Take Five with Uchenna Acholonu ’96

Dr. Uchenna Acholonu Jr. ’96 is an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine, specializing in minimally invasive and robotic gynecologic surgery. He lives on Long Island with his wife, Colleen, and their children, Kiera (6) and Devin (4).

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I arrived at Columbia with a plan — a plan to be a different person than I was the moment before I arrived. In high school I was a friendly but quiet kid. No one would describe me as shy or distant but I was content to keep to myself and participate from the periphery. I had obvious academic goals — that was the easy part. Pre-med with a concentration in computer science left little room for options. The tougher plan was for my social footprint. I went out of my way to meet people and get to know everyone around me. It started with the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program. Born and raised in the Bronx, I was no outdoor enthusiast but COOP had two things that appealed to me. One, it would definitely take me out of my comfort zone, and two, the pre-orientation program gave me a reason to move out of the house as early as possible. I spent the first few day of my College experience hiking through the Catskills with a small group of fascinating people. I definitely pushed myself. This was the first time I went hiking, the first time I slept outside and the first time I forced myself to act like a social butterfly. Uncomfortable in every sense at first but in the end, I had an amazing time. The other members of our group were intelligent people just as excited about life as I was. By the time I returned to campus, after a much appreciated shower, I was ready to embrace my new persona.

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

Carman Hall was the center of my universe. To this day, the people I met on Carman 8 are some of my favorite people on the planet. They are a diverse group representing a variety of political, social, economic and religious interests. We had student-athletes, artists, pure intellectuals, frat guys, writers and those too cool to identify with any group. They came from all over the world. Anything less would be un-Columbian. The most memorable part of my first-year experience was floor-hopping. My suitemate, Evan Malter ’96, and I formed a strong friendship the moment we moved in. Soon after we met, we discovered a correlation between Social Security numbers, birthdate and birthplace; late one night we set off to test our discovery. We started on Carman 13 and worked our way down. As we went through the dorm we fine-tuned the correlation to increase precision, but more importantly, we met more and more of our awesome class. During the next few weeks we spent far too much time floor-hopping. Eventually we dropped the SSN experiment and just spent time visiting our regulars and meeting people.

What class do you most remember and why?

Lit Hum was the quintessential Core experience, straight out of a Columbia College advertisement. Lee Siegel GS’84, GSAS’91 was an outstanding facilitator. He guided us through each book and stimulated discussion with his impressive knowledge of history, religion and the Romance languages. His supplemental information helped me appreciate each assignment as a meticulously constructed work of art. I found the other students to be intelligent, well-spoken and thoughtful — each of us had our area of expertise. By the middle of the semester, Mr. Siegel would direct his comments at specific individuals to elicit the perspective of the philosopher, the scientist, the musician etc. The only difference from the classic description of Lit Hum was that our teacher was not one of the highly acclaimed professors from the days of old, he was a graduate student. A graduate student who set the bar for teaching far out of reach for any other that followed him during my time in college.

Outside the classroom, Lit Hum gave me the opportunity to step out of the realm of facts and figures and into a different mindset. Shoulders that were formerly hunched over my chemistry textbook relaxed as I picked up The Aeneid. I was unquestionably a scientist, but the humanities added much appreciated balance.

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

The Low Steps were my spot of choice. One part outdoor common room, one part Grand Central Station, they served as a great place to people-watch and an were easy place to meet. Our spot was right in from of Alma Mater, two steps down from the landing. We parked there with a regularity that made it seem like another requirement of the Core. Up to a dozen of us could be found between classes, during lunch, before dinner and, of course, late at night. In retrospect I probably spent too much time on the Steps, but it was just so hard to walk away from the combination of sun and camaraderie. We could spend hours talking about physics, the amazing sandwiches from Ferris Booth Hall or the shape of the clouds passing overhead. On the other hand, some of my favorite memories were of coming back from lacrosse practice and collapsing on the Steps in exhausted silence.

Although not quite as comfortable, the Steps were still open for business in the winter. I remember a cold day in February when a couple of us borrowed trays from the dining hall to sit at our posts on the snow-covered Steps. I remember the Blizzard of ’96, when the school and most of New York City were shut down. While some people skied down Broadway, a few of us spent the afternoon diving off the side of the Steps into a mound of soft, clean snow.

Nighttime on the Steps were pure joy, especially early in my College experience. If I had any artistic ability I would paint a scene with students lounging in small groups all over Low Plaza. Some would be sitting on the Steps drinking, some playing hacky sack, some sitting around a boom box (plugged in to the outlet to the left of Alma Mater), but all talking and getting to know one another better.

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

Near the end of each term I looked through the course catalog for the following semester like it was the Sharper Image catalog. I would ooh and ahh over courses I would never be able to fit into my schedule. I toyed with the idea of taking Japanese, African history, American literature and economics but it just never worked out. During junior year I enrolled in a class on Sikhism to fulfill the Extended Core requirement; it fit into my busy schedule and seemed interesting enough. I was fully engaged from beginning to end. It made me excited about and interested in the history of all religions — during the next year I signed up for classes on Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism.

I wish I could have taken more. The only conceivable way to do that would have been to take classes during the summer or stay an extra year. Neither was financially feasible but if I could do it over again I would find a way.