Take Five with Jeremy Workman ’94

Jeremy Workman ’94 is a documentary filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn. His critically acclaimed film, The World Before Your Feet, about Matt Green’s mission to walk every block of New York City, was released in November. (Watch it tonight!). He is currently working on his new documentary, Lily Topples The World, about 20-year-old domino toppling sensation and YouTube star Lily Hevesh.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Oh man, are you trying to remind me of what a dork I was? Behind my cool surfer-guy veneer, I was basically terrified. I couldn’t believe how smart everyone was. I was constantly in fear they’d all figure out I was a fraud. I even worried that I’d fail the damn swim test. But after a couple of weeks, I found my footing and felt really embraced by the other students. It was the first time in my life I was exposed to so many unique and interesting peers, and after those first bouts of intimidation, I felt connected in a way that I never had before. At the end of the day, a school really is about its people, and my fellow first-years were some of the best I had encountered at that point in my life. Oh, and I discovered that pretty much everyone was worried they’d fail the swim test.

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

I remember almost every detail of my Carman 11th-floor dorm room! The lovely cinderblock walls. My complicated love-hate relationship with the ROLM phone. The odd plastic key card, which I was able to replicate using cardboard. The rumors of found dead bodies and stolen plutonium. It was such a memorable year! I think that Carman was such a crucible for us first-years — here we all were sharp and curious students representing so many ethnicities, diverse groups and modes of thought … not to mention being in the most famous dorm at the best school in the country’s greatest city!

What class do you most remember and why?

Lots! Richard Locke ’62’s English Lit classes were pretty mind-blowing. Eric Foner ’63, GSAS’69’s “American Radical Tradition” had me ready to take to the streets. I loved my advanced chemistry class, where I eked out a C and realized that being a filmmaker sounded more fun than being a doctor. I took “Feminist Texts” at Barnard and was the only male in a class of 20 — that was memorable. But my Crime and Punishment seminar with master-professor Robert Ferguson was probably my favorite. We discussed the connection between literature and law, and I learned quite a bit about the empathetic power of story and its ability to shape our world — topics I still think about every day. I was so impressed with the time and respect that Professor Ferguson lavished on each student. I remember a two-page, single-spaced typed letter that I received from him reviewing my writing (I think he suggested I dial down the chit-chat). At the end of the semester he thanked me for being his student and I almost lost it.

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

You know, all the classics: College Walk. The Steps. Koronet Pizza. Butler Library. (I’d sneak up to a random floor in the stacks and study until the automatic lighting would just cut to black randomly.) The Hungarian Pastry Shop. (I subsisted mostly on poppy-seed hamantaschen and free coffee refills during my junior year.) Dodge Gym. (Very underrated.) The infamous secret tunnels under campus. (Just kidding. Never got in there.) Back in our day, there was a weird media library in the basement of Lewisohn (or was it Mathematics?). I often was down there watching some pretentious French movie or obscure documentary film on a 12-inch VHS-combo television. Good times!

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

Really, no regrets. But I did finish up a semester early to save money. If I could do it all over again, I’d still be taking classes and applying to be an RA in Carman.