University of Rochester
BackgroundInterview Date:July 2018
Gender Identity: Male
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual
Graduation Year: 2019. I should have graduated in 2018 but I’m doing a 5-year program called Take Five Scholars.
High School Experience: Private school in Baltimore City with a graduating class of 110. There was a strong culture of going to college, it called itself a college prep school and had a strong college guidance program.
First Generation College Student: No
Majors: Double major in Linguistics and Computer Science
Extracurricular Activities: My biggest extracurricular has been competitive debate, which is not something that my high school had. I thought it was kind of highbrow in high school, but when I came to Rochester there was a pretty strong debate team here. I decided to show up to a meeting my first year and I totally fell in love with the activity. So, I’ve been doing that all four years. I’ve also been engaged in a couple of research ventures with Linguistics professors.
What is the Take Five program? What are you going to study?
It allows you to stay for a fifth year of undergrad to study something that you didn’t study in your first four years, so your major and minor are a no go. The perk of it is that it’s free. It’s not competitive in the sense that there is a limited number of spots, but, you need to put together a curriculum that combines a couple different departments worth of courses and say, “Here is what I want to study and this is why.” I’m staying for a fifth year to study history and political science, which are two interests of mine that I haven’t gotten in in the actual college curriculum time. My pitch was that I wanted a curriculum about the history of nationalism throughout history, and it’s also relevant today. It is something that I really like about Rochester, that they give you the possibility to stay on for this seemingly altruistic extension of your undergrad just for sake of learning.
What impact has the debate team had on your experience?
I think of it as a really integral part of making my college experience as enjoyable as it has been. A lot of my really close friends in college I met initially on the debate team. They fund travel to debate tournaments all over the northeast and sometimes internationally. I’ve gone to the United Kingdom, I’ve gone to Canada, we’ve had people go to Mexico and Jamaica and all of that is funded by the team. Having the chance to travel, talk about issues that are really important right now, and having the intellectual challenge of breaking down misconceptions about beliefs that people have, which are very strong in college, and being forced to entertain multiple sides to really important sense. So, intellectually and emotionally, in the sense of meeting really wonderful people, it’s been a central part of my college experience.
Can you describe your weekly coursework for your majors?
It certainly depends on the class. But, to speak in broad strokes, in Linguistics classes, after you get past the introductory courses that have a hundred people in them, you get down into these courses with two or three dozen people and are largely discussion based. Sometimes they have problem sets, but a lot of it is active problem solving in class and engagement with your students and professors.
At Rochester we have this interesting model called the Workshop Model. I don’t know how common it is at other schools, but this will happen for Computer Science, STEM classes, and also Linguistics. Every week you’ll have your lectures two or three times a week, and then you’ll have what they call either a workshop or a recitation, which will be like an hour or hour and a half long session outside the lecture where you’re with sort of the equivalent to a T.A. It’s a smaller group of students, maybe 8 to 10 per workshop, and you will work through problems in that environment where you are all working as a group and you have the T.A. to help guide you through. I’ve been in workshops and I’ve also been a workshop leader.
For Computer Science, it’s much more project-based. You have lectures and you will usually have some kind of low-level weekly homework. In almost every CS class I’ve had there will be three or four projects a semester and they’ll be a lot of group work.
Is there anything you feel your major’s departments do especially well or especially poorly?
Linguistics has a high faculty to student ratio and a lot of engagement and attention from professors and a pretty open department. Like, you can walk into the department and all the doors are open and any of the professors will be happy for you to sit down and talk to them. I sought a lot of attention and mentorship opportunities from the linguistics department.
