Inside Our Pages: Climbing to the top, Chicago style

This weekend I stepped outside of our pages and into a completely other world to see how the other side lives. Taking advantage of the five-day vacation President Trachtenberg begrudgingly gave us, I traveled to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill just outside of Chicago.

It’s interesting how your perspective of what a college should look and feel like changes depending on your own experiences at school. For me, stepping into Wildcat country was jarring, as I looked bright-eyed at the historic buildings spread throughout the campus. Much like Chicago itself, these buildings are rich with architecture and add a touch of tradition that GW hasn’t quite captured.

Walking through campus, you’d think Northwestern has a bigger undergraduate population than GW’s 8,000, but it doesn’t. The square-foot-to-student ratio is substantially larger than GW’s, but they aren’t enveloped by a big city. While it was interesting to note the obvious differences from our campuses – large, beautiful fraternity houses lumped together as a community, the existence of sorority houses, a dining hall that looks more like a Fresh Fields spectacular, a town clock that glows purple when the football team wins, a football team – the contrast in social atmospheres was most revealing about the school.

Northwestern is a top-tiered school. The kids there are smart, motivated and passionate about what they want to be. Their parents are mostly wealthy, financial troubles are relatively uncommon and some of the biggest day-to-day concerns include making sure you don’t wear the same Lucky jeans as your friend and going to the bar where the freshmen won’t be tonight. Sound familiar? It should, except for the top-tiered part.

Between all the mingling with the sorority girls I stayed with, batting away freshmen happy to meet anyone during their second week of school and sight-seeing around campus, what stuck out most was the feeling of normalcy among Northwestern students. You get the sense that these students plan to be on top one day, but they’re taking their time.

At GW, you get the sense that students want to be on top, and they scramble to make it happen fast. Internships are king, the College Democrats and Republicans are revered like Big-10 football teams and standard operating equipment includes a Palm Pilot and cell phone. A look at the audience at any of the 10 “Crossfire” town hall meetings gives you a good taste of life at GW – students in pressed suits chomping at the chance to shake hands with a congressman. While it is impressive to see GW’s politically active population asking the leaders of our government educated questions and working alongside them, it is also a bit overwhelming to see how seriously we take ourselves.

When I think that at this time in their lives our president was raising a raucous at frat parties and getting C’s, Bill Gates was chuckling at students who even went to college and revered anchorman Tom Brokaw was in frigid South Dakota, it makes me wonder what all the commotion is about.

I would imagine Northwestern students would wonder the same thing. But then GW students would take them to meet a senator, tour them around the White House and show clips of themselves on CNN, and those questions would subside.

I am certainly not immune to the craze to be Time magazine’s Man of the Year one day, and much of that is certainly perpetuated by our university environment. But while I wouldn’t trade D.C. life for a more traditional campus experience, sometimes it’s nice to take a break from the frenzy created by 8,000 students plotting to take over the United Nations and learn from students with a more relaxed approach to reaching the top.

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