When I told my mom about my plans for next year after graduation, I told her that I couldn’t wait to live in New York.
It’s crazy that, well into my fourth year as a Columbia student, I still don’t even feel like I live in Manhattan. I doubt that a student at NYU would say the same thing. Of course, their ability to feel like true New Yorkers is largely because of their downtown location, compared to our cozy uptown spot. We do actually have a good reason for not knowing New York as well as our NYU counterparts: Columbia’s location is not as central, and it takes us a concerted amount of effort to get to the same places downtown as NYU students.
However, geography doesn’t excuse the fact that a lot of Columbians still feel unfamiliar with or disconnected from the place we live in—even though the city itself was probably one of the main reasons we chose to attend Columbia in the first place. Most of us are not born and raised New Yorkers, and have never received an education on how this city works.
When I first arrived at Columbia, I assumed I would become both a college student and a city dweller. Not true. While there were many incredible resources for me to learn how to adjust to college life in general—namely, NSOP, ISOP, and regular first-year floor meetings—there was very little opportunity to learn how to adjust to the city itself. While there were interesting first-year excursions into the city, they were voluntary, so few people chose to go, and they tended to target only particular neighborhoods.
This is why I believe that our first-year orientation programs—which affect students for the rest of their Columbia careers—could greatly benefit from an “Introduction to New York City” acculturation program.
It struck me recently when a friend of mine, an international student, talked about experiencing culture shock when first coming to New York. The symptoms of culture shock are similar to those of other psychological disorders: feelings of helplessness, depression, loss of focus, sleep disturbances, and more. And while I am not an international student, the United States is a large enough country—almost exactly the same size as all of Europe—that I did feel extremely “disoriented,” so to speak, during first-year orientation.
Everything was new, from the small aspects to the large. The fact that I now had to walk everywhere instead of drive changed my entire wardrobe—instead of just slipping on a coat during winter, I now had to always have accessories on me, like a scarf and hat and gloves so I wouldn’t freeze to death while walking to buy groceries. I had to learn about public transportation and subway maps to be able to get around. Stores were now open 24 hours a day. It became hard to find peace and quiet. I became more aggressive when waiting for tables in coffee shops, because they were always so crowded. I began to walk at almost double my normal speed (my Midwestern friends always make fun of me for that now).
During NSOP, I was so oblivious to New York geography that I cried the first day because I didn’t know whether Broadway was east or west of Amsterdam. As such, if Columbia designed a New York acculturation program for new students, the first lesson it should teach is how to get around the city. The program should explain the five boroughs and the various reputations and stereotypes of each one. There are also so many different neighborhoods in New York—to be honest, I still mix up Chelsea and Meatpacking sometimes. We also need to learn that “downtown” is relative, which means it’s not automatically anything below 100th Street. An FIT friend laughed in my face when I said I considered Penn Station downtown.
It’s also important to show how New York can be accessed at different price points. As Spectator columnist Patricia Pou Jové points out, this city is not cheap to live in, and many students don’t have the luxury of leaving campus as often as they’d like. In this program we could show how to save money in the city—with different forms of transportation, for example. We could talk about when to take the express trains to change from 96th Street versus when it’s better to just take a taxi or split an Uber. We could also show the cheapest places to get groceries by Columbia (hint: not West Side). These are all things I learned way too late in my college career, and knowing them would have made the transition a lot less rough.
New York is a spectacular place to live, but it is also a difficult one. There’s little open space but a lot of pressure to succeed, and people can be rough and not seem to care about anyone but themselves. Often you can feel completely unnoticed, even if you’ve collapsed on the subway platform. The concept of the bystander effect—where the more people there are in a certain place, the less any one person feels obligated to intervene in cases of emergency—can apply to New York in general.
We need to look past the glitz associated with living in New York City and do more to make it easier for students to actually live here. Living in a city is not easy, considering most American youth do not grow up in truly urban places like New York. Sure, some people might say that the toughness is the very quality that makes you a New Yorker, but it’s hard enough being a first-year, even for students already from New York City. The least we can do is make outside students feel like they’ve arrived at home.
Anna Raskind is a senior at Columbia University studying English. Annalytical runs alternate Fridays.
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