IMSA as a Downstater

A picture of the beautiful campus of the Illinois Math and Science Academy | Source: Patch

I remember thinking, when I first heard of IMSA, that the school was a skyscraper right smack dab in the middle of downtown Chicago. My friend would tell me about her older brother who went to IMSA, and naturally, I envisioned him as living in some sleek new construction, right next to Willis Tower. It was a STEM school, so it would obviously be uber-modern, all bright lights and sharp angles and glossy, white walls. Most importantly, though, it would have plenty of windows and absolutely no geese.

I have since learned that IMSA has an abundance of geese and no windows and is far more like a bunker than a skyscraper. It’s got sweeping views of warehouses, subdivisions, and even a soybean field for when you miss the good ol’ south. But, I guess No Pond can be kind of scenic if you catch it at sunset, and those shipping crates behind the tennis courts are as much of an Instagram hotspot as the Bean could ever be… Maybe that’s a stretch. But, either way, we all live and hope to graduate from here, and you have to admit that it is kind of a cool place. It’s definitely given us more than a little. That’s not to say, though, that it’s without cons more substantial than its potential to be the launching pad of the goose apocalypse. So, in honor of mental health month, it’s worth putting together a list of IMSA’s goods and bads, as well as a few necessities to survive the place, from a downstater perspective: 

The Good: 

  • Academics. The obvious one, and for a lot of us, the one that brought us to IMSA in the first place. I’ve heard that there are some suburban/CPS schools with classes—and resources, in general—on par with IMSA, but downstate, that’s often not the case. 
      • Level. Take math, for instance: My home school offered AP Calc, but if you got past that, you’d either be taking statistics or spending more than one class period commuting to the local university for post-calc classes. 
      • Variety. Then, there’s variety, even in non-STEM subjects. At my home school, you could take English or Honors English. Forget Travel Writing or Victorian Fiction. If you like something niche, you’ve got a much better shot at being able to explore it at IMSA. 
  • Intensity. Good and bad, on this one. Of the classes I’ve taken, it stands out the most in math: at my home school, if you were intentional about your memorization, you could ace all your tests, but here there’s a lot more application, love it or hate it.
  • Extracurriculars. I’m not even sure how many clubs IMSA has, not to mention co-curriculars and sports. You have your standard French Club and basketball team, which you’d probably find at most downstate high schools. What’s more, though, there are niche activities like Crocheting Club or Puzzle Club, advocacy groups like L&D Matter and Amnesty International, and student government positions that involve a good deal of work, rather than strictly being popularity contests. As far as sports go, it’s pretty cool that we actually have a pool on campus—and better yet, no football team! Undefeated for 30 years and counting. 
  • Research & Internships. If you can think of it, you can probably find an SIR mentor to help you research it, be it particle physics or comparative competitivology. If you’d like more of an intro-to-employment type deal, internships are also an option. Either way, if you’re interested in something, you can explore it more outside of class, and it’ll go right on your transcript, so you won’t have to bend over backwards in your college essays trying to convince the nameless, faceless, all-powerful weigh-er of your fate for the next four years that what you did is legit. 
  • Independence. No more mom, can you come pick me up? Practice got out early. On campus, you can get to and from your own extracurriculars, no driver’s license required. Plus, you sleep a few minutes’ walk away from all of your classes, so there will be no 45-minute commute in the morning—setting an alarm for 7:50 for an 8:00 am class is definitely possible if not advisable! You can also go on walking and bus trips and have free reign over a decently large outdoor area. That said, the price for all of this is steep: you’re also expected to make your own bed. 
  • People. You had to fill out an application more demanding than most college apps to get here. To have stuck it out through all that, you must want to be at IMSA on some level, even if you grouse about it. You also have initiative, and you know that you want to go somewhere after IMSA, whether you can put your finger on that somewhere or not. Little Egypt or Lake County, most high schools don’t have the same sense of intentionality. 
  • Culture. If you’re any sort of minority (a person of color, LGBTQ+, of a less commonly practiced faith, etc.), you’ll probably find a lot more people like you at IMSA than you would at your southern home school. I’ve never been anywhere as diverse as IMSA, and with that diversity comes a level of acceptance, or at least tolerance, that you’d be hard-pressed to find downstate. 

