What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
Aw, man. Anyone who met me in the first few weeks will tell you that I was agonizingly loud and annoying. I was so eager to meet as many people as possible and find friends who could bond with me over my obsessions with the English Premier League, United States federalism, weird alternative comedians and Drake. I had come from conquering my high school (like literally everyone else), and felt like a million bucks about it. I felt like I had so much to say and share, and thankfully it didn’t take me too long to recognize that at Columbia — everyone had something marvelously interesting to share about themselves, and that I would gain a lot more by just shutting up and listening. I also had a terrible faux-hawk that I insisted on sporting until late into my freshman year. Well, maybe it wasn’t so terrible. Thinking about bringing it back.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
I met Mike Berkowitz ’17, SEAS’17, GSAS’23 during our interview for Columbia at a Southern New Jersey law firm (thanks for setting it all up, John Connell ’78). Afterward, we were chatting on Facebook and thought it would be cool and convenient to maybe live together. Little did we know that was the start of a roommate relationship that would last for four years, and a friendship that will last for life. We shared a Carman 10 double, which ironically ended up being the largest room we shared over four years, in terms of square footage. We covered every inch of the concrete walls with posters reflecting our quirks and nerdy personalities, and we always kept our door open to anyone who might want to come and hang out, or have one of the dozens of chocolate bars we bought from the Hershey’s store in Times Square. We clicked so well and had some amazing times in the ensuing years, but there was nothing like the pure whimsy and chaos that living in Carman brought to our lives. We were super close to our suitemate John Davenport ’17, who spent an unreasonable amount of time on the Xbox 360 we had in our room. OK, I didn’t mean to throw John under the bus there — we all could have been more attentive to our Lit Hum reading rather than running yet another game of FIFA.
What class do you most remember and why?
Honestly, too many to name. I was #blessed to be able to take not one, but three courses with the legendary Eric Foner ’63, GSAS’69, which was an absolute dream for me as an American Civil War nerd. One of those classes was a seminar that challenged undergraduates to produce original research on the intersection between Columbia’s history and slavery, and the paper I wrote for the seminar remains my proudest achievement at Columbia.
Though I really struggled with it, a lot of lessons from Sunil Gulati GSAS’86’s “Principles of Economics” course have remained with me — a critical one is that I was not cut out to be an attentive lecture participant at 8:40 a.m., plus a slightly more important one about incorporating humanistic empathy in your approach to economics.
The class I remember most vividly was the seminar “Freedom and Citizenship in the United States,” led by Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum Roosevelt Montás ’96, GSAS’04. Seminars are usually 10–15 participants, meaning you can slip through the cracks and hide behind others if you aren’t up to speed with the reading, but our seminar was just six people — you had no option but to be prepared, since it would be painfully obvious if you were not. I looked forward to our time on Thursdays to dissect essential texts of the American philosophical landscape, from Hawthorne to Students for a Democratic Society. I remember every person in that seminar clearly for their introspective contributions, and our discussions greatly shaped my current outlook on the American character and experience. Professor Montás is a straight-up intellectual, and was an incredible seminar leader. Anyone who has an investment in the tenets of the Core Curriculum would gain so much from just 10 minutes of conversation with him.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
Whenever I needed to stop fooling around, push away all distractions and get the job done, I would wake up early (as aforementioned, not my strong suit) and camp out for one of the mezzanine study spaces in the C.V Starr East Asian Library in Kent. There was a laid-back, erudite quality to the study space in Kent that I felt was lacking in the stuffy, crowded, coffee-tinged air of Butler. I wrote some of my most crucial papers and take-home exams in the desks overlooking the ground floor of the library. My other favorite spot was the American Studies seminar room in the Center for American Studies. It’s a tiny room overlooking Amsterdam and 116th, and any more than eight people would make the room feel crowded. The walls are all lined with books from every facet of American literature and history. When I imagine the kinds of dream features I want in my own house one day, I think of that room. What both of these spaces have in common are wooden desks that made any work you placed upon them feel supremely important.
When I did have time for fooling around, I retain a special place in my heart for the stage in Roone Arledge Auditorium, under whose hot lights I performed in a few Class Acts, two XMAS productions and one very special Varsity Show.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
To do anything over would be to relinquish the invaluable lessons I gained from screwing it up the first time. I wish I would have given myself a little more room to breathe and just veg out, but at the same time I wish I could have joined more organizations and taken more classes. I wish I knew from the get-go that student government is not the end-all-be-all for making positive change at Columbia. I wish I would have spent less time searching desperately for romance, but then again I learned a lot about myself and love along the way. I wish I would have mentored more and sought out mentoring. The best things that happened to me at Columbia came as a result of complete randomness and dumb luck — I cannot control those things, but I know now that I can control those situations through which I exposed myself to the randomness and luck that made my Columbia experience magical. If I could do it over again, I would have thrown out my complex four-year plan on the first day, and let the experience unfold more naturally.
I feel to do Columbia correctly, you need to let it smash you into pieces. Then, with the lessons learned, you have to put yourself back together, but not necessarily in the same way that you were before. I got smashed to bits by my Columbia experience, and it was the best thing to happen to me yet.