An Interview On
Columbia University

Background

Interview Date:January 2019

Gender Identity: Male
Race/Ethnicity: African-American
Graduation Year: 2021
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual
High School Experience: Private boarding school in Connecticut with a graduating class of 250 students. It was a college prep school, so there was a culture of going to college.
First Generation College Student: Yes
Major: Data Science
Minor: None
Extracurricular Activities: I’m a leader for the Global Ambassador Program, part of Black Student Organization, and [have a leadership role] in Columbia’s Data Science Society.

Did any of your extracurricular activities have a particularly big impact on your experience? In what ways?
The Black Student Organization was a great way to have a community coming in. It felt like a good way to relax, make friends, but also discuss the larger effects of being on a campus that is majority White. The Global Ambassadors program was a good place to explore and have conversations with people who have different identities than mine.

Academic Experience

Can you describe your weekly coursework for the Data Science prerequisite courses?
I have five courses this semester. It’s a good balance between problems sets and essays. The Core Curriculum forces you to have classes in the humanities, especially if you’re a STEM major. The math classes are heavily focused on exams, but for computer science, it’s pretty even between exams, projects, and problem sets.

Is there anything that you feel Columbia has done especially well or poorly academically?
A gripe is that the lecture classes are fairly large, making it tougher to learn the subject. The core curriculum is the most prominent academic feature at Columbia College. It’s a good way of broadening my horizon. Thought wise, I find myself having a different mode of thinking in my philosophy and Aerobic class, as opposed to a computer science class. The STEM requirements of the core curriculum are much less developed. The main part of the Literature Humanities system revolves around Greek and Latin thinkers. This is very well developed, but the sections on science we find unsubstantial. [80% of undergraduate classes have fewer than 20 students.]

How accessible have the professors in your department been?
Fairly accessible. All the professors have office hours and are flexible if you really want to talk, especially in the smaller classes. If you make an effort in the larger classes, the professors are still always willing to connect with you. If I haven’t been able to meet with a professor it’s because our schedules didn’t match up.

How was transitioning academically as a first-generation college student? Are there systems in place that help you transition?
I went through the public school system until middle school, then a boarding college prep school. Because of the boarding school, I found most of the aspects that many first-generation students would find difficult, much less challenging. The main gripe I have coming here is that it’s a step up [academically] from high school, but I was more prepared because of boarding school. Because of my identity, it can be hard to feel confident. Imposter Syndrome is prominent among first-generation students, and it seems that people think you are here based on affirmative action, which is tough. Buying textbooks is also a hassle every semester.

On and Around Campus

Where have you lived over the past two years?
Freshman: John Jay Hall in a single.
Sophomore: Broadway Hall in a single.

How was transitioning from Cleveland, OH to the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City?
For most of high school, I was living in Connecticut at a boarding school. I was very used to living by myself, with a roommate, and on campus. When I first went to boarding school that was probably a very similar transition [to freshman entering college]. It’s definitely challenging to pause and think about the things that are different in your daily schedule. When you separate school from home, you have a different mindset than when you’re always at school. It can be tiring and is definitely something to adjust to.

Can you describe the level of safety you’ve experienced on and around campus?
I definitely feel safe on and around campus, and I walk around at night a lot. I’ve seen a lot of weird things, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt truly threatened or in a situation where I couldn’t walk away. We have an escort service, and public safety is always patrolling the campus.

Do you feel more so like you’re a resident of New York than a student at Columbia?
I do enjoy New York City and wanted to be in an urban area for my college experience, for the options and opportunities. When I get a chance to go to the city, it gives me a feel of what’s happening. On a subway, you don’t really get to see what is happening, so then I feel like a New Yorker. You can never escape the fact that you’re a Columbia student first, so, to a degree, you’re always separated from the community we’re in. We are gentrifying Harlem, so you have to be careful talking about being part of the community.

Pros and cons of being located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan?
Pros:
1) We are in the city so you don’t have to commute. When students talk about going off-campus to do something in Manhattan, you can just hop on the subway.
2) We’re not in Midtown, Downtown, or NYU territory, so we have a campus which is quiet when you want it to be. It’s still in a city so it’s the best of both worlds.
3) The college takes up the neighborhood, so there are plenty of cafes and restaurants around. Because we are on the west side next to the river, I can bike Riverside Park all the way to downtown.

Cons:
1) If you’re a student who needs to commute downtown for some reason, it’s further than if you were at NYU.
2) We’re next to Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital, so you’ll hear ambulance sirens every 20-minutes on some days.

