College Helped Erik Nook ’12 Be “More Clear and Comfortable”

Erik Nook_cropped
Erik Nook ’12 is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, where he studies emotion language in youth anxiety. Originally from Iowa (though he grew up in South Africa and Australia), Nook graduated from the College with a degree in psychology, then was a lab manager at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. He earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Harvard and completed a pre-doctoral clinical internship at Weill Cornell Medical College. Nook’s research is broadly focused on how language and emotion interact; he will begin as an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton starting next July.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Looking back, I can see so much of myself that has changed. At 19, I was extremely nervous about what the future would bring, fairly unsure of myself around my peers, mostly closeted and deeply unsure of what I believed spiritually. I was still reeling from admitting to myself just three months before starting college that I was gay — an admission that had rocked me and my conservative Iowan family. Fortunately, my years in the Columbia community helped me grow to be more clear and comfortable with my sexuality, more confident and less anxious. But I also see a lot in common between my first-year self and who I am now. I’ve always had a deep attachment to my ethics (caring for others, working diligently, speaking the truth), and even then I had a near-infinite amount of energy for pursuing my passions.

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

I remember my friends very clearly, especially the groups I lived with: Barry Weinberg ’12, Sarah Dion ’12, Nailah Robinson ’13, Raquel Villagra ’12, Jessica Greenberg ’12, Nicole Lopez ’12 and Omolara Williams. These folks filled my days with such joy and support! I remember being so well taken care of by our RA, Sara Vogel ’09, and all the ways we “lived and learned” together. And how can I forget the early-morning gen chem classes, the late night calc p-sets and the time I brought my knitting to Obama’s debate on campus?

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

I enjoyed the Core very much, and there are many memories that come to mind. In Lit Hum, I remember the thrill of realizing that we were debating ancient texts in a classroom full of brilliant and diverse perspectives. In Art Hum and Music Hum, I remember learning how to detect artistic motifs in the world around me and trace them back to previous times. In Global Core, with Professor Michael Como, I remember learning ancient East Asian debates about whether language allows us to “discover” or “construct” our systems of natural categories, a philosophical question that enthralled me so much that I applied it to the field of emotion in my honors thesis (now published).

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

It has to be Butler’s reference room. I spent so many hours there reading, thinking and writing. In that room, I stressed over papers that had to get done in too few hours, excitedly made insights that sprang from psychology textbooks, and felt the thrill of preparing the first draft of my honors thesis presentation — as well as the joy of storming through it with candy and music during exam week senior year. It’s a gorgeous room full of memories, and when I visit campus I always try to spend time there.

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

I wish I could hear a whisper in my ear from my present self, saying “It’s all going to be OK.” I spent many nights worrying over so many things: My sexuality, my career, classes, friends, the future, family ... Looking back, I know those times spent fretting sometimes helped me push toward the outcomes I sought, but I also know that my anxiety often just weighed on me unnecessarily. So often the catastrophic futures our mind imagines never come to be, and if I can’t go back and tell myself that, maybe by reading this you can come to find a little peace in my stead.