Zak Aldridge ’19’s First Year Was “A Great Whoosh!”

Zak Aldridge cropped
Zak Aldridge ’19 is the founder of Ivy Essay Gurus, a consultation service that specializes in college admissions essays. He currently resides in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he studies Tibetan Buddhism and Vedic astrology. At the College he helped lead two activist groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, and had pieces published in The Morningside Review and Spectator. Prior to the pandemic he taught English in Thailand, but the unexpected events of 2020 turned that yearlong teaching contract into a half-year contract, and a two-week visit to Nepal into an extended stay.


What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was ecstatic. “Is this really happening?” I was extremely grateful to be there, exhilarated by the thought of what I could learn and who I’d become, a little scared and a little overconfident. Those last two go together. My overconfidence wore off quickly as I recognized how sharp my classmates were, but I still made many friends and acquaintances because my work-study job was swiping in residents at John Jay Hall. Between memorizing the names of nearly everyone living there and being frequently mistaken for my twin brother [Samuel Aldridge ’19], my friend group expanded very fast. And what I didn’t experience socially in my first year — most Friday nights ended before midnight — I made up for in the classes I took, the music, the dancing, the people and the rush of life in the city. When I think of that year I feel a great whoosh!

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

I very much enjoyed living in John Jay and still haven’t gotten over the fact that I had a single room as a first-year. And in Manhattan of all places! The 11th floor had been newly renovated, which made us all feel kind of special and also meant that I could come home to the pristine cleanliness of my room after enjoying post-toothbrushing conversations in the communal bathroom and funky older rooms on the yet-to-be-renovated fifth floor, where I’d become an honorary resident.

One fond memory I have was posting a limerick in one of the single-use bathrooms encouraging residents to take their business next door because that one toilet, new though it was, clogged very easily. The limerick stayed up all year, but its message, sadly, was never fully embraced.

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

I most remember University Writing because it was one of those beautiful and rare experiences in which the whole class unified into one mutually enhancing unit; one fine jazz orchestra or, depending on the deadline, a tight-knit battalion that gets stronger and tighter as the weeks go by. Smaller egos, bigger love and many tears on the last day. That class, and in particular the support from Professor Nina Sharma BC’05, GSAS’10, SOA’16, helped me grow into the writer and thinker that Columbia demands, and I had a much easier time academically after that semester.

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

I liked the areas just on the outskirts of the campus bubble that retained more of a New York feel. The opposite is true for many, but for me the city was a real tonic at times. It helps one zoom out. I also loved the rooms on campus that retained an air of the classical; smooth, old wooden chairs and century-old coat hooks on the wall. For me that was the ivy of the Ivy League. And without coat hooks life is just a little more complicated, wouldn’t you agree? Another favorite was the Schapiro dormitory basement because I was either there to enjoy a steaming plate of falafel over rice or to listen in on the rehearsals of the Indian classical group, CU Raaga, that my brother and other friends played in.

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

Really, I have no regrets because I know everything, mistakes and all, were as they should have been when they happened. I also really squeezed Columbia for all it had, including its karate classes with the legendary sensei Bonnie Baker, ballet and Afro-Cuban dance classes at Barnard and evening lectures by Robert Thurman, one of the greatest Buddhist scholars of the century. If I could go back, however, I would take all the Buddhism seminars taught by Tom Yarnall GSAS’03, a very important teacher for me.

I learned much and made many friends through the years of college activism, but I also made some enemies and the bigger picture often got bogged down in believed moral superiority. Life is short, our problems are great, and without maturity and love no ideological rifts will be bridged!