Writer Elizabeth Segran ’05 Shares Her College “Rocket Years”

Liz Segran_Felix Rust


Elizabeth Segran ’05 is a senior staff writer at Fast Company, where she covers fashion and design, and is the author of The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life. She has a Ph.D. in South Asian literature and women’s studies from UC Berkeley and lives in Boston with her husband, Benjamin Schneer ’05, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, whom she met freshman year. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Ella.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

My father worked for Singapore Airlines and I had spent my childhood living in cities around the globe, including Paris, Brussels and Jakarta. But I had never been to New York. After landing at JFK, I remember staring out into the city from our yellow cab — the wild mix of people and architecture and cultures felt like utter chaos, but it also felt exhilarating, like I was experiencing life at its fullest and rawest.

It took a while for the beauty of the city to sink in. Shortly after I arrived, 9-11 happened. My first instinct was to create a safe burrow on campus, rather than exploring what lay beyond the Gates. I got to know every inch of Butler Library and every lawn that would make a good reading spot. As the years passed and I ventured out, I came to love that chaos. It still makes me feel like I’m most alive.

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

I had a tiny room in Hartley-Wallach and my suitemates were an interesting mix of characters, including the son of a French Formula One champion and a comically ornery guy from Connecticut. But the best part was living next door to Eugene Khandros ’05 and Dave Leung ’05, who were childhood friends and had attended Stuyvesant H.S. in New York. They immediately welcomed me into their friendship and showed me around the city, which they knew like the back of their hand. We chose to live together all four years of college. Senior year, they visited my family in London. We went to each other’s weddings. Now our kids have occasional FaceTime playdates.

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

The Core has shaped my worldview in more ways than I can count, but I was particularly influenced by my major cultures class, in which I chose to focus on the Middle East and Asia. This grounding in colonial studies helped me to understand my own identity as an Indian and Southeast Asian woman. It also inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in South Asian literature.

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

Freshman year, I would stroll around the campus at night and I stumbled across The Curl sculpture in front of Uris Hall. I liked to climb into the curve, lie back and look up at the sky. Once, a grad student also out on a walk came over chat with me. We discussed what the sculpture was meant to symbolize: He thought it was a Mobius strip. Since I had no idea what that meant, he explained. Learning about a mathematical concept under the stars felt like the quintessential Columbia moment.

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

There’s nothing I would change, but I do wish I had stayed in better contact with the friends I made there. After graduation, I moved to Berkeley for my Ph.D. My College boyfriend moved out there with me, and seven years later, we got married. I found it hard to stay in touch with people who had stayed on the East Coast. But I’m finding it is never too late to reconnect. My work as a business journalist recently brought me back into contact with Pepin Gelardi SEAS’05, whom I had met freshman year and who now runs a design studio. We hadn’t spoken in years, but we immediately picked up where we left off.