Social Opportunities

What kind of nightlife or weekend activities do you like to participate in?
Most classes don’t meet on Friday, so a lot of people have three-day weekends. On the weekend, I might go to parties on campus, DJ, or go out to a restaurant every now and then. I like biking downtown if there is something going on down there, especially when the weather is warm. It is sort of tough for low-income students because Manhattan is an expensive city. If you have the funds, you can go out to the bars and clubs. When the weather is warm you can find something free to do, and can always make up fun with your friends.

Where are the parties hosted?
About half of them are hosted on East Campus in large suites that seniors live in. Other times they’ll be on fraternity row. Sometimes the Black Student Organization will throw parties in our student center, and there is no alcohol there.

Campus Culture

How did you meet your closest friends?
One of my best friends from high school came to Columbia, so I already knew him from day one. There was another friend on our hallway freshman year. I went up to his room and asked if he wanted to hang out, and he said sure. We had a funny story that night at Time Square which brought us together. We met another friend on the floor of my dorm.

How would you describe the overall social scene at Columbia?
It’s a complicated web. I think if an incoming student looked at The Spectator, our student newspaper, they would see a lot of articles on how isolated and disconnected Columbia is. I think it’s isolating and is the irony of New York as a whole. Manhattan has many people and so much to do, so people aren’t forced to come together. It’s hard to make and keep friendships when you don’t have a forced proximity. It was hard to make friends freshman year, and I think I was pretty lucky.

To what extent do people of different races and sexual orientations mix socially?
Not to the extent we would hope. The first few weeks of freshman year people revert to groups they are comfortable with, such as similar race, economic status, and sexual identity. For marginalized and minority students, it feels more comfortable to be in a friend group that shares that identity. We do have a diverse campus though. [The Class of 2022 has a student population that is 28% Asian, 16% Black, 57% White, and 17% Hispanic.]

How strong is the Black community on campus?
Not as strong as we’d hope. I think a lot of freshmen come to the first Black Student Organization meeting, like the community, and keep coming because they feel like they’re part of the people there. There is a divide among the people who do go, and those who don’t. There are a lot of complaints that it doesn’t feel welcome to athletes and people who don’t share a similar taste of music. There are lots of things that separate the community. In strenuous times, the community will come together, but socially, there are cliques.

Careers

Has the alumni network helped you find internships or jobs?
I have connected with a couple of alumni to talk about career advice.

To what extent have you used the career office? How helpful have they been?
I’ve gone to a couple of events, and a lot of companies will come to campus. They focus on finance and computer science.

Advice for Prospective Freshmen

What is something you wish you knew about Columbia before you entered as a freshman?
I wish I knew how important it is to put active energy into your social circle. There are times you might not have any designated time, so you could not see your friends for weeks. You have to plan things with them, which is part of the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

What is something a prospective Black student should know that we haven’t touched on?
It’s going to be tough. A school like Columbia wants to advertise how liberal, progressive, diverse, and open it is. There are so many smaller bits of culture that accumulate that make the experience a lot different than what it’s advertised as. I think it’s important to find a community you are comfortable in because you’ll need them when times get tenuous.

What is something a prospective student may miss on a visit that is worth checking out?
I went up to the students and asked them what the worst thing is about Columbia. I would also go to Harlem. People come to New York wanting to see the empire state building or the statue of liberty, but Harlem has a lot of cheap things to do off-campus.

Reasons to attend Columbia:
1) If you’re really into finance, computer science, or political science, I think Columbia has a lot of options for those majors. Being in New York, there are lots of resources such as Wall Street, the UN, and lots of tech startups. [For the Class of 2017 in the Columbia College and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, about 21% of students went into Financial Services, 13.5% went into Engineering, and 13% went into Consulting Services.]
2) If you love Manhattan.
3) If you have emotional strength. College in general, especially in Manhattan, can feel very isolating. If you have a strong emotional drive, you will do well here.

Reasons to not attend Columbia:
1) If you don’t feel comfortable being around a lot of people all the time. The density defines a lot of things in your life.
2) If you think you like a defined campus culture, it’s not the school for you. We don’t have any school spirit, and it’s very individualistic.
3) If you hate humanities. Our Core program is a very defining part of the curriculum.

Notice: Columbia University is a trademark. Induck uses it for descriptive purposes, not to imply affiliation with, endorsement from, or sponsorship by Columbia University.

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