursue his dreams of pro-basketball in Israel, acting, and singing. Wow, when I think back to how I reacted, it really showed me a lot about who I am. He is at a cross roads in his life now. I told him that if he does end up making it big in life, he better not forget me!
3. Over the course of the semester, I badly wanted to play some ultimate frisbee especially because it was Springtime. I didn't really know who to contact and where I needed to go to find out more. Three weeks before the end, my first conversation with a friend who was always inebriated when we spoke in the past, revealed that he played ultimate. Over time, I was a little startled to see how similar we were. We both tell your-mom jokes, have similar family backgrounds, and upbringings.
4. I met a professional English football player who trained with the Arsenal reserves in the past. I met a fellow Arsenal fan that I somehow also contacted via the Photography Club mailing list without even knowing it. I met the upcoming SWE president in my ECE class and gained some insight on the Greek life on campus. I met a SpaceX/Tesla fanatic and we talked about the future of India and electric vehicles. I won a overnight design competition with two guys that I now share a secret handshake with.
These are experiences, they are ideas, they are connections and discussions, and they are people that changed and challenged and commended the way I think about me.
Today, I go back to Olin to find these special stories hidden in the 330 people I take for granted. Illinois has taught me to have conversations cultivate a spark or a thought or trust or shared ambition. It has shown me that life isn't just the bubble enclosing your College of Engineering. Instead, it is a journey in which you sometimes need to find a chance or take a chance -- make yourself uncomfortable or put your reputation at a bit of risk or challenge someone's wit. It really is these little chances I've taken in my Illinois career that made it worthwhile.
(The pictures on the top, clockwise from the top-left: Getting ready for an Indian formal with two girls that went to high school in India with me and now study at U of I, Illinois-Michigan Basketball game, congrats graduating seniors!, traditional tea ceremony at the Japan House, Altgeld Tower (we watched them ring the bells up there), South Quad.)