I frankly didn’t find that to be true with the Computer Science department. I think the research opportunities for computer science are quite good. There’s a lot of interesting artificial intelligence work going on here. I have almost universally found that the professors are not very engaging with students who don’t really impress them from the start. I’m not the worst computer science student at the school but I’m certainly no hotshot. As somebody who had only a year of coding experience before I came into school and someone who was never programming apps on my own time in middle school, which seems like a lot of people here, I never felt like I was able to get the attention of any professors. In some sense, I think that makes sense because the faculty to student ratio is much lower, there are hundreds of people who want to be CS majors and there’s just not enough staff. All of the lectures are huge, and I’ve had a couple of lectures where at the start of the semester the professor tried to make it clear that they didn’t want to talk to you about your content questions about the course, and that you should be talking to the T.A.’s and the grad students. It seemed like they were intentionally setting up layers between themselves and the undergrads.
Can you describe the learning environment? Do you think it’s particularly competitive or collaborative?
It’s not a very academically competitive school. There’s a lot of majors that are very intense, but there isn’t really a vibe, at least in the social circles I’ve been in, of people lording their grades over one another or attaching their social worth to their work. People don’t really brag about course loads and how hard they’re working and how little sleep they get.
I think the culture of Computer Science students is a little bit more competitive. There is such a wide range of knowledge among CS majors. Some of these people have been doing this for almost a decade and some are like me. I can figure my way around basic code, but there are a lot of things that are obvious to other people that aren’t obvious to me. There are a lot of people like me in this experience, where I often feel embarrassed asking people, like group members on group projects, questions about what I should here or how do I do this thing because I assume that they already know more than me that it would come off as a totally insipid question.
Why did you pick your combination of majors? Are you happy with your choice of major?
I’d say on the whole I am happy with my major choices. I was pretty sure coming into Rochester that I wanted to be a Linguistics major. That actually came through the study of foreign language that I got to do at my high school, I’ve been taking Russian since my sophomore year of high school. The foreign language angle brought me to, through my own reading, to the idea of Linguistics. There’s a good department here, so I sort of knew that from the start.
I sort of suspected that Computer Science would be a good thing to add to that because there’s a lot of industry applications combing those ideas these days and I was interested in increasing my own computational literacy. On the whole, and this kind of echoes one of the previous questions, but I have been quite satisfied with my Linguistics education, and I’ve been less pleased with my Computer Science major and a couple of times have considered retracting that to a minor.
I’ve been back and forth about how I feel about Computer Science and have settled that I will at least have the basic tools coming out of here to become a better programmer on my own time. I know enough of the basics now that I can figure out a lot of the rest by self-teaching, but I don’t think I’m going to come out of here feeling like I’m some kind of star programmer.
On and Around Campus
Where have you lived on campus?
First Year: All first and second year housing in on campus at Rochester. My first year I was in a hall called Hoeing that was part of the first-year quad and was pretty close to everything. I had one roommate who I got along with pretty well. We definitely had enough space for each other. It was totally functional, I didn’t have extremely positive or extremely negative experiences.
Sophomore: I lived in a suite, there’s a lot of suite housing on campus at Rochester, in a hall called Anderson. I lived in a suite with five other people, most of whom were good friends who I knew before or became good friends with. We went into the housing lottery together as a group. It was overall good, but a lot of people were really messy and it can be hard to manage a living space for six people at once.
Junior, Senior, & 5th: I’m living in a house just off campus, it’s probably a seven-minute walk from the campus itself. It’s a very nice, two story, three-bedroom house in between a church and an elderly couple. It’s on a very quiet street and there’s some college housing around, but there are no keggers or anything. It’s a nice place to live and the rent isn’t terrible. I liked having the option to leave after two years.
What has been your favorite living situation?
The house easily is my favorite. It was nice having my own room and getting to host my own social events with friends if I want to. It also puts the onus on you to cook for yourself, which I think has the possibility to encourage a much healthier lifestyle.
What is your favorite off-campus restaurant?
There’s a lot. The place I just went for lunch is called Thali of India. It’s probably 15 minutes away by car. Rochester has impressed me with its food quality for a city of only 200,000 people.
What is your favorite place to get away from campus?
