Take Five with Thomas Nielsen ’18

Thomas Nielsen ’18 is a legal fellow at a small civil litigation firm in Baltimore, where he researched and co-wrote a book on bankruptcy law in Maryland. A music and English major at the College, Nielsen has published articles on literary topics such as the dramatic purpose of song in The Winter’s Tale and Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptions of Shakespeare’s plays. He will start at Harvard Law School in 2021 with the goal of becoming a public interest attorney focused on impact litigation and criminal justice reform. Before then he will serve as an AmeriCorps fellow at the Alaska Public Defender Agency in Anchorage.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I had (and still have) a penchant for drinking large cups of black iced coffee no matter how cold it is outside. A guy who became one of my close friends later in our first year recalled seeing me speed-walking through the quad in shorts with that ubiquitous iced coffee even as the fall breezes picked up and the weather grew cooler. Where was I going? Looking back, I have no idea.

When I arrived on campus, I thought I had it all figured out, but I was wrong. For me, moving to New York represented an opportunity to assert my independence. I had been homeschooled for eight years by my dad, a retired historian, and then spent four years at the Stanford Online H.S. In retrospect, I realize that these experiences endowed me with a curiosity and love of learning I carry to this day, but in the moment, I just wanted to get away from what was familiar. The summer before school started, I tried to make friends with as many people as possible through the Class of 2018 Facebook group, hopeful that once we were all on campus, I could make up for the social interactions I had lacked in high school. Later, in the classroom, I lost sight of my passions for reading and music and instead signed up for courses in economics, psychology, and basically any subject area I hadn’t studied before. Soon, I realized that most first-year friendships don’t last and most of those classes were not fun. But in the process, I got to know myself and realized that exploring, while not always easy, could lead to formative moments of self-discovery.

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

I lived on an unrenovated floor in John Jay, which gave my room “character” and made me feel less bad about hanging posters and string lights on my wall using notoriously hard-to-remove sticky hooks. The room key was a clunky piece of plastic that was too long to fit in any wallet, which meant that I never really got in the habit of taking it with me and locked myself out way too many times.

My closest friends lived in other dorms, but we always found ourselves hanging out in my room, probably because John Jay was the perfect mix of quiet and social. During the spring semester, I remember our weekly ritual: toiling over FroSci problem sets on Thursday nights and then putting our work away and diving into absurdly competitive games of Catan on the patch of floor between my bed and the desk. That little room taught me something very important: No matter how cramped your place is, you can still make it home.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

Due to a scheduling conflict, I ended up switching at the last minute from Frontiers of Science to University Writing. This bit of serendipity landed me in a section taught by Greg Pardlo SOA’16, an author and academic who won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry the following spring.

In Greg’s class, I learned that academic writing didn’t have to exist in an ivory tower removed from society, and could instead shape our understanding of it. One assignment in particular stands out in my memory. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation after the murder of Michael Brown, I proposed a topic that synthesized my own interests with the cultural moment: Why were there so few Black classical musicians and composers? Greg, who probes the tension between race and academia in his own poetry, helped push me not only to research this question but also to propose solutions to it, bringing the scholarship out of the past and into the present. Suddenly, hundred-year-old pieces of music were no longer dusty relics, but instead living, breathing testaments to the unique role Black music has played in the American musical tradition, as well as painful reminders of how Black composers and performers were and are often excluded from that tradition.

I ended my paper by postulating that after-school music programs in urban areas, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, represented an important first step in opening up the classical music world to a more diverse array of voices. With Greg’s encouragement, I turned this proposal into a short opinion piece, which was published by The Baltimore Sun and reached an audience far larger than that little University Writing classroom in Hamilton Hall. None of this would have been possible without Greg’s commitment to making academic writing meaningful to the society as a whole. I’m forever grateful to him.

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

The Wallach piano lounge. I often ducked in to get a bit of practice during my breaks between classes. Unlike John Jay’s piano lounge, the Wallach lounge had doors on either side; as a result, people were always passing through, and some of my most enjoyable and spontaneous conversations occurred when a passerby asked what I was playing, or sat down to listen for a while. Other times, I found myself in the position of listener, drawn to a familiar tune emanating from the lounge as I meandered by on my way to dinner. The Wallach lounge was a great place for unexpected and meaningful connections with strangers — a microcosm of New York City itself.

I would also like to give an honorable mention to Joe’s Coffee, which opened in Dodge Hall during my third year. Half of my classes were in Dodge by that point and it saved me from having to traipse to NoCo in the middle of the winter to get my beloved iced coffee and freeze my fingers off.

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

I would be less afraid of missing out on things. I felt an immense pressure my first year to do as much as possible — attend club meetings and parties every week, go on dates, take many courses in different subject areas, go out into New York and try to visit every museum, ride every subway line and eat at every little Chinese restaurant given a shout-out by Gothamist. These experiences left me tired and led me to realize that I couldn’t possibly take every class or see every sight. Life’s meaningful experiences don’t arise from checking off items on internet lists or course catalogs; they happen when you go out and explore with an open mind.