It was 12:40 a.m. on a Saturday night when my friends and I decided to cut our losses and ditch the frat quad in an Uber since we weren’t having much fun. We all piled into the Toyota Camry to find our dejected moods unmatched by an overly exuberant driver named Anthony. When we told him we were headed home, Anthony couldn’t believe we were turning in when the night was still so young. I think he expected stumbling, drunk college students to tumble into the backseat, and we didn’t meet the level of entertainment he was hoping for. Instead, we were defeated and determined to simply go and get some sleep after failing to have a good time.
But Anthony completely turned our attitudes around when he gave us an inspirational speech about how college is the “one time in our lives when we can go out on a Saturday night and not have to worry about anything.” He told us not to take our freedom for granted and to live life in the moment. So we took his advice and changed our destination to an off-campus house where we hoped to turn our night around — all thanks to the influence of our party animal Uber driver!
Ride-sharing with strangers has become something of a routine for Northwestern students. While individually, we might take just a few rides per week, local Uber and Lyft drivers have to deal with Wildcats all the time. So what do they really think of us?
Khaliah Ferguson has been working as a part-time Uber driver for about two years now. While she hasn’t had any experience picking up a student from an off-campus frat party or a downtown club, the riders who have taken a trip in her car have revealed a defining aspect of Northwestern culture: our focus on academic. One passenger who stands out in her mind is a boy she picked up from the airport at night. He was very quiet – something Ferguson always finds to be uncomfortable, especially when the rider makes her feel like a chauffeur. (Take note – being cordial to your Uber or Lyft driver doesn’t go unnoticed!) But the silence quickly turned into an unforgettable experience when he asked a strange question.
“He requested that I put the light on in the car, at night, riding with the inside light on so he can read his book,” said Ferguson. “That was a first now that I think about it.” Despite the danger of driving with the light on, Ferguson agreed to the request, mostly because they were so close to campus by that point. “He wanted to focus on reading his book,” she recalled. “He was so focused.”
Ferguson has a daughter who is a Northwestern student, sophomore Briana Williams. Because she has a “Northwestern Family” sticker on the back of her car, Ferguson often strikes up conversations with any passengers who have an NU affiliation. She remembers one especially impressive student. “He had finished school pretty early. He was like 20-something and almost done with his PhD,” she said. “I loved being shocked by that. That's continuous hard work.” While the general assumption is that Uber and Lyft drivers see the worst of Northwestern students – from puking in the backseat to possibly even passing out – the truth is that sometimes, our over-ambitious tendencies shine through in the few minutes we spend in a stranger’s car.
Lyft driver Avelino Cortez even goes as far as saying Northwestern students are pretty great. He’s been driving around the Skokie and Evanston area for two weeks and says that students are “very nice. I have no complaints. They’re not even loud or obnoxious.” Cortez usually takes students from their dorms to nearby restaurants, theaters, or apartments in Rogers Park, so like Ferguson, he may not see the side of Northwestern that might turn a driver off. He asks students about their majors, career aspirations and favorite sports or vacation spots during rides. But “hot topics” like politics is an area he won’t touch. “Everybody has different viewpoints and the last thing you want is to have conflict or arguments in a short ride, in a very confined space like a car, so I avoid that,” Cortez said.
Aside from light conversation, this driver is willing to get deep. In his short Uber career, his most memorable story about a ride with a student was not about wrong turns or vomit but about a time he gave life advice. Cortez was driving a student to Chicago, who he thought seemed thoughtful and straightforward as she described her love for her poetry major. And she also seemed sick with a cold. So he praised her for finding her passion, and he suggested she take some Alka-Seltzer.“I equate it to a buffet,” he said. “I kind of put my experiences out there and you can choose to absorb whatever you think is going to help you and ignore whatever isn’t going to help you.”
In going out to recruit drivers for this story, we were expecting to find strange stories about drunk or rude students romping in Ubers during late-night escapades. We met a lot of otherwise kind people who didn’t drive around campus that much or just weren’t feeling the interview. But surprisingly, the people that agreed to an interview actually think Wildcats are all right. Some of our local drivers encourage us to try new things, from parties to Alka-Seltzer, and observe us at our most stressed moments. Now go out there and tip your driver! For real. They appreciate it. Also, don’t talk about politics.