Mok: Navigating student life at NU

Kenny Mok, Guest Columnist

Dear Freshmen,

You have an overwhelming amount of choices. Everyday you decide where to eat lunch and with whom, which classes to add or to drop, where to buy cheap books, what major and activities look interesting to you, where the free food is and so much more. Underlying all of these questions are likely “Who will be my true friends?” and “What do I want to do on campus?” That’s right: Student group recruitment has finally started. After weeks of curiosity, you are starting to see dozens of flyers, Facebook events and profile pictures bombarding you with information sessions and application deadlines. Wildcat Welcome and the Involvement Expo tried to prepare you for the chaos that you are now allowed to experience.

With 450+ organizations, the quality and quantity of student groups at Northwestern is truly a marvel. You’ve heard it all from your tour guide and from Morty. After three years here, I have seen student groups provide students with career-determining skills such as directing a $10,000-budget film, leading a 50-person non-profit organization, DJing for Chicago’s most influential radio stations and acting in one of nine theatre production boards.

Our groups also provide opportunities to make a real impact outside of campus like donating $1 million to help cure various diseases and providing loans to Evanston small businesses. Lastly and most importantly, I have seen groups become a source for lifelong friendships and community — the closest thing to a second family. This includes 47 values-based fraternities and sororities and 55+ multicultural organizations, which provide safe spaces for students that cannot find them otherwise.

There is a catch. For all the good traits that student groups represent for NU, they also contribute to the school’s ugliest, darkest aspects. In other words, there is some s— that goes down when thousands of Type A, passionate individuals are condensed into a decentralized institution.

First and foremost, our unique student group culture often leads to rejection and exclusivity. Many groups at NU are application-based, an unfortunate and debatably unacceptable, reality. Rejection happens often and early at NU, and a majority of “student leaders” will probably tell you that they were denied from multiple groups before finding the right one. Second, we tend to overcommit ourselves at NU even when encouraged not to. We love what we do, which is admirable, but the emotional and mental baggage that this careerist culture brings can be exhausting and, at times, toxic. When we feel like we are adequately involved, we subconsciously think that other people are doing more activities, so we try to do more. Finally, as students often find their closest friends in tight-knit circles of dorms and student groups, this structure translates to a socially segregated campuses that can lead to “nasty dialogue” on a macro scale. Differences and injustices across race, gender, sexuality and other identities are highlighted in these moments, as they should be, and they shatter the university’s misguided message that we are “One Northwestern.”

For some of these reasons, difficult and lonely freshman years are more common than one may expect. The university praises “student leaders” but the definition of an NU leader is problematic and elitist at best, not to mention the inherent inequality of achieving “busy” success.

On the bright side, there are significant, gradual improvements occurring to address these cultural and systemic issues. Different student groups have increasingly pursued organic collaboration, mental health dialogue has become more commonplace, and the administration has adopted a new “True Northwestern” image rather than a “One Northwestern” falsity.

After not being involved in a single group freshman year to being involved in five, I have settled down as a student group vice president of Associated Student Government. In my position, I interact with hundreds of groups and have seen these issues directly impact student lives. Here is some parting, humble advice — remember that context is important.

1. Student groups are not for every NU student. There are countless other opportunities at school to take advantage of such as undergraduate research, work-study jobs, volunteering and co-curricular departments where you can make as many new friends and learn as many valuable skills as you would in student groups. More importantly, your college experiences outside of “student life” can be just as, or even more, formative than those in it. Some of my fondest memories and friendships come from the year in which I did not join a single student group. Eating Steak ‘n Shake at 4 a.m., seeing the XX at Aragon Theatre and tailgating NU football games are all moments I would never take back for a dull meeting at Norris.

2. If you do decide to get significantly involved in student groups, pace yourself. You do not need to test out all your varying interests in one year, let alone one quarter. I have seen many of my peers find their niche as late as junior or senior year and there is nothing wrong with that because the struggle makes it all worth it. Also, do not be ashamed to quit a student group — we’ve all done it.

3. Embrace rejection. As an eager and passionate freshman, I applied for an ASG committee and I clearly remember entering a lifeless second floor Norris University Center room in front of 50 upperclassmen senators and being forced to give a five-minute speech justifying my petty high school qualifications. A junior, who wasn’t even present but submitted a video for his speech and received endorsements from friends in the crowd, got the position over four other freshmen and me. I look back to that moment and laugh. When it happens, rejection hurts and there’s no getting around the feeling. But please know that rejection also opens up so many other great opportunities and things somehow work out.

Whatever you do, be honest with yourself and what you truly want out of NU because it is your time and no one else’s. It is perfectly good if you do not know right now. That’s what the next four years are for.


Kenny Mok
Washed-up Senior

Kenny Mok is a Weinberg senior and ASG’s vice president of B-status finances. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.