A Day in the Life at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Nihal is a tutor in Chicago specializing in Algebra tutoring, Pharmacology tutoring, Chemical Engineering tutoring, and many other subjects. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013. See what he had to say about his time at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

VT: Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike? 

Nihal: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, called “Illinois” by most students, is in a typical college town setting. The campus has a very accessible bus system that is especially useful during those brutal winter months. In the warmer seasons, however, students tend to forego the bus and ride their bikes or skateboards to class. It was not entirely uncommon to see a professor zip past you on a longboard heading to lecture! Getting around campus has become even easier over the years. Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have recently developed a bus app to view bus times and routes, as well as to plan trips in advance. The university and the local police department always ensure the safety of students through active monitoring, services such as SafeRides and SafeWalks, and freshman workshops with safety tips. Downtown Champaign also has an Amtrak station with daily trips to Chicago and other surrounding cities. There is not a strong need to have a car on campus, but it may be convenient as you get more comfortable with the town!

VT: How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants?

Nihal: During all of my courses, seeking out the advice or help of professors and teaching assistants was extremely beneficial when it came to exam or assignment questions. My professors highly encouraged office hour visits, individual appointments, and group study sessions. Yes, it is true that some professors may be very difficult to reach given their busy schedules, but there is always a teaching assistant or tutor who will make time for you. My advisers were also very available, either through set walk-in hours or appointments. I was very fortunate to have approachable and resourceful advisers who did not hesitate to help with scheduling, career advice, or even resume critiquing.

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students?

Nihal: The dorm life is one aspect that I miss tremendously about my college experience. The students I met during dorm life ended up being my closest friends. There is something very special about experiencing college with a close group of people, each going through similar transitions. Together, you get to try new things, good and bad—both a part of an enriched college experience. Over the last year or so, the university has totally revamped dorm life, with newly built freshman housing, living-learning communities, and dining halls that offer stations of healthy, freshly prepared food. Each housing community has its own student committee, which organizes hall-wide events like fundraisers, food fairs, and carnival-like festivals. They are great ways to get involved during your freshman year, as well as to build relationships with staff and fellow peers! 

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? What did you study and why? Did the university do a good job supporting your particular area of study?

Nihal: Being a large university system, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is well represented by a wide variety of majors and programs. Over the last few decades, the university has become well known for its Engineering and Business majors, each holding reputable national rankings. I chose Chemical Engineering, a program that is related to the College of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. My fellow students and I were very fortunate to have the best of both worlds; we had complete access to resources within the College of Engineering, as well as our own laboratories, advisers, and funding from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you will have the chance to meet and interact with a diverse population of students, each pursuing their own dreams. The university provides the tools, skills, and resources for each and every student to follow his or her career path.

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman? Does Greek life play a significant role in the campus social life?

Nihal: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has one of the largest Greek systems in the nation. It is a wonderful way for students to find their social niches within such a large student body. After establishing a social life early on in college, students in Greek life are able to connect with alumni via their respective fraternities or sororities when developing their career paths and professional networks.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has molded freshman living into a holistic experience with access to hundreds of clubs and sports teams. There certainly is no dearth of opportunities to make friends and meet people from all over the world.

I was fortunate to have a very tight-knit group of dorm-mates during my freshman year. Many of us were from other states and even countries, so we were quick to relate to each other as new Illinois residents. As a result, the majority of us did not have a strong need to join Greek life. The university does a wonderful job of ensuring that for those who may find it difficult to create those networks, there is a myriad of social opportunities.

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? Do many reputable companies recruit on campus? 

Nihal: Champaign-Urbana is located in the heart of both the state of Illinois and the Midwest region. Being only a few hours from cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, the university attracts the attention of a long list of reputable companies. Career fairs take place throughout the year, allowing students the opportunity to interact with recruiters during their career searches. As a student, I was particularly impressed with the vast resources the university provided for my career aspirations. The Career Center is probably one of the most underrated resources for students. There are services for resume critiquing, mock interviews, career advice, and alumni networking. Campus recruitment and career services are two features that as a current alumnus, I feel proud of and truly fortunate to have within my reach. It is comforting to know that the university goes above and beyond in providing for its students.  

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, the student union, and dorm lounges? Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious?

Nihal: Again, being such a large campus, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has numerous facilities, all of which are easily accessible to students for individual or group study sessions. Freshman year was a great time to explore and find that specific library, computer lab, or room where you could quietly study, complete assignments, or participate in interactive study groups. Each student has his or her own distinctive study techniques. The university, as a result, has over 20 libraries across campus with unique features that cater to every student. It is true that the more popular locations tend to get busy during final exam times. However, with a list to choose from, there are rarely times where a student is unable find a quiet place to study.

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus? 

Nihal: Champaign-Urbana is a small town that is mostly comprised of the large campus and student body. Located about three hours, by car, south of Chicago, there are many opportunities to travel to the city for a weekend or holiday break. As an international student, I relished the chance to go home with friends and explore the city. In the Champaign-Urbana area, my friends and I made sure to get a taste of what the towns have to offer. We attended sporting events such as football, basketball, or volleyball games, participated in intramural sports, watched theater and orchestra productions, ran half-marathons, visited apple and pumpkin orchards, attended music and food festivals, and volunteered with community service outreach programs. Champaign and Urbana both have their respective downtown areas where students can experience festivals, concerts, and restaurants in a quaint and chic area.  

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes?

Nihal: The school consists of over 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students. With a large student population, many students tend to believe that it is increasingly difficult to find one’s place in the university community. However, with a diverse student body arises a wide spread of activities, clubs, and organizations that students can join based on their individual interests. I was extremely happy to find a core group of students who shared my same interests and hobbies. Over the course of your undergraduate education, you will also begin to develop close relationships with those peers who are in your major or program. By my senior year, I was so proud to have built strong friendships with most of the students in the Chemical Engineering Class of 2013.

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

Nihal: I struggled in my first Organic Chemistry class during my sophomore year. It was not the first time I was exposed to the material, but at the college level, the course was fast, challenging, and rigorous. I found it difficult to create that sort of mindset that allowed me to think analytically like an organic chemist. The programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign really develop and test your ability to think critically.

Rather than simply memorize theoretical topics, a subject like Organic Chemistry became a means of “thinking outside the box” and applying oneself. I knew I had to seek help with my assignments and examinations.

Dr. Steven Zimmerman was our lecturer for the course and also the Chemistry department head at the time. What drew me to his teaching methods was that he understood that the subject was difficult. As opposed to simply lecturing, Dr. Zimmerman guided students to success in the course. He held daily office hours, was approachable when setting up individual meetings, and provided various resources to ensure individualized learning of the subject. He knew how to pinpoint the potential in an individual and how to foster a desire to learn and mature within the classroom. I really owe my success in the course to Dr. Zimmerman, and I am ever grateful for his guidance.

The faculty in your program, the university staff, your peers and fellow Fighting Illini are essential characters in your development and growth as not only a student, but also a citizen of a diverse, wholesome community.

Welcome to the family, future Fighting Illini!

Check out Nihal’s tutoring profile.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.