“Is the library always this crowded on a Saturday?”
I was an impromptu tour guide last weekend for two seniors from my high school who are considering applying early decision to Columbia. They’d asked me to show them around because all of the tours were full. As an enthusiastic second choice, I complied.
“The library is usually packed, but it clears out by seven or so,” I responded, reflecting upon the fact that I’d never considered the ridiculousness of this all too common phenomenon. Spending an entire day without touching homework is unheard of.
Before the tour, I tried to formulate how I’d present Columbia. It’s so tempting to show off our beautiful campus in a way that makes it look like I’m living my best life. I worked too hard in high school to be accepted into this institution only to be anxious, lonely, and overwhelmed, right?
As tempting as the “I-live-in-a-utopia” approach is, it’s unethical. Thinking back, I wish someone had told me that the stress culture here is something that will affect you even if you go to bed early, eat well, and do your work efficiently. I wish someone had let me know that you can become the byproduct of everyone else’s decisions because self-care is much harder in an environment that is not conducive to it. Instead, I had beaming tour guides convincing me that John Jay Hall was equivalent to Hogwarts and that Butler Library would be my favorite study space.
On the other side of the spectrum, columbia buy sell memes paints potential applicants too dark a portrait of our institution, including crass jokes about unsympathetic emails from professors, a soulless administration, and mental illness. With just this lens, Columbia lacks any semblance of joy and seems more chaotic and depressing than anything else. With this mix of the tour guide’s optimism and the Internet’s pessimism, what are ED applicants supposed to believe?
With this dichotomy in mind, I decided to be genuine, striking a balance between my appreciation for, and problems with, Columbia. Without restraint, I answered questions regarding course load, common bedtimes, and the weekend social scene: Classes are manageable, but many people petition to take more than they can, so don’t be stupid and do that; people bring toothbrushes to Butler, but don’t be that guy; frat row sucks, but it’s better than nothing, and you’ll have fun just being around your friends.
“Please be honest with us,” the seniors begged throughout the tour, “Don’t hold back.” So, I was. Letting go of my pride, I admitted the issues I felt last year. I felt lonely, and it was only this year that I finally felt like I knew a decent amount of people and felt more comfortable on campus. I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle trying to take care of myself, but this year was already much better. Surprisingly, admitting my struggles didn’t devalue my experience to them. It only made it richer and led to more questions.
Yet, the conclusion was that Columbia was a place worth being. They marveled at the books I read last year in Literature Humanities, basked in the beauty of Low Steps, and dreamily planned all of the subway rides and off-campus excursions they would take next year.
Reflecting honestly upon my experiences, I began to understand why tour guides are so optimistic. Beyond their job description, there’s something invigorating about showing off your home. When I gave my pseudo-tour, the weather was the best it had been in weeks, the lawns were covered in a thick layer of sunbathing students, and everything looked like a living brochure. Taken aback, I wondered whether the campus was, by chance, more beautiful, or if whether being the one to “sell” Columbia forced me to put on my rose-colored glasses. Let me tell you: Columbia looks great in pink.
Just when I thought I’d had it all under control, one of the students hit me with a curveball: “Do you think Columbia’s stress culture is warranted?” Somehow, my days spent planning this tour had not prepared me for this question. It’s the sort of question that warrants an op-ed of its own.
For the sake of bluntness with a tinge of optimism, I said, “No. Although the course load and pressure to achieve is intense, it’s ultimately up to you how you interpret your situation.” I hope they know that receiving a B+ is acceptable, taking 15 credits is acceptable, and sleeping eight hours is acceptable. I hope they take those spontaneous trips to Union Square like they dreamed they would.
For a majority of the last year, I had considered transferring due to social reasons: I felt like I couldn’t make friends, couldn’t find my place, and was putting in 10 times more than I was getting out. Now, I’m content enough to stay and fight the battle to take care of myself. During the tour, I was even content enough to vouch for the fact that, despite my mixed feelings, Columbia is a good place.
Being a temporary tour guide reminded me of my pre-first year New York City fantasies. It made College Walk look cleaner, faces look friendlier, and opportunities look more achievable. In the process of presenting my home, I reached two conclusions: It’s important to be honest about Columbia’s flaws, and—despite the downsides—being a tour guide helps you dream again. As you advise others, you recenter yourself. But more importantly, honesty goes a long way—one senior is definitely applying early decision, and the other is strongly considering.
Katie Santamaria is a sophomore in Columbia College studying nonfiction creative writing. She would love to give you a tour around campus, but don’t be surprised if you end up in her column. Send her riddles and conspiracy theories at email@example.com. Wholesome Content runs alternate Thursdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.