My instinctual answer is my house because, since living here, I have not really gone off campus unless I absolutely had to. There is a neighborhood next to the campus called the South Wedge, which is a kind of hip neighborhood. It has nice little restaurants, nice little places to walk around, and a bunch of good bars as well. If I need a night away from things with my friends then the South Wedge is probably the place I would go.
Pros and Cons of being in Rochester, NY?
Pros: (1) For being all the way in upstate New York, it’s fairly well connected. There are enough other places within reasonable distances that it’s kind of easy to get away for a long weekend, so Toronto, Buffalo and Syracuse, and you can get down to New York City in a day. I have a car so driving to Baltimore is never more than 6 hours. I wouldn’t say it’s central, but if you have the wherewithal and a car you can get around to a lot of different places.
(2) The city itself has a lot to offer not just in food, but in museums and shops and interesting neighborhoods. There is a lot of really cool history, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were active here and are buried here. I would say that I haven’t gotten too bored of Rochester in my four years of being here.
(3) It is the home of Wegman’s, the incredible grocery store that is the size of Sam’s Club without any of the membership requirements. They literally have everything. The food is good and the prices are quite reasonable. So, I’ve felt very spoiled because all three of the closest grocery stores for me are Wegman’s.
Cons: (1) There are really terrible snow and terrible cold. There are four seasons in Rochester, but winter is almost six months of the year. It was snowing into mid-April this year. It’s a lot of bitter cold and cloudy days. I like it personally, it’s one of the reasons I came up here, I’m very much a winter person. You should be really ready to tolerate a lot of cold for an inordinate amount of time.
(2) It’s not a great city to have to navigate without a car.
What kind of weekend activities or nightlife do you like to participate in?
I’ve always been partial to the “low-ish key house party with a group of friends” nightlife, if you can even call it that, rather than going to clubs or bars for the purpose of drinking itself. I’ve been happy with that and that’s mostly the function of having found a couple of different friends that I’m quite fond of.
Rochester’s campus is quite small and there are a lot of people who live in like a three-mile radius, so it was always really easy, even in my first year, if you had friends with a place or if you knew of a place where people were playing music, to get to places in under 15 minutes. The neighborhoods surrounding Rochester have Rochester Public Safety around so, for the most part, it feels pretty safe.
What nights of the week do you regularly go out?
Because of the bus service and also having a car the past two years, I will often go out to dinner with friends even on weeknights, and then on the weekends, if there’s one of our friends play a show at a venue, then maybe Friday and Saturday. So, I would say Thursday through Sunday there’s usually something that I will be doing out in the evening.
How happy are you with the weekend activities on campus? Is there anything you would change if you could?
For me, the nightlife was totally enough. If you want clubs and things like that there’s a couple in the heart of downtown. Overall, my needs were definitely met. You could go over and under what kind of wildness you’re looking for and still be pretty pleased. There was sufficient Greek life on campus, fraternity parties were a pretty regular thing, so it always seemed to me that there was something for everyone. [21% of undergraduates join Greek life.]
How did you meet your closest friends?
There have kind of been two paths to that. One of them was through debate. I found a lot of people who were passionate about issues in the world, but also knew that they didn’t know everything and that’s the kind of persona that I think gets attracted to debate. I also became friends with people at other schools, so people from Yale, the University of Vermont, and George Washington down in D.C. The other way has been mostly through the kinds of small party interactions that I was talking about. So, going to a music show or a small party at a friend’s house where you may not know everyone there, but you probably know someone who knows everyone there. It’s really, really easy to get introduced to people, so I would say, in my first three semesters I met the core of my strongest friend groups at Rochester.
How would you describe the social scene?
It’s never struck me as anything unique in that it’s kind of cliquish, which I think most colleges are, there’s Greek life, and there are house shows for musical acts. There are lots of nerds because it’s really research-driven and it’s really STEM heavy. There’s a reasonable amount of overlap, I know a lot of people who move pretty easily through all three of those circles. [77% of undergraduates participate in research.]
