As the Class of 2026 joins the University of Chicago community, six first-year students in the College share stories about their diverse upbringings, myriad of interests and aspirations for their time in Hyde Park.
Reece Baker finished second in Kansas’ high school state pole vaulting competition last spring, and aspires to reach a national ranking at the collegiate level.
As class valedictorian in Lansing, Kan., Baker brings more than just athletic skills to campus, and is looking forward to all of the academic challenges the College has to offer.
“UChicago is one of the most prestigious schools not only in the United States, but in the world, and being privileged enough to be accepted here was a true honor,” she said.
Baker overcame significant adversity to reach where she is today. On July 11, 2019, at the age of 15, she was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.
Her tumor had spread along the whole length of her right lung, wrapped around her esophagus and was starting to move down her left lung. To treat a tumor that had quickly spread across her lungs, she started the first of what would eventually be 50 rounds of chemotherapy, as well as a myriad of steroids and medication.
After three months of treatment and two years of monitoring, Baker’s cancer is now in full remission.
“Coming from a strong military family I became extremely resilient, focused and disciplined,” she said. “I feel as though those attributes helped shape who I am and what I stand for.”
Outside of her athletic pursuits, Baker said she enjoys reading books by UChicago alum Kurt Vonnegut, as well as challenging herself with online French courses. She also hopes to pursue research in pharmaceutical oncology.
“Surviving cancer has prompted me to live life to the fullest and never let a single opportunity to slip through my fingers,” she said. “I am blessed to be a part of UChicago, and I appreciate all of the generous donors who made this opportunity possible.”
For as long as he can remember, Rishi Basu has been fascinated by cars. Influenced by his father, also a car enthusiast, he grew up on Top Gear UK and Car&Driver magazines and even learned mat using his favorite models’ horsepower and torque figures.
Basu’s childhood interest has evolved into a large part of his identity—one that has led him to uncover his deep passion for engineering.
During the gap year he took after high school, Basu worked for a year as a software engineering intern for Nobias Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical startup in the Bay Area, where he helped develop a machine learning platform for drug discovery. Before that internship started, he worked on the sales floor at a car dealership, where he sold 28 vehicles in two months and was in the top half of the dealership’s sales board.
Spending significant time away from home helped Basu learn the skills he needed to navigate living independently. Those skills proved useful when he began working on his first car: a 2004 Volvo C70 HPT Convertible he bought in Santa Cruz, Calif., that he used to commute to work at Nobias.
With the help of a local independent Volvo shop in Sunnyvale, Calif., and some friends at Stanford, Basu learned everything he could about the vehicle as he discovered issues and made performance upgrades.
“The process of learning and performing DIY repairs was frustrating at many times, but gradually, I grew more confident,” he said. “I realized that owning a car and giving it care (and perhaps some tasteful modifications) lets you build a bond with it similar to anything else we put effort into—relationships, work, our homes and projects of all kinds.”
Basu said his gap year was transformative. Over a calendar year, he lived in four different places, had roommates ranging from 27 to 72 years old, made friends in “the most random ways,” fell in love with San Francisco and discovered a bit about what makes him truly happy in “this great adventure that is life.”
“I truly think that more students should explore taking a gap year before college. Giving yourself the freedom to fill a chunk of unstructured time however you’d like can open up so many potential opportunities,” he said. “My last fifteen months were a gift and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”
For the past four years, Alexander Bilochenko was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, as part of his service to the U.S. Navy. It was an experience that taught him the importance of teamwork and helping others.
“Despite political, religious, economic, ethnic, gender and other various differences, we learned how to come together and accomplish our mission,” Bilochenko said.
Bilochenko has traveled the world throughout his life – he was born in Ukraine, immigrated to Arizona at age 10 and started serving in the U.S. Navy in 2016, later visiting multiple Southeast Asian countries with his fellow sailors. He’s looking forward to spending the next four years in Chicago.
While deployed, Bilochenko read books by current and former UChicago professors Steven Levitt, Richard Thaler and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He said he especially enjoys listening to Freakonomics Radio, a spin-off of the book that Levitt co-authored with the same name.
"As my military obligation neared its end, I did a lot of soul-searching and decided that it was time to join the intellectual giants who had already taught me so much," he said.
With his naval contract scheduled to end in October, Bilochenko applied to UChicago, drawn to its nationally top-ranked Veteran Scholars Program, as well as the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics and Booth School of Business. He became even more steadfast in his decision after seeing UChicago’s support of the Ukrainian community following the Russian invasion.