BackgroundInterview Date:April 2019
Gender Identity: Female
Race/Ethnicity: East Asian-American
Graduation Year: 2020
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual
High School Experience: Public school in Darien, CT with a graduating class of about 350 students.
Major: Double major in Economics and Neuroscience
Extracurricular Activities: I am in the Neuroscience Society, the Columbia Undergraduate Consulting Club, the Columbia Social Entrepreneurship Group, and 180 Degrees Consulting.
Did your business consulting clubs have application processes?
Yes, they all have application processes with varying degrees of selectivity.
Did any of your extracurricular activities have a particularly big impact on your experience? In what ways?
The three consulting groups as a whole have guided me towards more of a pre-professional focus, but I wouldn’t say they made or broke my experience.
Can you describe your weekly coursework for your majors?
The bulk of my work comes from problem sets and reading. The Economics classes are mostly problem sets. The Neuroscience work is either reading from the textbook or academic journal articles. The bulk of the grades for classes for both majors are made up by exams.
Is there anything that you feel either of your majors’ departments does especially well or poorly?
For the Neuroscience department, one thing we struggle with is the fact that there is a gap between the Psychology and Biology departments. There isn’t really a Neuroscience department, it’s a combination of faculty members from both Biology and Psychology and we have both a Biology advisor and Neuroscience advisor. As a result, there is some asymmetry in what goes on and it’s hard to reconcile those two sometimes. One positive of the Neuroscience department is there are a lot of research opportunities, some of which are in conjunction with the medical center that is not far from the main campus. If you’re interested in research, I think Columbia is one of the best places to do that and the mentorship opportunities are really profound.
For Economics, the negative is that you get swallowed up in the entire sea of Economics majors so it’s hard to stand out and get the right amount of professor or TA focus just because there are so many students to take care of. One positive is that the coursework actually does prepare you for a lot of job positions, whether that’s in investment banking, consulting, or overall business. I think a lot of the curriculum is relevant.
How would you describe the learning environment? Is it particularly competitive or collaborative?
In Neuroscience, I wouldn’t put it under competitive or collaborative. I think it’s pretty independent. I haven’t had bad or good experiences with that, it’s been pretty neutral. In general, if you come across a pre-med student, which I see a lot of in the Neuroscience major, those people are more competitive.
The Economics department is very competitive. Just by volume of students, it’s hard to stand out. There is also a very strong pre-professional focus and a lot of students come here with the expectation of ending up on Wall Street.
Can you describe a time where you felt that competitive atmosphere?
Maybe this is just the people I tend to be around, but there’s an obsession over what kind of jobs and internships you’re getting. I do notice that that pressure exists. Some of it also comes from being in New York City and there’s an expectation that during one of your four years you’ll be doing some sort of internship while you’re going to school. Most people don’t have class on Fridays, so a lot of people choose to go to lab or take a part-time job and do the bulk of their hours on Friday.
How accessible are your professors?
Relatively accessible. I think a lot of them genuinely do care about their students’ performance and are pretty easy to reach. It also depends on who you talk to and which department they’re in. A lot of them are full-time research faculty as well, so they don’t have a lot of time to deal with undergraduates because they’re mentoring graduate students and Ph.D. students. I personally haven’t encountered much trouble trying to meet with the professor and we also have a lot of TAs who are pretty accessible.
Why did you pick your majors? Are you happy with your choice?
I came here as pre-med and I chose the Neuroscience major because the requirements aligned really well with the requirements for medical school. About two years into school I realized that I wasn’t 100% sure about medicine and as a result I fell back to Economics because it seemed to be something that fit my interests. It played out to the Neuroscience and Economics double major.
On and Around Campus
Where have you lived on campus?
Freshman: John Jay Hall, which is an all-freshman dorm, in a single. It is mostly single rooms.
Sophomore: Wallach Hall in a single, but I had a good group of friends on that hall.
Junior: Schapiro Hall in a single. It’s mostly single rooms too.
How was transitioning from Connecticut to the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York?
Not terribly jarring. Coming from the suburbs, I already knew what the city was like so that part wasn’t too difficult to get used to. The biggest struggle in transitioning is what most people experience, the social atmosphere and being forced to make new friends again. In terms of getting used to the city and general environment, that didn’t feel strikingly different.
Can you describe the level of safety you’ve experienced on and around campus?
I have personally experienced no problems whatsoever with regard to safety. I have heard of certain encounters here and there, but, to me, it’s very safe.
Pros and cons of being located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York?
1) Accessibility. You’re close to pretty much everything whether that’s food or potential job opportunities.
2) Morningside Heights is just a nice place to live in. It’s fairly safe, you have Central Park near you and the river near you.
1) You tend to get swallowed by the community. The city is so big and you can step off campus if you have to.
2) It can get loud because we are next to a hospital.
What kind of nightlife or weekend activities do you like to participate in?
