Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Jayal: Is Northwestern a claustrophobic cocoon or purple utopia?

Having spent the first eighteen years of my life in New Delhi, India, I grew up fully assimilated in the community I interacted with every single day. Even London, where I spent my freshman and sophomore years of college, is so multicultural that feeling different is the majority sentiment.

Moving to Northwestern from University College London for my exchange year in the fall of 2023 marked the first time I felt like the new kid, stepping at a different pace than the rest of the student body. There were several things that I found novel and different from what I was used to.

The first was the desserts — those strange, almost architectural cereal sculptures, in fluorescent pink and blue that appear in dining halls on some days. And Hershey’s chocolate. Everyone eats it in kilos and kilos as though it doesn’t taste like acid.

The second, and possibly more pertinent, was the campus culture. As a student in London, I feel like an adult who just so happens to attend university. So, the American notion that college-is-life and life-is-college was startling.

When I moved into my residence hall, I meticulously decorated my side of my dorm room and thought about how, a year ago, my flatmate and I were probably madly scrambling to make a new copy of a key to our flat or trying to scrape away the tub of ice that had fused itself to the inside of our freezer.

While prying open a HelloFresh box, I told myself I was cooking, synthesizing, adulting, creating. My life in Evanston is categorized, ordered, the campus designed to be manageable.

Here, I lap the campus and see students in abundance. If there is a townsperson passing through — on a run, pushing a pram, walking a dog — it is often a novel sight. When I lock myself out of my room, I go to Sargent Hall to ask for a temporary key. I don’t even break a sweat.

My friends and I congregate in sleek dining halls, the food steaming in metal tubs, or in the small restaurants downtown, a ten minute walk away. We venture into Chicago in groups, with an agenda, dabbling giddily with the psychedelic synergy of city life but never immersed in it.

I used to weave between towering buildings in Central London, stacks and stacks of rooms, teetering on top of one another. Now I squint at the Chicago cityscape miles away from where I stand near South Boulevard Beach and am wowed by its jagged heights. The easy routine of living at college in America is nothing like the chaos of the everyday life of a student in London.

During Wildcat Welcome, I heard a Peer Advisor tell their group of freshmen that in four years, they’d be adults entering the professional world, and NU was here to prepare them. Were they not adults now?

London certainly makes sure to remind you of the fact that you are. At eighteen, we haggle with real estate agents for second-year apartments, deal with the solitude of a city, live in it, as it is, in the night and in the day. We eat burnt scrambled eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our professors do not know our names. We are each one of many people in immense lecture theaters. There are no fraternities or sororities. No built-in friend groups.

To an exchange student, the stream of regular NU life feels like a fast-flowing, swarming river. It is rife with meetings and classes and extracurriculars and tinged with an urgency that the exchange students just do not have. Knowing that my reality awaits me on the other side of the Atlantic has made this year of studying abroad more about the experiences I am having.

Initially, I was skeptical of campus culture, of such neat life after the miasma of London. Of regular scheduling and predictable days. When college life in London rippled through the city and took place in the tube, in creaky pubs, in vast parks, it could not be rivaled by the circular life of a campus university.

I was soon charmed, though. The feeling of community that I so quickly found with the people I met — even as someone who is here for a relatively short stint — was incredible. On the expanse of life here, I have to admit, one gets to know Evanston a little too well. There is no sense of anonymity and no escape from the NU world. But that is largely a positive. I never feel alone or lonely.

I am a little jealous of the undergraduates who will be here for four years, then, because of the bubble that NU gives its students. From the outside, it does seem like a purple-tinged, Sims-like utopia. Everything you need is within a 15-minute walk. Friends, food, class.

I just wonder how its students will grapple with real life when they must leave this bubble. When they move into looming buildings in big cities and there are no Resident Advisors down the hall. When they must trade in purple for work clothes and briefcases.

Then again, if there’s anything I can infer from the quick and clever students I’ve met here, it’s that they’re probably going to find a way to land on their feet.

Devaki Jayal is an exchange student from University College London. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, 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.

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