Christina Monnen ’20 Buoyed by the Swim Requirement

Monnen headshot
Christina Monnen ’20 is the associate researcher for NOVA, the award-winning PBS science documentary series. As an undergraduate, Monnen interned at NOVA and Cell Press, becoming an advocate for science communication and education — steps that are crucial for bringing academic science into the public eye. Today, she spends her days fact-checking content for NOVA broadcast films, digital videos, and podcast episodes. To date, she has contributed to dozens of science documentaries, including four Emmy-nominated films and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia winner (Decoding COVID-19). Monnen studied environmental biology and psychology at the College; for her senior thesis, she investigated song learning in cross-tutored juvenile finches with the Woolley Lab.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Optimistic! I was full of excitement and hope, and I’m grateful to say that I didn’t lose that enthusiasm during the course of my college experience. However, I was also a little naive. In high school, I learned how to work hard. But the College taught me to prioritize specific classes and work experiences that would help me build my career, even before I graduated.

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

I lived on Furnald 1 and absolutely loved it — even the sirens at all hours! From the first day, my neighbors and NSOP group were my “squad,” and many of us are still close today. They made me feel like we were tackling our first year together, as a team, and I feel fortunate to have found such a supportive peer community so early on.

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

The swim requirement. From the moment I applied to Columbia, I remember thinking, “This one’s going to be a problem.” As a child, I lived in fear of getting water in my eyes, so I’d never really learned how to swim. My last semester on campus, I registered for “Beginner Swim.” Sleepless nights ensued. What if my goggles leaked? What if I drowned?

Sure enough, the morning of my first lesson, I’d worked myself up into quite a state, but my wonderful instructor was patient and understanding and let me take things at my own pace. By the second week, I felt comfortable dipping my head underwater. (Wow!) And by mid-semester, I was actually excited for swim class.

My other Core classes changed my understandings of morality, ethics, perception and reality, but Beginner Swim extinguished a fear that had followed me since childhood. As silly as it sounds, I now move through life as a more confident person because of it.

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

Walking — not strolling — was one of my favorite things to do in Manhattan. Almost every evening, no matter the weather, I took a regular route around Morningside Heights. Instead of losing whole nights fixating on that one problem set or stressing over some looming exam, I used my walks to ground myself in this incredible university where thousands of other students had gone before me. Of course, I had a few favorite stops — the lamppost piers in front of Low, the 20/20 bridge, the benches in front of Furnald — but my favorite thing was just walking in and around the quiet campus.

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

There were definitely a few classes that tested my resolve. However, I don’t regret even the most challenging ones because they taught me patience, determination and some really awesome fun facts — truly useful in my job. For example, did you know that there are glacial erratics in Central Park? After seeing them on a field trip with “Solid Earth” professors Sidney Hemming and Steven Goldstein ’76, GSAS’86, I helped identify them on a Central Park shoot for NOVA’s Decoding the Weather Machine!

Nonetheless, as I’m sure everyone in the Class of 2020 would say, we would have wanted just a little more time together. Although I finished my degree right before the pandemic, I had hoped to return for Commencement to celebrate my classmates’ achievements. Once it’s safer, I hope we can all do just that!