Matthew Cascio ’95 Had “A Place and Purpose” on Campus

Matthew Cascio
Matthew Cascio ’95 is a digital strategist and executive director at the American Red Cross, where he leads digital transformation in support of its mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. He has worked in a similar capacity with other mission-driven organizations and believes in the power of technology to improve and save people’s lives. Cascio is a global citizen who speaks several languages and travels often, and puts people and relationships first when designing products that serve those in need.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was a straight-A student from a poor public school system who then struggled academically at a bucolic private New England boarding school. Nonetheless, I was proud of having worked hard and overachieved academically and emotionally, having gone through the crucible of finding my character and being prepared for Ivy League academics. That confident feeling lasted about a month. Even though I chose the College over other options precisely because of the NYC backdrop, I don’t think I was fully prepared for the scale of sensations that Columbia and New York would offer. I wanted to be challenged by the setting, and that challenge struck me full force.

I was excited, anxious and overwhelmed in my first few days, preparing for classes to start, moving into my dorm, meeting new people, saying goodbye to my parents, but there were a couple of things that helped me settle in.

First, I arrived on campus early to play football. We had two weeks of camp where all we did was spend time together as a team, sunrise to sunset. That gave my schedule structure, which led to predictability, which led to familiarity and confidence in my new setting. I remember feeling like I had a place and purpose on campus once Orientation began.

Second, Orientation was very helpful. I remember participating in small-group activities and considering those people my first friends (outside of the football team), which further made me feel welcome and like I had my own space on campus.

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

Along with many first-years, I lived in the venerable Carman Hall, though I was placed on the Mezzanine level, which was a half-story up from the lobby, consisting of only four first-year suites. Like many of Carman’s lower floors, a lot of rooms were assigned to Jewish students whom I gathered requested walk-up accommodations to make avoiding the elevator on Shabbat a little easier on their stair-climbing muscles. So my first on-campus living situation consisted of predominately Jewish neighbors alongside an eclectic mix of SEAS students, a suite of Indian, Korean and Pacific Northwest women, a long-haired guitar god pre-med student, a good old boy from Iowa, my roommate — whom I requested to be placed with because we met back home in Massachusetts — and me. That delightful and talented crowd pretty much sums up the rest of my rich and diverse cultural experience at Columbia.

We spent a lot of time together being creative and enjoying life. Within a few weeks we had invented a hallway game called Mezz Ball to pass the time late at night, which consistently drew players and fans from other floors. We briefly considered charging admission to supplement our dining plan fees. By October, our motley crew had joined the Simchat Torah celebration on College Walk, where we joined arms in a circle, danced and sang praises in joyful voices and with love in our hearts for the start of a new life together.

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

The elective Core classes were my favorites, in particular two semesters of Eastern religion. Both classes consisted of a wonderful mix of non-traditional and traditional students. There were often older students in class, whose experience and stories I found insightful, like listening to older siblings or aunts and uncles sharing their advice and learnings. I recall one student who had paused his program to live in Nepal as a monk, only to return to finish his degree. I got lots of wonderful stories and recipes from him!

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

I really enjoyed the outdoor spaces on campus and nearby. That’s not something I expected at a school in a big city. My most memorable moments occurred in the relative quiet of sitting on Low Steps in the late evening watching the activity on College Walk, or spending time on the grounds of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, or walking to International House for my work-study job, passing by the Tai Chi club practicing in Sakura Park or having a meal on the benches at Grant’s Tomb. In retrospect, I think those places and moments gave me an opportunity to pause and reflect on what otherwise was a fast-moving, urban routine.

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

Looking back, all my regrets about missing out on something seem relatively trivial. I could have spent more time taking advantage of the city, or more time studying, or more time building relationships, or more time doing hundreds of other things for which there is never enough time. To that point, while I truly enjoyed spending my entire junior year studying in Spain, perhaps I should have cut that time down to one semester so I could have spent more time experiencing all the enriching activities I enjoyed at alma mater.