What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I was eager to put behind me my first Columbia experience, which involved me coming to check things out during a brilliant fall weekend during my last year of high school and unwittingly accepting a “gypsy car” driver’s offer to take me to my destination from La Guardia, only to have me part with $50 for what should have been a $20 fare. My self-punishment for my naiveté (and for blowing much of my weekend budget) was to abstain from spending anything else that weekend beyond what was necessary. By the time I came back, I was comfortably jaded — which suited me well for what New York City and Morningside Heights were about to experience headed into the 1990s (the Giuliani years) and all that that brought and accelerated in the city and the country.
Back in Chicago, I considered myself a committed and curious citizen — eager to explore my neighborhood while also doing good by my neighbors. At the College, I threw myself into Community Impact, initially volunteering some early Saturday mornings with Harlem Restoration Project, where I have fairly vivid memories of Ben Jealous ’94 turning me on to some of the complicated relationships between the University and the community. I don’t recall if it was the dust or the politics that unsettled me but I joined Big Brother/Big Sister (BB/BS) that fall and got matched up with a 6-year-old boy from the Douglass Projects on Amsterdam. That program and that relationship — which had me spend virtually every Saturday during my College years exploring the city through the eyes of a 6-year-old — were profound. I made one of my closer friends through BB/BS and felt like I was inextricably tied to the urban landscape through our weekly wanderings.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
Honestly, I’m going to come across as a total jerk here. For whatever reason, I had heeded someone’s advice that living Carman was somehow de rigeur for the first-year experience, but I was not counting on finding myself with a spot on Carman 2, an all-male floor. Despite my desire to spread my wings and not find myself around some of the guys I went to high school with, what landing in a suite on Carman 2 did was drive me to try things that were outside of my comfort zone, to connect with people who were not simply my floormates. That pushed me to do things and meet people who — in retrospect —critically informed my journey at Columbia and my continually unfolding story of living in NYC, from recruiting Jeff Mandel ’96 to join me on a trek to Williamsburg to go thrift-shopping at Domsey’s Warehouse (RIP) to cultivating some early friendships that charted the path of my living situations in Hogan and Hartley in subsequent years.
What class do you most remember and why?
I cannot believe how much fiction, theater and history I read in any given week from an incredibly rich and diverse range of professors and instructors. But two classes that stand out most to me book-ended my College experience. The first was “Logic & Rhetoric.” For so many reasons and in so many ways I consider L&R to be a cornerstone to how I think and write (and it makes me want to write more). That was as much a testament to the TA instructor as it was to the motley crew of College first-years who were my classmates, and in looking back, it was a ridiculously diverse class almost tailor-made for alchemy of a CC experience.
During the latter half of my College experience, I took a seminar on race and human rights with Kellis E. Parker Jr. It was like a salon. It was held in an office on an upper floor in Low facing west on a Thursday late afternoon, and put me in a room with people I had never met. It rarely felt like a “class” — more a fireside on heady subjects such as race and rights and music. It was escape from my reading and other coursework. And it was also escape from the rest of my College experience in a way because a free-flowing forum in which to be curious and critical somehow provided a nice counterpunch of unmooring to the rigors of my other academic load.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
The neighborhood was campus in my mind. And while I had certain go-to spots within the Gates and beyond, one of my spots was (and still is) the block of 112th Street between Broadway and West End just as St John the Divine comes into view as you crest the hill walking or running eastward. It’s a magical moment in scope and scale, and somehow that juxtaposition of a narrow city block colliding with a Gothic structure (is that right, Art Hum?) felt special every time I walked it.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
Much has been written about revisiting the Core and while I’ve thought about how much I would love to take Contemporary Civilization in this day and age, part of me wishes that I would have not rushed through fulfilling the Core commitments so early on. By the time I hit my senior year, my head was swimming in ideas of what would be next, and what my relationship with self and society and place was to be. I’d like to believe that hunkering down to really dig into and discuss Contemporary Civilization texts at the conclusion of my College experience would have been a whole different trip than plowing through it during my first couple of semesters. Oh well, no regrets.