Weekend at Columbia

This was a pretty surprising weekend for me. I’ve been missing a lot of school lately for college visits (as have most seniors) and I almost considered not missing this week since a) it was the week after spring break and I wanted to catch up on work and b) senior Coachella Day was this Friday and I was highkey kind of hyped to see everyone’s outfits.

For a general disclaimer, I didn’t intend on writing this post as a formal introduction to Columbia University, but rather as a quick recap of some of my more memorable moments this past weekend. Having only slept a collective six hours in four days, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not in the best mental state to be writing eloquently. Nonetheless, it was still incredibly fun getting to know the other prospective students and meeting some alums and friends from the university, and I figured it might be helpful to look back on my experiences a few months later.

Even after receiving an invitation to visit Columbia University, I was close to not attending. I thought that after SHP, NACLO, and the other programs I’d done on campus, I would have enough of an idea of the school to know whether or not I wanted to attend. Being in the city, Columbia’s always been a presence, and I didn’t think attending a weekend with the university would change my perspective on its culture.

It’s easy to say that I was really happy I ended up registering for the Egleston Scholars Experience and Engineering Days on Campus. Back when I was discussing college finances with my parents, the Egleston Scholars program came up a few times, along with the dining plan and dorm costs of Columbia.

It’s well known that NYU and Columbia are among the most expensive private colleges to attend. They’re both located in NYC, so that explains most of the costs of tuition and housing, and the cost of living in the city is generally higher since they’re both in Manhattan. I figured that if I attended, I’d be commuting from home, but a last minute decision made me sign up for housing with one of the current students, so I ended up living on campus for the entirety of the weekend.

Thursday, 4/20

Obviously, 4/20 in NYC is always a fun time. I got on the subway a lot later than usual and arrived at Lerner Hall a bit disheveled from carrying my overflowing luggage on the subway.

For some background, the Egleston Scholars program is a merit scholarship geared towards high school seniors with a background and interest in research. The program comes with a $10K stipend, a freshman seminar, and advising group, and opportunities in research starting freshman year.

I already knew one current scholar from my school, which helped familiarize me with the program even before the webinars, but it still wasn’t enough to assure me that the program was worth staying in NYC for another four years.

The start of the program was a little confusing, since there wasn’t any actual programming until tonight. The first few hours were spent talking to the other scholars and the current students in the program.

I would’ve liked to have had a formal meet and greet with the rest of the scholars, which never actually happened during the preview, but it was still nice to have the opportunity to hear about current students’ experience.

Our first step after the early lunch was lab visits. My first two were to the Lightwave Research Lab (a group working on developing optimized methods for network communication) and the McNeill Group (a chemE group working on natural aerosol research). While they weren’t strictly within the scope of my research interest, it was still neat to be able to hear about some of the work of current students and the applications of their projects in industry and academia.

Afterwards, we heard some opening remarks before settling into with our hosts. I stayed at Nussbaum Hall with a sophomore, which was pretty close to campus (being in the heart of NYC and on the edge of Harlem probably makes up for the fact that most of Columbia is basically concentrated between 114th and 120th).

That night we met with alumni and Dr. Massimino at a formal dinner before going to the Top of the Rock. It was a little cold for my preferences, but it was still pretty fun meeting the other scholars and seeing some familiar faces. I’ve never actually been to the top of 30 Rockefeller, so the view was amazing – somehow, it’s hard to get over the skyline no matter how long you’ve been in the city.

Friday, 4/21

The second day was a lot more wild. The schedule was still pretty lowkey in terms of the Egleston-specific programming, especially since most of the morning was spent with our advising groups talking about the courses and research we’d be pursuing if we went to Columbia.

During downtime, I met up with some of the girls from the Women in Computer Science lunch at the Low Rotunda before rejoining the Egleston group to tour Google. We ended up checking out some pretty neat micro kitchens and the game room in the main NYC office before talking about some of the perks of working for Google NYC.

Back on campus, we had enough time to check out the Activities Fair (and meet CORE!) before the official Welcome Remarks opened up. I wanted to check out Res Inc., the residential entrepreneurship community in Wallach, but I ended up speaking with some students from ADI, IEEE, and CORE anyway.

The dinner at John Jay was fun, since it was the first time we were meeting with the rest of the prospies from SEAS. I spent most of the next hour hanging around Lerner and touring EC (Columbia also has an East Campus! for seniors!) and the rest of campus with a senior.

Fun fact: the philosophy and math buildings don’t have names – apparently it’s because there aren’t alum/faculty who have donated enough in those fields to get a building named after themselves.

Anyway, we checked out the Northwest Corner, chapel, SIPA, and some of the labs for EE. The senior I was talking with claimed he regularly took 10 classes a semester while holding down a CE research position, tutoring job, and extracurricular activities. He was incredibly helpful with explaining the culture on campus, the food and community around Morningside Heights, research in the labs, and interactions with professors (he’s returning next year to Columbia for his MD/PhD).

It was eventually time for LOWlapalooza, the aptly named musical performance featuring Notes and Keys, Raw Elementz, two world-class tap dancers, and a few other performing groups. The a capella performances were incredible, and the Shakespeare blackbox group was also stunning, if a little surprising with their delivery.

Afterwards, we went on a 2-hour bus tour of NYC. I was about to not go, but I ended up being persuaded (to be honest, I’ve never been on a double decker tour of the city, and even if the sights were familiar, it was still fun shouting out random landmarks with some of the other New Yorkers on board). We made a round trip around the Upper East Side, down to Chambers St. and some of the stores near Stuyvesant and Bowling Green, and checking out Times Square before riding back up to Columbia.

