Billy Choi ’21 Evokes “The Palpable Potential of Columbia”

Billy Choi '21 headshot
Billy Choi ’21 is a producer and songwriter based in Los Angeles.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

As an Angeleno since birth, taking my first steps in New York City felt like walking into a parallel dimension where the air was colder and the vibes warmer. This feeling was amplified as I walked through The Gates and witnessed Columbia in full for the first time. The halls of Butler Library echoed the centuries’ worth of academic history and research, all while active student hubs like Lerner and JJ’s Place made the College feel more like home. Put simply, I was always in a state of wonder. Perhaps this was in part due to the legacy of the walls that housed me. However, I was constantly in awe of my peers and their ambition. I was surrounded by brilliant minds in a city with no shortage of opportunities. It was like walking into a festival of ideas that had been in continuum for hundreds of years. My heart would feel simultaneously amazed yet terrified of the palpable potential of everything and everyone that surrounded me. I didn’t know it at the time, but the nerves I felt were a surefire sign that I was in the right place.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

My roommate, Shikhar, added me on Facebook before we even met in person. Though his profile was low-key and unassuming, I quickly learned that he was an incredible thinker who had interests similar to my own. Shikhar was a computer science major, but his familiarity with the humanities and philosophy made for nightly discussions on anything from Aristotle to George R.R. Martin. For two young adults, both trying to make it in a city as intimidating as New York, our dorm room served as a sanctuary from the constant hustle and bustle. I would eventually grow to love that noise, but when the city seemed overwhelming at times, our conversations grounded me like a warm cup of chamomile before bed.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

My introduction to the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures came in the form of daily Japanese lessons with my sensei. Although the subject material seemed simple at first glance, Tsuda Sensei took our small class through a journey of time, language and culture. “Japanese 1” wasn’t just about learning the language so that we could leverage it on our resumes and in job interviews. The class was an in-depth and nuanced introduction to the country’s culture through the lens of casual conversation and run-of-the-mill phrases used in daily life. I spent my summer that same year studying at Doshisha University in Kyoto. Even though I was in a new country, our Japanese classes covered everything from navigating the subway system to ordering at McDonald’s. To this end, EALAC and Tsuda Sensei fostered my love for not only Japan, but also for global cultures in general. Seeing another side of the world gave me the gift of perspective and, for that, I am forever grateful.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Right outside of Miller and Butler are these beautiful cherry blossom trees that bloom like pure magic during spring. Right when the ice begins to thaw on campus, hundreds of different hues propagate throughout our steps like pollen in the wind. Yet, among all those vibrant colors, the pink of Columbia’s cherry blossoms stand out like paint strokes on an incredible canvas. I’ve always loved walking along these trees. As the leaves begin to slowly populate the ground, simple walks around campus turn into hours-long reading sessions by a sea made entirely of pink leaves. During my final week on campus, the trees were in full bloom as if they were saying goodbye one last time before I moved back to California.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe on East 3rd Street often hosts open-mics for aspiring poets and performers. Even though I had shared my poetry in the past, the thought of performing at this venue terrified me as a student. Part of me was afraid that my poetry would be received poorly, but I was mostly petrified at the prospect of sharing my story with an audience full of hardened New Yorkers. Looking back, I was paralyzed on a baseless assumption I had of the city and its residents. Instead of thinking thoughts like “Who would want to listen to an emotional 19-year-old from L.A. perform spoken word?” I should’ve just done it because New Yorkers are some of the kindest and most hardworking people I know. Something about the city provokes constant self-introspection and exploration, and it follows that its residents are lovers of the arts. I’m sure that, though not everyone may have liked my poetry, I would have found a few kindred souls who resonated with me and my story had I continued to perform during college. I’ve met some of my closest friends through this exchange of art and our ideas, and I truly wish that I had done more of that. For creatives, it is imperative that you share your work when you are ready and find your people, even if you are young. Art is timeless, and the pursuit of it should be as well.