Doin’ it For the Kids

You probably didn’t know this about me, but I have school spirit, yes, I do. I show it by conducting student interviews for the University of Chicago — which is to say when an applicant to the university wants an interview but can’t actually get to the school, they farm it out to alumni, and apparently I’m the alumnus they’re farming it out to for rural western Ohio and eastern Indiana. The applicants will then make the trek to the Scalzi Compound, where, assuming Kodi lets them through the door (note to self: feed dog before arrival of interviewees — we don’t want a repeat of that unpleasant 2003 incident), I’ll chat them up for a half-hour or an hour or so, and then talk about them behind their backs to the admissions committee. That’s the way it gets done.

As it happens, I think I’m pretty good at doing these interviews, partly by professional training: when I was a film critic I did several hundred interviews with film stars and film makers and then had to craft their egotistical, drug-fueled “insights” into coherent newspaper articles; by comparison, interviewing generally polite teens is a positive delight, not in the least because the kids are being interviewed in the hopes of getting into college, rather than plunking themselves into a chair out of a contractual obligation. It matters. Sure, you might think it’d be fun to interview, say, Johnny Depp. But try dragging something useful out of him at 8:30 on a Sunday morning after he’s clearly had a “busy” night (this was during his “let’s trash the hotel room with Kate Moss” phase). The shiny glow wears off pretty quick. My understanding is that Mr. Depp is slightly more communicative now. Good for him.

Of course, it’s also on point that I try to be useful to the kids I’m interviewing as well, because I remember the alumnus who interviewed me for The University of Chicago, and not to put too fine a point on it, he well and truly sucked at it. Not only did he ask boring and rote questions and didn’t appear to be paying too close attention to what I was saying in reply, he also didn’t exactly go out of his way to make the U of C sound like a place anyone would want to attend. Let’s just say a man who explained his U of C social experience with the words “I didn’t really make any friends until the last six weeks I was there” isn’t the guy you want waving the flag for the place. Now, despite this fellow’s ineptitude in the interviewing process, I did get in, and I did attend, so I guess he did no real harm. But still. One should hope for better than “did no real harm” in one’s admission interviews.

(The best college interview I had, for comparison’s sake, was the one with an alumna of Bennington College, who halfway through the ridiculously fun interview switched from saying “if you go” to “when you go” when referring to the school. And I almost did go, too — aside from the school’s arty reputation being appealing to a budding young writer such as myself, the school’s 8-to-1 female to male ratio was appealing to my deeply hormonal 18-year-old self. But even being 18 and hormonal, I realized that Bennington’s “build your own major” ethos was death for someone as fundamentally lazy and unstructured as I was. So I went with the U of C and its ramrod-straight classical “core curriculum.” It made a man out of me, it truly did. And I avoided writing four years’ worth of painful Bret Easton Ellis-esque stories about drug-addled dormitory bisexuality, which I think we can agree is all to the good.)

I do occasionally wonder if I am the most on-point ambassador for the U of C that the alumni committee could have chosen, because in a number of ways my U of C experience was not, shall we say, representative. In four years at the school, I think I spent a grand total of six hours in Regenstein, the school’s main library, and I don’t ever remember going into the Crerar, the science library, even once. I hear it’s very quiet, just perfect for studying. Well, see, that’s the other thing. This “studying” thing I heard so much about. Didn’t do too much of that (that would explain the 2.8 GPA).

On the other hand, the fact that I was an atypical U of C student and yet still retain an almost insensible affection for the place suggests something good about it, and something that I intuited when I made the school my first choice: It’s the sort of place that gives you the opportunity to make of it what you will, and which will let you do whatever you want if you show the desire to do it. I wanted a place where I could learn how to write, and the school gave me that both in the expected ways (via the school newspaper and the city’s print media, who were always looking for cheap stringers) and in unexpected ways (via jamming so much damn information about the world into my head that I couldn’t help but begin to make interesting connections with it all). And now I do what I wanted to do when I grew up. I don’t doubt that being at the U of C is integral to that.

Which comes back around to why I like doing student interviews for the U of C: because I like the idea of helping to match up the school, with all its potential, with a kid who I see is looking for an opportunity to do more than grind out four years for the degree at the end of it. It doesn’t mean I’m looking to see if the kids are like me; I don’t think that would be useful. But I am looking to see how much they actually want out of their college experience. I think the U of C should get kids who demand a hell of a lot out of the place, and will go out of their way to get it. If that’s there, I think that’s a good match.

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