There is often conversation surrounding how tour guides present Columbia as a utopia of perfect students with thrilling city lifestyles. How do you describe Columbia to people at home? How honest are we supposed to be?
My first grade teacher, Mr. Walid, insisted on calling me Rachel Green. To my overachieving self, it felt like an insult that he thought I resembled a runaway bride who ruined her laundry the first time she did it. I didn’t believe that I fit her profile, given that I was his only student who knew Newton’s three laws of motion.
I came from a highschool with 40 students in my senior class. I was junior student class president, and senior study body president. I took 10 AP courses, ran varsity track, and occasionally took part in an afterschool Calculus club—just for fun. My senior letterman jacket quote was about entropy, and my badge? Einstein sticking his tongue out.
A decade later at Columbia, my first semester was—in true Rachel fashion—audaciously disastrous. Academically, I was not where I wanted to be. I was enrolled in Calculus II, Introduction to Python, Physics I: Mechanics and Thermodynamics, Gen Chem, and the highlight of my week: University Writing. Please let that sink in. Most importantly, I hated physics.
Socially, I certainly wasn’t where I wanted to be. It was October, and I was surrounded by students who were still friends with their NSOP group. Meanwhile, when I passed Benjamin from my orientation group by Ferris’s toaster, we stared directly into each other’s souls only to not acknowledge one another. However, my greater issue with Columbia’s social scene didn’t stem from these omnipresent imposed NSOP friendships, but from the fact that small talk solely consisted of discussions of workload, courses, or due dates. As opposed to conversing about the weather or weekend plans, I found myself constantly competing with others about who among us had it worse.
Yet, I claimed to love it—physics and all. But more so, it felt like I didn’t have the choice not to. Not only would my failure to be a superstar engineer disappoint those who spent years listening to me preach about the physics behind a yoga pose or how many trapezium-shaped tables are needed to make a perfect circle, but it would also disappoint my high school self. And dear God did I not want to let go of my high school self.
In a semester when everything was changing—when my laundry came out all pink and baby blue the first time I did it—the only constant I could guarantee was remaining the always-zenith high school self I was known to be. For this reason, I put on a façade, and adopted a standardized response to all those who inquired: I love Columbia. There’s no place I would rather be.
In retrospect, adopting this attitude was an effort to brainwash myself that Columbia was everything it was ever advertised to be—the best University in the best city in the world. The issue, however, was not in the advertisements, but in my own expectations of who I would be upon my arrival at Columbia. In those expectations, I set myself up for disappointment.
As in physics, a suspended system can only hold so much mass. Continuously adding mass to that system will lead to a breaking point. My breaking point was realizing not a bone in my body wanted to return for my second semester. And yet, I did, because it was unlike high school me to quit. On my 11 hour flight back to New York, while watching an episode of Friends, it was none other than Rachel Green that said, “It’s like all of my life everybody keeps telling me that I’m a shoe. You’re a shoe, you’re a shoe, you’re a shoe! But what if I don’t want to be a shoe anymore? Maybe I’m a purse, or a hat.”
It was then that I realized that Rachel Green was the most dynamic character on the show, and that I had more in common with her than I thought. Her words gave me the courage to drop the physics major, and let go of hanging on to the high school self that no longer existed.
When asked about Columbia now, my answer hasn’t changed, but the validity behind it has. I’m no longer pretending to love Columbia to mask a fear that I made the wrong choice, or to uphold a standard that I imposed on myself. I love Columbia for teaching me that change isn’t only inevitable, but is the only constant.
The writer is a sophomore who uses humor as a defense mechanism, resorting to nervous fake laughter and an undesired sarcastic comment as a remedy to almost anything. For this reason, she would argue that she has become more like Chandler Bing. If you would like to challenge her to Friends trivia on QuizUp, feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the beginning of my first year, I felt the need to ‘escape’ Columbia so I took a trip to Miami that I thought would clear my mind. I went without telling anyone and the trip didn’t end up fulfilling its purpose. In fact, it caused me more trouble internally—turning inward and sharing less with friends to a point where our relationships became nonexistent.
During my first two years at Columbia, I focused on the negatives. My past friends back in Michigan would only hear about my stress and issues. In retrospect, being in a negative headspace colored both my experiences and interpretation of my environment.
After two years of slipups and deep soul searching, I finally feel in tune with myself. Focusing on myself allowed me to reconnect with my essence. Now, I have a more balanced view of Columbia, one that is neither completely negative nor positive. I talk about my experiences here minimally. And although my omission of information might be seen as me pretending that everything is perfect, that isn’t my motive.