The Bad: 

  • Getting Sick. Best not to get sick if you’re a downstater. Your parents may be three, five, or even seven hours away, but they’ll still need to come get you if you come down with anything much more than a cold. Chances are your parents work, not to mention the cost of driving to Aurora and back, possibly with a night at a hotel along the way. Make friends with your immune system. Dealing with sickness is inconvenient at best. 
  • APs. If you want to take an AP that’s not very popular at IMSA, you’re going to have to find another school to provide it for you. If you live nearby, that’s probably not too much of a problem; you can just talk to your home school. As a downstater, too, you can ask suburban schools if they’ll let you take the test, but chances are, they’ll all say no. Then, you’ll be stuck either not taking your tests or spending up to two weeks at home, Zooming into classes, because your home school is the only place willing to administer your tests.
    • Weekends. It’s eight degrees and blizzard-ing outside. Campus is deserted—even the geese have flown somewhere warmer—and you’re not supposed to leave your hall because of the weather. Being one of the few people left in the dorms sucks, majorly. 
  • Food. If you’re a picky eater, have dietary restrictions, or both, IMSA food isn’t always the best. You’ll see all your friends come back every Sunday evening with their week’s worth of home-cooked meals, and that won’t help. 
  • Far Away & Stuck. You live three, five, seven hours away from home. Unless you know people up here, you don’t see your family or friends very much. There are probably friends you don’t see at all anymore, and you say you’ll text them tomorrow, but you never do. If you’re lucky, you might be able to convince a friend to come up for a dance, or beg your parents to come get you after your last final instead of making you stay on campus another three days to wait for the downstate bus. If you’re unsuccessful, though, you will become acutely aware of your stuckness: You can leave campus for a walking trip, or maybe to go to Woodman’s or Starbucks, but otherwise, you’re trapped. A few laps around Access might help, but you can only do so many before it gets repetitive. 
  • Competition. Where are you applying REA? No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know, we might be applying to the same place. Oh, wait, you’re applying to X? Y and Z are applying there ED! And they both have 1610s on the SAT, and were selected as National Merit Mega-Finalists, and Z is the only person in the history of AP to have gotten a perfect score on the BC Calc test, and Y did a summer program in Antarctica studying bits of ice that might contain life from Mars, and Y and Z both read six languages and can write in three, and Z plays the piano and harmonica and I think clarinet too though it might be oboe (probably both), and Y does Ironmans in Argentina and has already published two books…The list really never does end!

The Necessary: 

  • Find some friends. Even just one or two. Someone you can walk with on Access every once in a while, or force to buy you a coffee when they snag a spot on a Target trip and you don’t. Some people are uber-close to their IMSA friends, and that’s great, but you can definitely get by with looser connections—just not none at all.
  • Talk to your roommate. Do they go home on the weekends? Whether you’re the type of person who needs some time to yourself or who can never be alone, it might be the most important question to ask when picking a roommate as a downstater. You’ll be stuck on campus most weekends, and those weekends can really make or break your IMSA experience. 
  • Get a hobby. Reading, running, gaming, goose-watching, stealing chemistry equipment to make moonshine and hiding both in your ceiling—whatever. Just find something to do that’s not school, or you may very well go insane. 
  • Be annoying. Or, ask for help. Email your teacher if you have a question, even if you think it’s stupid. Worst they can do is not answer. Bother your friend about that problem set you don’t understand. Your grades will thank you. 
  • Join a club or sport. Or two or five. Maybe not ten, though. No need to be president of everything, but make an appearance. You’ll be glad you did when it’s eight degrees outside and you’re stuck in your dorm, because at least you’ll have a Zoom call to break up the depressing grey-ness. 
  • Remind yourself why you came! Love it or hate it, you’re not going to be at IMSA forever. Maybe you’ll end up living at home and going to your local college, or maybe you’ll be herding quokkas on Rottnest Island, but either way, IMSA is what will get you there, so take advantage of (and try to enjoy) it!

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