Take Five with Mila Atmos ’96

Mila Atmos ’96, SIPA’05 launched the podcast Future Hindsight on January 20. Atmos hosts civic engagement-focused conversations with experts, citizens and activists to “explore the ways in which we all have the power to shape our society.”

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I had this idea that I would study economics and become an economist. I took myself very seriously and set about to pursue this goal with laser focus. Things turned out totally differently. Going to college changed my perspective on education as a means to an end. The graduate student who taught my section of Contemporary Civilization was passionate about helping us understand the importance and beauty of philosophy, in addition to being exacting and demanding on our grasp of logic and sound arguments. I learned to love learning at Columbia.

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

I joined the crew team to be a coxswain, which meant that I had to be at 116th and Broadway at 5:30 every morning to go to the boathouse. That first year, I often panicked in the dark hours before dawn about either being late to meet the van, or having just been called to wake up because I had failed to show up. More poignantly, I remember the beautiful, serene sunrises on the Harlem River with the commuting cars in the distance and the bridges far above us. I remember the fleeting moments of the rowers in perfect synchronicity, and the boat seemed to fly on top of the water. It was pure magic.

What class do you most remember and why?

I took Physics for Poets because I thought it would be easy, which turned out to be totally wrong. Despite the surprising level of difficulty, I loved this class. Professor Erick Weinberg, who was the head of the physics department, taught it because he wanted to teach us why physics was exciting and also show us the frontiers of the scientific research at that time. This idea that the most senior person in the department taught people who were not that interested in the subject really stayed with me. It signaled that he loved physics and that he respected the students, regardless of their primary interests. It also speaks volumes about the institution and its priorities.

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

My favorite spot was the main reading room at Butler Library. I loved the hustle and bustle, the hum of the large communal tables and the super-tall ceilings. Being there made me feel like I was a small part in a big universe, in the right place, at the right time. My preference was for a little privacy because I was easily distracted when I sat with other people. I was always on the lookout for one of those singleton cubbies, where I would spread myself out carefully, do some homework, drink a lot of coffee and routinely fall asleep face down on top of my pile of books.

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

I graduated a year early to save money. If I could do it all over again, I would have enjoyed a fourth year.