The last show of the night was Varsity Show, a musical satire about life at Columbia (kind of life SING!, but more realistic), but only showed Act I before closing the night (apparently it’s a Days on Campus tradition to not show Act II, which I can only assume was possibly too risque to show prospies even by the Varsity Show‘s standards). There were a few frats holding parties later on, but I was a little too tired to stay up late, so I ended up going back to the dorm right after.

Saturday, 4/22

I got up early again for breakfast and Prof. David Vallancourt’s talk on the Art of Engineering. He briefly touched on how applicable simple concepts like electric charge, voltage, and capacitance can affect the camera, touch sensors, and accelerometers within a camera phone before talking about sine wave, sound masking, file compression, and some of the projects completed by current students in AoE.

The talk was really interesting, and it got me thinking about whether all engineering courses were as hands on. Considering Stuyvesant’s been reducing the size of our engineering and arts classes over the past few years, I hadn’t had the chance to take a Project Lead the Way or any other engineering class in the past four years, so it was incredibly refreshing to be hearing a different take on traditional topics of physics.

The next talk was by Pro. Kartik Chandran on Water-Energy-Food-Cities, where he basically discussed the importance of different amenities to developed/developing/undeveloped nations and how water treatment plants can be optimized to harvest energy from the C/N/P it harvests and removes during the treatment process.

Afterwards was Prof. Barclay Morrison’s talk on Traumatic Brain Injury from a Biomedical Engineering Perspective, where we talked about how brains don’t bounce in the skull, but rather experience biological shearing based on contrecoup injuries, and how current safety measures in automobiles typically priorize skull fracture as per regulations as opposed to the twisting motion that causes TBI. I was also interested to hear that the brain tissue of women is softer than that of men, potentially explaining the increase in brain injury in sports like hockey and soccer for female athletes.

Following lunch, I toured some dorms (Wallach, Carman, John Jay, Furnald) before returning for department sessions. The CS department talk was pretty interesting, especially after my mentor advising session yesterday. Hearing about some of the work and breadth of the department was refreshing, especially after the confusing I’d been feeling about how much I should concentrate on my field early on.

The final talk was Extreme Imaging by Prof. Shree Nayar, which was possibly the most mind-blowing talk I’d heard lately. He discussed some of his EE work on optical sensors and cameras, specifically designing cameras that readjust depth post photography, gigapixel cameras using spherical lenses (available for view on Gigapan), “eternal” cameras that power themselves using pixels as power cells, as well as the social responsibility of cameras and how his creation Bigshot was used to introduce underprivileged students to STEAM and innovation.

The end of the program actually coincided with Perspectives on Diversity, so we got to witness the annual Powwow performance on South Lawn before leaving campus. There were a lot of students just arriving on campus, so I was a little jealous they got to experience the weekend food carts just as we were leaving Morningside Heights.

This weekend coincided with the March for Science, which took place along Central Park. Concidentally, the President decided to bring back the White House Science Fair which – along with his policies to fund the Boys & Girls Clubs and NASA – seems like a step in the right direction, although the fact that science really ought to be bipartisan has me wary about the future of scientific funding.

There were also far too many college previews happening at the same time, so keeping up with conversations across the board was a little hectic. I’m just happy to be pretty much settled with my choices at this point. I was about to visit NYU’s Weekend on the Square just because it was so close and happening in a few hours, but I ended up returning home to finish up some work before closing out for the day.

Honestly, I had a really good time with the other SEAS students. I didn’t expect the talks to be as mind-blowing, the professors to be as approachable, or the students to be as welcoming as they were, and it was nice to see Columbia in its brightest colors for Days on Campus. There’s a lot that comes with living in NYC, whether it’s being able to travel pretty much anywhere you want, do anything you want at any time, and the fact that you can never go hungry.

When I was thinking about whether I wanted to stay in the city for the next few years, it was hard to separate my goals from my own personality and intuition. I think the advantages of being around a place that’s so fast-paced and goal-oriented is that you start to think in terms of your ambitions more than your personal well-being. Even though the city offers so much in terms of opportunities and space to grow, it can also be a little too wide-spread for comfort. I was actually talking to some friends about this a while back, and I came to the conclusion that as incredible as Stuyvesant was, it didn’t really give me the chance to grow in the way that a traditional high school might’ve done.

I’m not denying that NYC’s amazing – in fact, I’d say I’m reaffirming the fact. Had I remained in a suburb, I definitely wouldn’t have traveled as far, met as many people, or had as many once-in-a-lifetime experiences as I’ve been fortunate enough to have. From meetups to Hack Nights to free concerts (and performing!) at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall to weekly talks (and conversations!) with Nobel Laureates and celebrities, there’s so much that you can only experience in the city.

Even with the allure of New York, though, there’s also a sense of brutality and rawness that’s hard to shake off. Though I’m basically still a newcomer, I’ve come close to the darker lines that the city can bring despite its bright lights and skyscrapers, and I think it’s safe to say that for me, being able to leave and experience another town would be a pretty good way to distance myself from the hectic lifestyle I’ve had the past few years, as well as to give myself some room for different perspectives. Even so, living in Manhattan has always been the dream, so it was pretty crazy to imagine myself close to the heart of the city, even if it was just for a few days.


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