By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Chris Strong

At 8 a.m. one morning last spring, Jordan Smith slipped quietly into a Portuguese class taught by Senior Lecturer Ana Maria Lima. Smith, then a high school senior on a visit to the University of Chicago, says he needed to see real students and teachers for himself.

“There were only 20 people in the class,” he says, still impressed by the memory. “It was totally interactive. I was intrigued that students could talk to their professors like colleagues.” The lively students and accessible professor made him feel at home.

Sitting in on the same class was Nate Brooks, a basketball teammate of Smith’s from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago. Brooks was equally captivated by the visit. Both young men soon made a surprise announcement: They would turn down multiple offers to play basketball at Division I schools, and would instead study at the University of Chicago.

“Not many of my friends understood my decision,” says Brooks. Like Brooks, Smith says many of his friends thought he was ignoring his potential as an athlete. But the people who knew him well told him it was a perfect fit.

“My family was really proud of me for getting in, and my teachers told me I had made a great decision,” Smith says.

Many students in the undergraduate College’s Class of 2016 were drawn to the University in the same way, by the shared adventure of the classroom. Among the students joining the University this fall are an NAACP Award-winning creative writer, an aspiring historian who has already published three books, an international chess champion, a former NHL hockey player, and a Marine who served as a linguist in Afghanistan. The Class of 2016 also is the most diverse class in College history, with record numbers of students of color, and students from 40 different countries.

“Chicago offers a form and style of liberal education that is both challenging and deeply satisfying to students,” says John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “The incoming class exemplifies the talented and intellectually curious students who are attracted to the University. Altogether they are a remarkable group, and we are deeply proud to have them join our community.”

Choosing the more challenging path

Chicago sports journalists took notice when Brooks and Smith chose UChicago over other options, calling it a “recruiting coup” for the Maroons. But the two students’ academic priorities made the choice easy.

“There aren’t a lot of schools for students like this, who are dedicated to getting a world-class education and also want to play basketball at a high level,” says Mike McGrath, the Maroons men’s basketball coach.

Beyond academic opportunities, something about the UChicago campus just felt right, Brooks says. “It was a diverse group of people who weren’t afraid to be themselves. I knew that there was a place for me at this school,” he says.

Finding a place for himself is a task Brooks always took seriously. He grew up in North Lawndale, a Chicago neighborhood where basketball is a rite of passage. “I’ve been playing ball since I could walk,” Brooks says.

But he chose a mix of athletic and intellectual challenges. He studied hard and earned a spot at Whitney Young, a selective public high school that admits only the top-performing students from the city. Brooks and Smith were classmates and teammates at Whitney Young for four years. They learned to balance a full class load with a full schedule of basketball games and practices. Brooks finished his assignments on the long train and bus rides to and from school.

He spent three years on the varsity basketball team, traveling around the city and the country for games and playoffs, including a finish as state runner-up in 2010. During the summers he worked as a counselor at a basketball camp for children.

His mother, Sandra Brooks, recalls the day that Nate unplugged every cable from all of his videogame systems. “He had too much to do,” she says. “Going forward, he decided that he didn’t even want the temptation.”

By his senior year, Nate had become a star on the court. He’d also aced the ACT. For college, Sandra Brooks knew her son was hoping for a chance to put his academic accomplishments to their best use.

“I told him to close his eyes and think about what he wanted to be doing in 10 years, and then find a school that would get him there,” she says.

A different kind of winning record

Putting basketball first could have been especially tempting for Jordan Smith. With a powerful 6-foot-3 frame, the sharp-shooting guard was considered a strong recruiting prospect in the competitive Chicago-area basketball scene.

Although many college programs actively pursued Smith, he took a cautionary lesson from the experiences of his friends and former teammates who focused on basketball in college. With the amount of time that basketball eats up, he says, “a lot of my friends didn’t get an education.”

“They came out of college without knowing how to do anything else and unable to get a job,” he says. “I don’t want that.”

Smith found UChicago’s Office of Career Advancement during his College visit. He and director Meredith Daw discussed ways in which UChicago prepares students for successful careers in a broad range of fields. “I saw statistics about how much easier it is to find a great job after getting an education at the University of Chicago, and it left a big impression on me,” he says. He hasn’t fully decided on a course of study, but has been considering the UChicago economics program. “I hope Meredith Daw will continue to be an influence on my time in the College,” Smith says.

Smith also met a few of the student-athletes on the basketball team, and got a taste of how they balanced their studies and sports. “They all seemed to have their priorities straight,” Smith says. “One guy was in the library for the entire three days that I was on campus.”

Brooks and Smith learned that the team was most famous for its accomplishments off the court. Starting with future astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1910, the men’s and women’s basketball teams have produced five Rhodes Scholars over the decades.

With a record like that, the two friends knew they had found their home team.

Originally published on September 26, 2012.