This essay is part of a student-led, first-person writing project called Bridges. Learn more about the program and read other essays in the series.
The most common question I am asked by acquaintances who are considering attending UChicago Law School is if it is really as conservative as people say. This inquiry often gives me pause: how do I accurately summarize the political stance of an entire university, which is made up of individuals? The school does feel right leaning to me, but this could be partially because I lean the other way. I often have the urge to assure these admitted students that they will not notice the politics at the Law School or to tell them that I have thoroughly enjoyed the diverse political landscape, but that is not necessarily my story. And that same question ran through my head on an endless loop when I was first accepted to the law school as well. Allow me to explain.
Like a chameleon, it has always been unnervingly easy for me to adapt to my environment. Toning down my hues of obstinance if needed, or illuminating my shades of extraversion when suited, I can seamlessly blend into my surroundings. This attribute allows me to get along with a wide range of personalities, and in some ways, I view this capability as one of my strengths.
One difference between me and the chameleon is that, at the end of the day, the reptile confidently reverts back to its foundational green; its core color remains unspoiled by the variety of changes it made by necessity throughout the day. I, on the other hand, tend to absorb bits and pieces of the differing personas I construct over time. When alone, the pestering question of stable identity arises. During college, I had many different friend groups and many different interests, which brought out a wide range of versions of myself. One integral facet of myself, however, remained constant and unthreatened at my left-leaning college, and that was my liberal identity. This aspect of myself represents not only how I view the world now, but also stems back to how I began to understand the world as a child.
I grew up in a very liberal, multi-cultural household, with radical feminists as family members and a general distaste for George Bush as my president as early as the fifth grade. Of course, I did not understand the nuances of the Democratic versus Republican parties at the age of 10 years old, but that did not stop me from proudly identifying with the former to anyone who would listen. It was only when I entered high school and then college that I was able to fully comprehend the substance of liberal principles and pursuits through my classes centering on politics, racial inequality, immigration, and gender studies and through my friendships with diverse and progressive peers.
When I was accepted into the University of Chicago Law School, I was elated until I discovered Reddit threads and Above the Law articles that droned on and on about the Law School’s right-of-center culture. Reservation soon followed as I began to wonder what would happen if I became faced with ideas or comments—or even entire guest lectures—with which I vehemently disagreed. Would my chameleon tendencies make it hard to speak up? And if I didn’t speak up, would my silence feel like agreement?
Aside from the school’s conservative leaning, every other aspect of the Law School drew me in and I decided to attend, making the promise to myself to remember who I am and not succumb to my amorphous tendencies. After all, I had only heard rumors so far and I was hopeful they would not be representative of my personal experience at the law school.
"I have developed the ability to occupy space for myself and others, and to start the conversations that I want to have, rather than wait for someone else to begin."
Now that I have completed two years, I can report that, yes, there have been conversations and experiences that have made me uncomfortable. I have encountered problematic guest speakers and classmates whose viewpoints bothered me. And there have been times when it was easier to air my concerns by engaging in hushed conversations on the back seats of the 172 campus bus rather than at the front of the classroom. But none of this has caused me to lose myself.
In fact, I am proud to say my time at the Law School has also been some of my most productive years in terms of solidifying my identity and feeling confident displaying the same version of myself to all, instead of tailoring my viewpoints to fit the moment. I have developed the ability to occupy space for myself and others, and to start the conversations that I want to have, rather than wait for someone else to begin. I owe this personal growth to two aspects of my Law School experience: 1) taking proactive steps to join clubs and surround myself with individuals who shared my passions and 2) developing the strength of critical thinking and tactful arguing through my classes and from my strong-minded peers.
I have learned that it is misguided to make blanket statements about any university’s culture and student body, and I discovered this truth from meeting incredible, progressive people through the pre-orientation diversity program, American Constitution Society, and, more recently, Bridges. Tons of my friends at the Law School do not fit even close to the mold of what I understood beforehand to be the typical UChicago law student. And this is because the “typical UChicago law student” does not exist.
In addition to getting to know like-minded individuals, law school has provided me with the skills to more confidently express my contradictory beliefs in class or with friends, instead of adopting the more common or traditional stance. Whether it be raising my hand in lecture to share a different perspective, or finding the courage to engage in a discussion with an acquaintance at a party about why he holds a certain controversial opinion, my voice no longer shakes. I am even more confident in my ability to go out into the world and face challenges head on.
My fears about the “right-wing culture” of the Law School coloring my identity no longer keep me up at night. I have found my place at the Law School and have solidified my voice in doing so. Like the chameleon, I now return to my room after a long day of class and social interaction the same authentic shade I had when I left that morning.
So, my reply to that infamous question so often posed is complicated. But I do have an unequivocal answer to whether someone will be able to find their people and grow in this environment: certainly.