I used to share thoughts and worries with those who I felt were closest to me. As a consequence, I had “friends” tell me horrible things about myself like how I only use people and fabricate problems. At the time, I took their words to heart. College has changed me in that respect. I don’t let other people affect me and I no longer need to share. This change didn’t occur overnight, but I’m glad it happened. Even when making positive memories at Columbia, I like to keep to myself. My experiences—good or bad—are mine and as long as I’m honest with myself, I can be picky about what I share.
When it comes to stress these days, I am very much a do-it-yourself person. Whether that means working through rough patches or even just unplugging for a little while, I deal with my issues on my own terms. To destress, I watch YouTube videos, do self-care with some meditation and skincare, or have a dance party for one. I don’t wear my stress like a badge of honor or compete in the Stress Olympics with my peers. I choose how I live my life and who I keep around me based on minimizing the net amount of stress in my environment.
I don’t think it’s right to idealize our experience at Columbia to a point where we are out of touch with reality. We need to be completely realistic and honest with ourselves. I believe that self-honesty is a critical virtue to have. Because of this, I realize that there are parts of Columbia I enjoy, like the ability to go downtown to blow off steam. There are also parts that I don’t enjoy, such as the pervasive stress culture.
We can be as honest as we want about our experiences at Columbia with others, but internal honesty matters most. You have to know your truth before you can tell anyone else about it. I recognize that life can’t always be sunshine and rainbows every single day. I have bad days just like everyone else at this University. That said, I’m grateful to have the rare opportunity to attend this school. It’s all about long-term perspective. There are thousands of other hard-working, over-achieving people who applied to Columbia who were not offered admission. I’m lucky to be here. Period.
I think of all the moments I’ve experienced, the people I’ve met, and what I’ve learned in and out of the classroom. I’m sure I wouldn’t have learned as much holistically at any other university. I do not glorify my Columbia experience, but I acknowledge that it has helped me develop into the person that I am today.
Jemima Fregene is a junior on the pre-med track, living more life and channeling chill vibes.
I sat on the countertop of my best friend’s kitchen munching on grapes while she bustled around making us tea. This had been our tradition since our first year of high school, and it has lasted through her switching schools, increasingly busy schedules, and our lack of transportation. In high school, we had been saved from the last one by the borrowing of my mom’s red Prius V, which has been described as the ugly love child of a Prius and a mom van—a sexy combo.
It had been months since we had really talked as the reality of going to college on opposite coasts had taken its toll. As our initial catching-up—the “you fell down how many stairs?!” or “a boy at a party asked you to shower with him??”—faded away, my friend asked me the question I had been dreading. “How’s Columbia?”
Coming home from Columbia only exacerbates my natural tendency to hide difficulty with remarking that “life’s a journey” or even just a smile. I try to avoid the topic of college altogether. When people ask me where I go to school, I say I go to school in New York. If they ask for more specificity, I will only then say Columbia. I am in no way embarrassed by my university affiliation, but it feels weird to lead with it, particularly in a town where going to an Ivy League university is not the norm. I often feel that people are judging or making assumptions about me, either good or bad, just by knowing that one mere fact about me, either assuming I’m a genius (I’m really not) or an asshole (I really hope I’m not). Then, when they ask the obvious follow-up question, “How is it?,” it feels ungrateful to say anything other than “It’s incredible,” because for my family and friends, it appears that I have made it. Truthfully, though, there is no easy way to field this question.
My time at Columbia has constituted the best two years of my life, but it has also been hard. It has transformed who I am for the better, and given me friends that I could see at my wedding. I still get a thrill either walking down College Walk or listening to my classmates. And I often ask myself: How did I get so lucky to be here? But, it has also been hard—personally, academically, physically.
Instead of letting my friends and family back home into the duality of my experience, I have hidden it. By using humor and clichés to hide the vast intricacies that make up any new adventure, I have inadvertently damaged my relationships. By not letting others in, I have put up a wall that neither of us can scale, letting my friends believe I am immune to hardship, and consequently making them feel shamed for undergoing any. My friends from back home have struggled just like I have and will continue to either at their current jobs or universities. And, while they’re not in my exact position, most of the reasons Columbia has been hard for me have more to do with growing up than any specific part of the University. It is something they all can relate to—the feeling of looking around for the adult in the room, realizing its you, and feeling fully inadequate to handle the situation, whether it be with friends, at work, in class, or with family.
Most of my fears about letting people back home into my Columbia experience have very little to do with them and everything to do with myself. I was judging myself for struggling by holding myself up to an unsustainable standard. However, I can say both: I’m so lucky to be at Columbia, without discrediting the second part—that at times it has been really hard. So, I turned to my friend over our tea and finally responded truthfully.
Kayla Abrams has had to exchange her mom’s red Prius V for a metrocard, and coffee for tea, but can still be found munching on grapes on the floor of her McBain room. Feel free to send her new cliché expressions about life at email@example.com.