A Summer of Surprises in the Windy City

When I hopped on my flight to Chicago a few weeks ago, I was surprisingly calm and collected about spending 10 weeks as an intern in a whole new city by myself. This seemed odd to me, because I’m normally extremely nervous about leaving my house for any longer than a week. I still remember how terrified I was during my first few months at Princeton. I worried about everything — The fact that the laundry room was located six entryways away scared me. Were my awful laundry habits going to leave me perpetually clothes-less?

But going to Chicago, I felt somewhat prepared. It’s probably because I pictured Chicago as a smaller version of New York City, which I had grown comfortable with during my two years at Princeton. While several of my friends were traveling to exotic, exciting places around the globe, Chicago seemed comparatively boring to me.

Now, I think back to my pre-Chicago mindset and can’t believe how terribly wrong I was.

My first view of Chicago’s skyline which I captured 5 minutes before I landed.

The mesmerizing view of Lake Michigan from my office this summer

Everything about this city has surprised me. The incredible (and very affordable) food available at every corner (highlighted by the unbelievably filling deep-dish pizza). The eastern-most road that divides downtown from Lake Michigan: the bluest body of water I’ve ever seen. The fireworks that illuminate the sky over Navy Pier. Even the obnoxiously loud over-ground train is endearing in its own way when it wakes me up every morning. Chicago puts its own unique cultural twist on everything. In downtown, everyone is always outside. Travelling through the city feels like being part of a never-ending music festival. Whether you’re walking along the beach, strolling through Millennium Park, bustling through the financial district, or kayaking under one of the 50 drawbridges, Chicago brings the same energy and spirit.

The giant Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier – a tourist favorite

But the surprises didn’t stop there. On the first day of my internship, I walked into the office with other new interns wearing the typical “business casual” clothing expected of most employees at financial companies. But I was amazed at what I saw. T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. Everywhere. I had never felt so overdressed in my life. In response to our clear shock, one of the co-founders of the companies jokingly asked us which one of us would be the first to wear shorts. The founders of the company wanted their employees to fully enjoy every aspect of their work, and so they adopted a casual dress code.

Now, a few weeks later, I’ve quickly adopted the new culture. I spend most of my time working on research projects while swinging on hammocks or rolling around on giant exercise balls that they have in the office. A large portion of my day is devoted to these mini-projects that I can start and finish without strict deadlines. This kind of freedom in my work environment has been incredibly productive and satisfying. By taking on these challenges, I’ve had to learn two programming languages, teach myself several different types of application software, and develop the courage to ask a ton of questions.

I’ve also had to learn how to deal with a lot of negative results. Sometimes it’s small mistakes in code, and other times I’m just completely wrong about my approach to a specific problem. But the relaxed work environment actually keeps me more focused on completing each task despite the possible setbacks. Together with my fellow interns and project partners, we set our own goals, something that has pushed us to work more efficiently. The workplace culture greatly encourages and facilitates collaboration. Each of the interns brings a separate set of skills and knowledge to the table. This makes communication and brainstorming extremely productive in two ways. It helps us come with multi-faceted ideas for projects, and it also helps us learn a lot more individually. We will often be presented with a difficult problem and none of us will know how to solve it initially. But by walking through the requirements together and combining our individual strengths, we find unique approaches to the problem. Working as a team has helped us succeed as individual learners and researchers as well. No one hesitates to ask about things they are unclear about, and usually someone will have an answer for them. I’ve spent quite a few of my lunch breaks playing ping-pong games with the other interns while simultaneously going over confusing concepts from that day’s work.

What I believed to be a city defined by Michael Jordan and the Willis Tower is turning out to be so much more. I can’t wait to see where my future adventures in the city will take me. With the thousands of things to explore, I find myself spending hours each week researching more about the city and planning out fun things to do – things I used to view as a chore. My experience in the city reminds me of the time I became a researcher. Back in high school, it was working on an unsolved math problem, and here it was approaching the experience of a new city with an open mind. My experiences have shown me just how misleading my expectations can be sometimes. There’s almost always a huge difference between what I expect and what actually happens. Even in research, if we expect something to work or expect something to fail, we may overlook other approaches to the problem that could result in different outcomes. Sometimes we overvalue our expectations, and may discredit the value of experimentation.

— Kavi Jain, Engineering Correspondent