Volunteering in Philadelphia: Eric Wong AB'10

Programming Committee: Our second featured volunteer is Eric Wong AB'10

What's your U of C story?
When I first got to Hyde Park, I was not all that different than most of the other students there. Motivated, extremely excited, but definitely nerdy. In fact, during my first quarter or two, I rarely left my house in Shoreland. Slowly, though, I started to get over my anxiety and uncertainty, and I have many good memories of the people I met hanging out at apartments at 54th and Woodlawn or at the Frisbee House. My academic interests also evolved. I went from knowing that I was at Chicago to study history to jumping ship to the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum and switching to physics. Well, to be fair, I fell in love with proof-based math during my intro calculus class, but then quickly realized I didn’t have the chops to do pure math. I took a physics class with Professor Scott Wakeley that was an absolute blast my second year, and now here I am, trying to finish my Ph.D.
Chicago meant so much to me in terms of both a personal and intellectual experience, and though a lot of it was spent hating myself in Crerar before an exam problem set was due, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Why did you choose Chicago?
I distinctly remember when I was making the choice between Chicago and another school. I had actually filled out the acceptance form to both universities because I kept going back and forth in my head, and had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. I drove myself to the post office and sat in the parking lot for a good 45 minutes or an hour just thinking about how I wanted to spend the next 4 years. In the end, I mailed the Chicago letter because I felt that it had almost an ideal interaction of liberal arts school weirdness and giant research university resources. That, and the other school I was considering was in New York City, and for a kid from small town central Virginia, living in Manhattan seemed terrifyingly overwhelming.

What are your favorite memories of Chicago?
I really am having a hard time picking out favorite memories of Chicago. Maybe it’s because I look back on most of my college days with rose-tinted glasses or maybe it’s because it was a time of such personal and intellectual growth and discovery, as trite as that sounds. There are so many that I can think of, but I think the best ones, for me, are the walks I would take on Fridays after my 8:30 AM Gen Chem class back to the Shoreland. When I first got to school, I remember being a little homesick, and walking from Kent all the way down 57th or 58th street to the Point always put me at ease. Especially in the fall or the spring, I remember  the sense of freedom and openness I would get from just being by myself on the lake or exploring Hyde Park for a couple of hours. I think back on those moments a lot, especially when I’m stressed.

How do you keep involved with the university?
Keeping involved with the university is pretty low stress. I volunteer with the Alumni Schools Committee and interview kids applying to Chicago, and it’s crazy how much the applicant pool has changed since I was there. It’s a little bit of a truism as an alumnus to admit that you’d never have gotten in had you applied in a different era, but I definitely feel that is the case now after having met such talented kids. When I have time, I also lend a hand with alumni events put on by the Alumni Club of Philadelphia, which is currently being run by the amazing Katie Skeen.

What's your favorite UChicago hangout?
While I probably spent most of my time in Crerar or the Mac Lab (and have very fond memories of procrastinating with friends there), I have to say the place I miss the most is Jimmy’s. I know I sound a bit like an alcoholic in that regard, but nothing beat the first beer after finishing those physics exams, or playing those MegaTouch games in the front room with friends. Jimbo’s is a real gem.

What's your favorite coursebook?
I’m tempted to say something lame, like some math or physics textbook, but while I definitely find those ideas among the most intellectually satisfying, I don’t think that’s what is going to stick with me for the rest of my life (maybe that makes me a bad scientist). I remember reading a book on modern racism by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann in a class I took third year. I had never read someone deconstruct racism in both philosophical and empirical terms, and the way that the students and the professor ran with it was really exciting.

What has surprised you the most about Philly? Any favorite things to do/favorite hangouts?

My initial impression of Philadelphia after coming directly from Chicago was, “Man, this place is dirty, small, and lame.” Going to school in University City and living right over the bridge in Center City, I felt that Philadelphia didn’t have much to offer other than a campus culture or the Rittenhouse scene (both of which are fun and engaging, but can get a bit stale if that’s all you know). After I started exploring neighborhoods to the north and down south, though, my perception of the city really opened up. I love it here. It is, by far, the least pretentious city I have lived in, and it also has so much to offer in terms of both culture and nightlife. My favorite hangouts span from the small, old neighborhood bars that are slowly disappearing (due mainly to people like me, I realize), like Bonnie’s Capistrano, to places like the Trestle Inn up in Callowhill (because you can’t beat that music or the bourbon selection). Philadelphia is not like New York or Washington where everything is coming at you all the time, but once I found my niche, I realized that Philadelphia in no way plays second fiddle to its more culturally resonant east coast sister cities.

What's been your favorite UChicago Alumni in Philly event?

Honestly, the small alumni events we put on—the trivia nights, or the random happy hours that happen once or twice a year—are my favorites. It’s really nice getting to hear other peoples’ trajectories from Chicago to Philadelphia, or if they’ve settled here, what brought them to stay. Meeting alumni from different generations is also always fun, because the university has changed so much over the years, and it’s interesting to hear what made Chicago appealing (or, in the case of some, unappealing) 30 or 40 years ago. So, I can’t give you an exact answer, but the smaller meet-ups are what I look forward to the most.