How do you like the size of University of Rochester in terms of undergraduate enrollment?
The school is just under 6,000 people, so I really like the size because it’s just enough that you don’t know everyone, but it is enough that you’ll see a lot of the same faces in different places, which for me is kind of comforting. I really like the size and how it’s made the social environment feel. You’re not getting lost in a sea of people and meeting new people all the time.
To what extent do you think people of different races and sexual orientations mix socially?
I would say on the gender and sexual orientation spectrum there is a lot, a lot of mixing. From the very beginning of college, I was making friends and meeting people from all different gender and sexual identifications. That feels very well mixed and I think that’s been really cool to see. I would say racially it’s definitely a little more separated. There’s a large population of international students and there’s a lot of racial diversity in the school, but I think a lot of those groups kind of stay with their own. I’ll confess that most of my friends are White. It’s certainly not out of the ordinary to see a mix of people racially, especially at large house parties. At Greek life parties that’s true to a certain extent. It does seem that each group has a pretty strong core to gather around.
One of the houses that’s on the fraternity quad, but is not a fraternity itself, is called the Douglass Leadership House, named after Frederick Douglass. My understanding is it’s a house for Black students, all of whom who are super passionate and engaged in student government, advocacy for various causes, and they’re one of the most vocal groups in critiquing the administration when it’s not taking sufficient steps to care for its diverse population.
Have you used the career office much?
I regret that I have not, I think I went in there one time. That is actually one of my plans for this last year. I’m weighing out a bunch of options for after graduation, but I am in a space where I feel confident that I will find a job with the skills that I have. I do know that it does see a lot of traffic and I should make use of it.
Advice for Prospective Freshmen
What is something you wish you knew about Rochester before entering as a freshman?
I think it’s hard to get a sense of the academics and the support structure that surrounds the academics when you come on a college visit. I find that the professors are very engaged and they’re very attentive to student needs. I’ve had good experiences with the counseling office and the on-campus therapy services have been really useful. They do a lot to make themselves known, but I suspect they don’t do enough. So, knowing that college is a tough time for everyone emotionally, intellectually and mentally, I am very glad to have found the resources I have, and I think it would have been helpful to know about them a little bit sooner than I did to really use them to the fullest.
Reasons to attend Rochester:
1) It’s a good size and it’s on the edge of a city without being engulfed by one. If you want that campus feeling where you feel a little bit separate from the area around you, that’s good.
2) Quite strong extracurriculars. I debate, but there are tons of dance groups, student musical acts, there’s a juggling club, and I think there is no shortage of interesting opportunities outside of class.
3) The academics are quite good. My understanding from almost everyone that I’ve interacted with is that they’ve had good academic experiences and challenging coursework.
4) There’s a lot of research opportunities, which are really, really cool for an undergrad.
Reasons to not attend Rochester:
1) There is definitely not as much to do as you could in a larger city. It’s not even a Baltimore. If you want to have a different experience every weekend, this is probably not the city for you I would say.
2) In the past year or two, there have been a handful of issues with the administration and how they’ve dealt with certain situations on campus. There was a large controversy last year where a certain professor in the Cognitive Science department was accused of sexual assault by many people and the administration responded with a lot of deflecting and the president resigned the day after they released a report saying that we’re not going to do anything to this guy. [See New York Times article. See Slate article. See Washington Post article. See Democrat & Chronicle article.]
3) I would say this is probably true of a lot of schools that are located in diverse cities, but Rochester tries to sell on being very engaged with the community. Rochester as a city has pretty rampant poverty for a city of its size, and I spent my first three years having no interaction with the city. There didn’t seem to be a lot of proactive engagement on the university’s part of trying to bring students in touch with the poverty that was basically on their doorstep. So, in that kind of thing there seems to be a gap between the talking and the walking. [Rochester’s poverty rate is about 33%.]