While at the College, Garcetti served on the Columbia College Student Council; was president of the National Student Coalition Against Harassment; volunteered for the Harlem Restoration Project and Habitat for Humanity; founded Columbia Urban Experience (CUE), a pre-orientation program that encourages students to engage in the community and the city; and co-wrote and performed in three years of the Varsity Show. He was the Class Day speaker in 2015, and a John Jay Award recipient in 2018.
What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I was 17, from the “other” big city in America, determined to feel what living in the Big Apple was all about and thinking about a life in theater/film. Suzanne Vega BC’81’s “Tom’s Diner” had come out the year before, so I think I expected to see her on Broadway singing on the sidewalk, and I thought my life would be full of existential moments that were as boring and exciting as that song. I didn’t do COOP, but thought it would have been nice to have an urban experience to help introduce the city to us and us to the city (with Wah Chen ’92, Tomoko Yamamoto ’92, GSAPP’02 and Yoshi Maruyama SEAS’92, this became the seed for CUE). I remember being overwhelmed by all the new people, the huge city, the intensity and excitement of it all, and I couldn’t wait to dive into the Core Curriculum. After going through the drama of Orientation, I quickly started to get to know my fellow students and the community — the shopowners, the New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, the personalities swirling around us in the city. My Southern California blood slowly started to thicken as the days got colder and colder during my first East Coast winter.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
I lived on the 12th floor of Carman. My roommate had gone to school in Southern California so we bonded quickly, but our suitemates were football players who always had the team over. They were a lot of fun and adopted us as nerdy, smaller mascots, and they chewed a lot of tobacco (“dip”) and spit it into cups around our suite. I remember mostly trying to prevent the dip cups from spilling on our beds. The rest of the hallway was amazing and was full of some of my closest friends even today. I remember watching the Dodgers win the World Series while in the lounge with an old television — the last time the Dodgers won it all. I also remember the Seinfeld-esque nature of all the floors at Carman, where familiar characters would pop in and disappear, saying something quintessentially unique and meaningless and entertaining and profound all at once. It was probably the most fun living situation I’ve ever been a part of. At least in retrospect ...
What class do you most remember and why?
I had some extraordinary classes — Judith Russell GS’79, GSAS’92’s “Urban Politics Seminar,” where I spent a year looking at the diversity of the New York City Planning Department and community-based urban planning; Carlton Long ’84’s classes on the politics of free speech and the politics of affirmative action, which I took in the midst of the Anita Hill hearings and where Professor Long asked me to help organize national voices in defense of her courageous stand; and taking American government from the great Charles V. Hamilton, co-author of Black Power. But probably today the class I remember most was Wallace Broecker ’53, GSAS’58’s “Design and Maintenance of a Habitable Planet,” which was ahead of its time in explaining a warming Earth and its consequences. If the world had listened to Professor Broecker’s diagnosis earlier, we could have done so much to preserve this earth and our quality of life. I hope it is not too late for this planet and for our children, but that class sent me down a pathway that inspired me to make Los Angeles the biggest city in America to go carbon-neutral and to found and chair Climate Mayors, a group of more than 400 American cities that are working to implement the Paris Climate Accord and to help preserve human health and survival in our lifetimes.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
St. Paul’s Chapel. I had a friend whose work-study job was to sit in the chapel late at night, and once she let me come in and play the Aeloian-Skinner organ with no one in the chapel. It was an incredible experience. I jammed for what seemed like half of the evening, and it transported me away from the noise and chaos of the city into the calm of the Columbia campus. Living in New York was constantly an experience of getting lost in the city and lost in the campus — from finding a way down into the tunnels underneath campus to walking into the old Casa Italiana and discovering a place you had walked by hundreds of times without seeing the beauty inside.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I have few, if any, regrets about my college experience. I was able to row crew, perform in and compose the Varsity Show, serve in student government, organize against sexual and racial harassment and assault, intern as a human rights researcher, build homes in Harlem, join a co-ed fraternity, quit a co-ed fraternity, advocate for LGBT rights and for people living with AIDS, take over buildings to preserve need-blind admissions and have a lot of fun in between with incredible people. I learned how to screw up, how to make up, how to love, how to listen, how to find my own voice, and how to work on navigating the worlds of ideas and action. Maybe I would have picked a better number in the housing lottery (I picked the last number of the entire lottery at the end of my first year) but I don’t look at my Columbia years with much regret.