Class of 2023 embarks on its intellectual journey

From debate champ to scientists to vaudeville clown, first-years share diverse interests

As the Class of 2023 joins the University of Chicago’s intellectual community, five incoming students share their diverse personal stories and what they’re looking forward to at UChicago:

While many students are attracted to UChicago for its spirit of rigorous inquiry, Brian Li is uniquely positioned for the types of discussions that transpire across house tables and lounges every day on campus. That’s because debate is an area in which Li is quite distinguished.

Li started debating in eighth grade while attending school in Shanghai, eventually becoming one of the captains of the Chinese national team. He’s been ranked as prominently as the third-best high schooler in the world, and he helped China to place first in the 2018 World Schools Debating Championships.

While Li started debating for simpler reasons—“I started to realize I really liked arguing with people,” he joked—he soon came to appreciate debate as a way to learn new ideas and engage new people. He’s competed internationally in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Indonesia and Thailand.

But those experiences have helped develop his interests in economics and philosophy. “With the help of debate, I've been intrigued with how the world works and why it works that way, both on an introspective level and on a broader societal level,” said Li.

He hopes to foster a similarly eclectic (and opinionated) community of friends at UChicago by joining the Chicago Debate Society as well as other student organizations.

In her Uncommon Essay, Louise Siskel imagined finding an alternate Earth underneath our own—one where alternative facts about the effectiveness of vaccines and the existence of climate change prevailed over the truth. (It’s no surprise the two majors she’s considering are biology and philosophy).

This essay epitomizes Siskel, a passionate advocate for the “role of responsible science in public policy.”

A Pasadena, California native, Siskel spent the past summer researching cystic fibrosis at CalTech. Before that, she was the recipient of a prestigious award that funded her research at Drew University, where she studied how triple negative breast cancer disproportionately affects African American women.

Her outspoken commitment to science and social justice also propelled Siskel to another distinction: the 101st Rose Queen for the historic Rose Parade. “I was excited to be part of a tradition that gives young women a powerful platform and asks only that we represent ourselves honestly, and that we represent our community more broadly. I used the position to advocate for inclusion within the organization, to speak about the importance of scientific literacy, and to grapple with the history of the tradition I found myself participating in,” said Siskel, who bested more than a thousand applicants.

At UChicago, Siskel hopes to get involved with molecular biology research as well as taking advantage of opportunities with the UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory and Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

“The University has a wealth of resources and opportunities available to its students, only a very small portion of which I will be able to take advantage of,” Siskel said, “but I look forward to making whatever dent I can.”

An accomplished musician, long-distance runner and aspiring doctor, Jabari Owens wanted to attend a college that allowed him to follow his varied interests. The chance to see UChicago during a campus visit sealed the deal.

“Everyone I talked to here was involved in so much,” said Owens, a South Florida native who is a recipient of UChicago’s national police and fire scholarship, which provides full-tuition scholarships to the children of active police officers and firefighters across the U.S.

Having played the violin since kindergarten and the viola since his sophomore year of high school, Owens is eager to get involved with musical performance at UChicago.

“Music has always been a really big part of my life,” Owens said. “There is always another piece to learn, another technique to master, or in my case, another instrument to pick up. The idea of a seemingly infinite amount of room for improvement may seem daunting to some, but for me it’s invigorating to know that there’s always another level I can reach.”

The former captain of his high school cross country team is running for UChicago this fall and also will be a part of the track team. Add in rigorous chemistry classes, a few RSOs and frequent trips to explore the city of Chicago, and Owens has a packed schedule.

“UChicago seems like it’d be a place where I can be the best version of myself. I can still be a musician, still do rigorous academics, still be on a sports team,” Owens added.

Ellen Chen has always been passionate about engineering and math but wanted to find a college where she could explore her other interests, including visual arts and architecture.

“I went to a high school that was very STEM-focused, and there wasn’t as much emphasis placed on liberal arts,” said Chen, who is from McLean, Virginia. “But at UChicago, there’s an equal and great emphasis placed on both.”

Last summer, Chen was a science and engineering apprentice at the Army Research Laboratory—an experience that allowed her to work one-on-one with a full-time researcher and study the practical applications of cascade lasers. She is excited by the potential opportunity to do similar research at UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory, especially as she eyes a potential major in molecular engineering.

“I have always loved physics—the scenarios and calculations can be so complex, but the final solution is so mathematically logical,” Chen said. “Through a field such as ME, I can apply what I love to solve real-world problems.”

Chen also is in the process of starting a business that would sell modular LEGO-style blocks that can be stacked to create temporary walls in apartment-style housing. She conceived the idea when visiting her cousin’s apartment in New York City, where she found options that were expensive and lacked variety.

“I came up with the idea of creating these blocks to build walls. There was a lot of demand for it I found...this is something that could really be possible,” Chen said.

But for now, her principal focus is UChicago’s Core curriculum, a rare chance to build on her diverse intellectual interests.

Isak Moon has been performing since he was four years old. His most notable act is a 7-foot-tall vaudeville clown named Godfrey Daniels, distinguished by a top hat, googly eyes and a droopy nose. That persona has earned him an unusual amount of attention—and afforded him some unique opportunities.

“Performance has definitely widened my world view; I’ve met such an array of incredibly interesting people and been part of groups who were instrumental in creating and sustaining other communities,” said Moon, who hails from Seattle.

He has performed at Seattle’s famed Moisture Festival, the world’s largest comedy/variete festival, as well as in Los Angeles and across the state of Washington. Lindy West, now an op-ed writer at The New York Times, called the act “one of the most effortlessly charming things I’ve ever seen,” and The Seattle Times hailed Godfrey as an “exquisite bit of circus artistry.”

For Moon, performing as Godfrey offers a chance to learn from and empower the communities in which he performs. Every summer, he travels with the nonprofit The New Old Time Chautauqua, which organizes shows, parades, and community service projects in underserved communities and Native American reservations across the United States and Canada.

“The experiences I have had working closely with Native American tribes throughout Washington, Idaho, Alaska, Montana and Canada have inspired me to seek social justice and do what I can to make the world a better place,” Moon said.

At UChicago, Moon hopes to study biology and nurture his interests in social justice by getting involved with the Institute of Politics. “Through the IOP I hope to see if I am interested in pursuing a career in social justice and research an overlap between social justice and biology,” he said.