There is stuff going on most nights whether that’s club events or some people are really into Greek life. I usually just hang out with my friends, whether that’s in dorms or off-campus. The limits are pretty much nonexistent because if you don’t find something you like on campus you can just go off of it because the city is your back yard.
What nights of the week do you regularly go out?
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights are the nights where people go out if they’re going to do anything big. The rest of the nights are dedicated to random club events, homework, or group projects and things like that.
What is an alternative to going to a party or going downtown that you like for a night out?
We like exploring different food options. We also have so much access to arts and culture. We have [a student pass] to the museums as well.
How happy are you with the weekend activities or nightlife at your school? Is there anything you would change if you could?
I’m pretty content with them just because I’m a fairly simple person and don’t need anything overcomplicated. I think one thing that would be nice is a stronger sense of school community. With the exception of homecoming and the concert we have every spring, we don’t have any large school gatherings. I do think being in the city plays into that because people tend to do their own thing and go off wherever they like because they have the ability to.
How did you meet your closest friends?
We all lived on the same hall freshman here. The residence hall directors are keen on creating a strong sense of community, especially freshman year, so we were obligated to do a bunch of bonding events and things which ended up paying off for me personally. My other friends came from clubs that I joined. A lot of groups find some community bonding over a similar activity.
How would you describe the overall social scene at Columbia?
It’s present but splintered. It’s splintered because people like to go into the city and do their own thing so people don’t find that strong sense of overall community. With that being said, you can definitely find a sense of home and community.
To what extent do people of different races and sexual orientations mix socially?
Columbia prides itself in being good about having that mix. Personally, most of my friends have the same ethnic background as me but we come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. In general, I think we’re pretty good at mixing and I don’t think there is a single group that is isolated. [The Class of 2022 for Columbia College and Columbia Engineering has a population that is 28% Asian, 16% Black, 57% White, and 17% Hispanic.]
How would you describe the East Asian community on campus? How strong is it?
I think it’s pretty strong. I’m not part of any of the particular cultural groups but there is a Korean Students Association and similar groups for Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and so forth. There is a lot of intermixing between those groups and a strong overall Asian-American group. People have fallen into clubs for their ethnicity and background but at the end of the day they still support each other, so I think that’s really nice.
How do you like the size of Columbia in terms of undergraduate enrollment? How has that impacted your experience? [There are about 8,900 undergraduates.]
I think the size is perfect. I’m in the College and we’re actually a bit bigger than the engineering school. It’s not too large and not too small. That said, we do have a very large graduate student population so that messes the ratio sometimes because you walk on campus and can’t immediately tell who’s a graduate student and who’s an undergraduate. [There are about 16,150 graduate and professional students.]
Do you think people are happy with their choice of Columbia by senior year? Do you think people leave loving Columbia?
I think it depends on who you ask, but I think, for the most part, people have positive experiences. The negative experiences that I’ve heard about center around the amount of stress that the school causes. We do have a pretty intensive Core Curriculum and there are expectations that come with going to an Ivy League institution that some people find really challenging to meet. Additionally, we do tend to have a very bad stress culture and the services we have for mental health are not great. I think the combination of that, plus some people find it isolating because the social scene is splintered because so many people go to the city, culminates in a mediocre experience for some people. I have really enjoyed my time so far and I’ve learned both about the subjects I’ve studied and also myself, so I wouldn’t change much. [See ABC News article, “Columbia University making changes to mental health resources after student suicides.”]
Has the alumni network helped you find internships or jobs?
Not in particular, but I’m also not out of school yet so I suspect that will become more helpful down the line.
To what extent have you used the career office? How helpful have they been?
I’ve attended a couple of the career fairs that they’ve hosted, and, there’s nothing wrong with attending the fairs, but I don’t think they’re particularly helpful. Outside of that, I’ve used them to look over my cover letters and resumes, and they were helpful for that.
Have you learned any computer programs or languages through your coursework that will be helpful to you professionally?
I learned Stata, but that’s about it. We’ve used a little bit of Excel in some of the Economics classes, but I think everybody came in with a basic understanding of Excel.
Advice for Prospective Freshmen
What is something you wish you knew about Columbia before you entered as a freshman?
Realizing that there is a stark difference between Columbia and a regular state school where everybody is on campus all the time. I wish I knew that being in the city comes with benefits but also comes with a sense of isolation sometimes. Acknowledging that and realizing that it’s not just you feeling that would be nice to know.
Reasons to attend Columbia:
1) We’re in New York City. The access to resources and internships is phenomenal.
2) The people here. The students are extremely driven and very smart, which is something I’ve come to really appreciate.
3) The faculty is great. We have a lot of great researchers who you have heard about on the news and in medical journals and the opportunity to work with them is not that far out of reach.
Reasons to not attend Columbia:
1) The stress culture here.
2) Feeling isolated at times from being in such a large environment in New York City.