Northwestern Tour: Warm and Windy

Given its rigorous academics and selective admissions, one would not expect life at Northwestern University to be a day at the beach. Yet its campus boasts not one, but two sandy enclaves on the shores of Lake Michigan, punctuated by the Chicago skyline in the not so very distance. As lakes go, this one could easily be mistaken for an ocean, and on the rare day in May we visited, its sparkling streaks of turquoise and azure looked positively Caribbean. Running ruthlessly countertrend, the temperature hovered around 47, it was drizzling and, yes, Chicago windy. A gaggle of lonely sailboats rested uneasily but hopefully on the shore, waiting patiently for better days.

We checked in at the soaring, dazzling, glassy visitor center, only to learn from a cheerful young woman at the desk that our info session and tour had been cancelled. Damn. Well, then, could we have a pen, at least? We collect them from all the schools. No, no pens. “Oh, wait,” she said, her eyes brightening as she handed us a generic ballpoint, sans any insignia. “Take this, it is a pen from Northwestern!” Clever and resourceful, these Northwestern students.

As consolation, we were graciously offered a conversation with a patient and super-smart admissions counselor, who started by asking if we had any questions. Hm, not where we expected to begin, but maybe it says something about Northwestern that questions take priority over answers. Resisting the temptation to litigate why our tour had been deep-sixed, we instead inquired about double majors, the journalism program, and tried to get some insight into why some students get in and others don’t.

Like many of today’s best schools, Northwestern encourages mixing and matching academic pursuits, the more ostensibly disconnected the better. If there’s a thread, it’s forging links between arts and sciences. Northwestern’s Medill school is of course renowned for journalism, although like much of Northwestern’s reputation perhaps a bit tilted toward the graduate level. The university’s post-grad accent happened to be personified our host, herself a former graduate student. As for admissions criteria, it’s a mystery, apparently even to the admissions officers. If there’s a secret, they’re not sharing it.

So, what is it, exactly, that makes Northwestern what it is? One version of that answer is the university messaging, telegraphed as “AND is in our DNA” in a YouTube video: research and teaching; academics and athletics; college town and major city. The notion is meant to extend to the students themselves who combine and recombine areas of study. Is this modern-day philosophy somehow rooted in Northwestern’s origins? That’s a good question, the answer to which requires more research, itself another of the school’s hallmarks. The more telling answer, as usual, is found in a walk around campus, and in particular the places where students gather, such as the Norris University Center, where you can get some food while enjoying spectacular views of that gorgeous lake.

We always look for diversity when we visit campuses, which at Northwestern seemed most evident in a certain artistic, bohemian, and occasionally even eccentric streak in the student population. This influence may be down to the school’s famous theatre program. Did we mention that Stephen Colbert is a Northwestern grad? Northwestern mentions Stephen Colbert almost as often as UVA mentions Thomas Jefferson. True to form, the late-night host is described as both serious and funny, living the “and” theme.

The rest of Northwestern’s soul can be contemplated in a walk around its large-scale but compact (“and”) campus, which though in suburban Evanston, and a fair distance from Chicago, feels decidedly city-like. No shortage of greenery, lots of grassy stretches and imposing trees, but also plenty of pavement. The dominant architectural style, despite a few flashes of old-fashioned goth and futuristic walls of glass, can best be described as brutalist, that blocky, cement-happy motif popular in the American ‘70s and the former Soviet Union.

That sounds harsher than it actually is, but if you need classical brick, columns, cut stone or that Hogwarts feeling, you won’t quite find it here. The effect may have been cemented by the brutally raw spring day, and that some of us were shivering in our parkas in May, but certainly is not a metaphor for what is inarguably one of today’s most all-embracing and celebrated institutions of higher learning.