I showed up for my first day at Columbia wearing a Star Trek pin, one of those communicator badges that are meant to go "biddy-boop" when you tap it and ask to be beamed up, only mine didn't because it was just metal.
My parents had tried to warn me that this wasn't a good idea. "Ben, we know you like Star Trek a lot, and we support that, but first impressions mean a lot and …" I would have none of it. "If the people I meet judge me by my Star Trek pin, then they're not the kind of people I would want to be friends with anyway," I insisted. My parents tried valiantly, but eventually they realized this was a lesson I would have to learn on my own.
So there I was on day one: Star Trek pin, comically enormous glasses, polo shirt tucked into overly short shorts, and Red Sox hat worn proudly to alienate myself from the city where I would spend my next four years. On reflection, I can only marvel at the lengths I went to to seem different. I loudly proclaimed my belief in Socialist politics when no one asked, reminded everyone on my COHOP orientation trip that I was a Boy Scout, refused to touch a drop of alcohol, and, upon learning that one of the members in my COHOP group had memorized pi to 100 decimal places, tried to do the same.
Remarkably, my first year was not the disaster it could have been. My COHOP group proved willing to forgive my quirks, either because I was willing to carry the heaviest backpack, or because they had enough quirks of their own to feel a sort of kinship. I never became close to my Carman suitemates, but two years later I still spend time with the friends I made on my floor. For all the talk about Columbia being a cold place to go to school, it proved for me to be a surprisingly forgiving place.
My first year was not, however, without its difficulties. Like many Columbia students, I had been a member of seemingly every club in high school, and I came to Columbia determined to remake the place in my own image. I quickly joined the sailing team, the Spectator, the International Socialist Organization, and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, with plans to run them all, and signed up for every mailing list I could find.
My mass enrollment succeeded in filling my new @columbia.edu inbox with e-mails from day one, but I quickly learned that college clubs demand much more than high school ones. I found myself running from class to practice to protest to meeting, often without a break for dinner. The groups often conflicted, not only in meeting times but in objectives. It is difficult to be an objective journalist, a radical activist, and a member of the most bourgeois sport this side of polo at the same time. Burned out just three months into my first year, I found that trying to juggle four activities at once prevented me from holding onto any one of them firmly. I realized that I would have to choose.
That revelation was the beginning of a wonderful change in my college life, but it came at a great cost. In choosing one group over others I was simultaneously choosing one group of friends. To this day, the members of the sailing team I once raced with don't know who I am, while my socialist friends, the people I was closest to for my first three months at Columbia, give me little more than a polite hello. In choosing Spectator, I had abandoned them.
But at the same time I had made it possible to become truly immersed in one group. I made real friends who could see past my nerdy exterior, Star Trek pin and all, and who gave me the chance to succeed. They made fun of me, of course--"Can't you just ask the Enterprise to beam down some relief pitching?"--but by then I relished even the Star Trek jokes. They meant I fit in.
By November, the Trekkie jokes were obsolete anyway. I lost the pin at a socialist meeting and, after flirting with the idea of buying another one in the Village somewhere, I took it as a sign and moved on.
I moved on in some other ways as well. I bought a smaller set of glasses, toned down the socialist rhetoric just a hair, and realized that loosening up didn't have to translate into a betrayal of all I held dear. I made some mistakes too, learning along the way that it's better to go to at least a few classes, that roommate relations are a delicate matter, and that secret Valentine's Day messages work a lot better in the movies.
But for all that changed, a lot more never did. Two years later, I'm still too busy, still spout leftist politics, still wear my Red Sox hat in a city full of pinstripes, and with just two months to go until my 21st birthday, still haven't had a sip of alcohol. That's okay; the lesson my parents were trying to teach me on that August day in New York was not to give up on what's important to me, but rather to figure out what to keep and what, like the still infamous pin, to get rid of.