Courtesy Los Angeles Times
What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
Unsophisticated. I grew up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania and graduated from a conservative Catholic high school. Starting at the College was like stepping onto a treadmill set to sprint. My first night in the dorm, there was a floor meeting about safe sex, and two upper-class students demonstrated the proper way to use a dental dam. My classmates seemed years older than I. I marveled at what they did and said and wore, where they’d been and how confident they seemed.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
I lived on Carman 7. Fifty-something teenagers from every background imaginable, each room an odd couple. Every night people clustered on the grungy hall carpet debating politics — it was an election year — and religion and class and race. I learned there what is probably my most important Columbia lesson: Arguing about ideas is not rude or discourteous. It’s actually a sign of respect to try to change someone’s mind, just as it is let someone try to change yours.
What class do you most remember, and why?
American lit classes taught by my advisor, Andrew Delbanco. He often talked about the moral struggle between good and evil, a concept that didn’t get a lot of airtime in my other classes. I remember one bleak afternoon in Hamilton Hall, he theorized that the horror in Edgar Allen Poe’s works reflected slavery without ever mentioning it. That evil was so profound, he said, that it permeated the soul of every man and woman living in America at that time. He said we should ask ourselves how the injustices tolerated in our own day, such as the homeless sleeping on Broadway, crept into our psyches. I still think about that a lot.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
The Steps. Sitting there with my friends, laughing and talking, it seemed like everything was possible. I got to walk up those steps last spring for the Pulitzer ceremony and it felt like high-fiving an old friend.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I wish I could take the Core again as a fully functioning adult who isn’t perpetually sleep-deprived and obsessing (that much) over unimportant things.