When I applied to Columbia University for graduate school, I had never been east of Nevada. I was thinking about moving to New York City, but I had never even seen falling snow before. I had been to Tokyo already, which is one of the biggest cities in the world, so I wasn’t afraid of crowds. But not all big cities are the same. And some would say that there is no other city like New York! All I could do was try to visit the city for a few days, visit the campus, and make this huge decision based off that short experience.
I booked a flight that would land in New York on a Thursday and leave on Sunday. It would give me a day and a half to see the campus, then another day and a half to see the city. The date was June 25, 2009. I can remember the date easily now because it was an important day in American cultural history: the day Michael Jackson died. I took the train from the airport to Times Square. The news of his death was flashing across all of the electronic ticker boards around the square. I watched people publicly react with shock and extreme sadness, crying on the street. I also saw New Yorkers do something very particular: they comforted each other, complete strangers. People started chatting with each other about their favorite Michael Jackson songs, about his scandals and his trial, about how our society probably killed him. Back home in California, people are friendly and engage in small talk, but this kind of comforting each other was new to me. It was my first glimpse of New York culture.
I found a hostel just a few blocks away from the campus. The hostel was very cheap if I stayed in a room with twelve beds. In my room were people from all over the world who came to see the city. My bunkmate was from Switzerland. Across from us were two guys from Italy. We all decided to go see Brooklyn together on Saturday. Before that, however, I needed to spend time around the campus in Morningside Heights and figure out if Columbia was the place for me.
The first thing I noticed was all of the delis and small shops. I was from a suburban city near Los Angeles; big shopping malls and major brand-name supermarkets were the most common near me. Here in New York City, there were countless places to buy things yet not many one-stop shopping places. Would I like shopping like this every day or not? The next thing I noticed was the fashion on campus: luxury brands. We have an outlet mall in the city where I’m from, but the luxury brands I saw on campus are not sold at outlet shops. I went to public schools my whole life, and I was not a rich kid by any means. Would I be able to fit in with students from these economic and social backgrounds?
I found a welcome center, and I scheduled a campus tour for later that day. Three current Columbia students from different majors led the tour. As we walked across the beautiful campus and in and out of the old and new buildings, they told us all of the interesting facts about the school and its history. World leaders often teach courses on campus. The French language department building used to be an insane asylum. Ghostbusters (1984) was filmed on campus, and the profits from the franchise help finance all of the university landscaping. The Columbia University Libraries is a system of twenty-two libraries. Twenty-two?! When they brought us inside Butler Library, I was sold. I had never seen so many books, never been in such a gorgeous study space, and never heard of such scholarly resources before. Seeing the city and getting a feel for the neighborhood were important parts of my visit, but the campus tour was the most important. It convinced me that I was willing to make a big step and move to New York to attend Columbia. The delicious Jamaican beef patties I had in Brooklyn with my hostel roommates on Saturday didn’t make my decision any harder either.
If possible, visit the schools to which you are accepted. If you are entering graduate school in a funded program, your prospective department might even pay for your flight and accommodations so that you can visit the school. For some students, there are important questions that you will want answers to, and the school website might not answer all of them. You could ask the campus tour guides the questions. Even better, you could ask random students you meet on campus.
Try to find a public place where students look like they are relaxing, such as the common outside space with benches and an open field or the cafeteria. Don’t bother students who are studying in the library or rushing to a class. Once you find a small group of students to talk to (a small group is better than just one student because you’ll get multiple answers at once), ask a few questions. Here are a few of my favorite from the Princeton Review’s website:
•Why did you choose this school?
•Are you happy here?
•What’s your biggest complaint about this school?
•What’s your favorite class you’ve taken?
•Are your professors easy to meet in office hours?
•Are most of your classes taught by professors or by teaching assistants?
•Do students here use the writing center?
•Is the academic advising center helpful?
•What do you do when you’re not in class?
•How’s the food on campus? How about off campus?
•How are the dorms?
•Which clubs and student organizations are popular?
•What’s your favorite place to study on campus?
•Are there enough computer labs?
•How is the Wi-Fi on campus?
•How would you describe your fellow students?
•Are the students here friendly?
•Is there diversity on campus?
•Is the career center helpful?
•Do employers recruit on campus?
•Is it easy to find summer jobs on or around campus?
Just because you crossed the bridge once doesn’t mean you can’t turn around and go home. Before you decide to move permanently, take a short trip over the bridge and see what life is like on the other side. Just make sure you don’t burn the bridge down on your way over—do you have enough money to return? Do you have a place to which you can return?
1.Have you ever visited a college campus? What was your first experience like?
2.Are there certain locations or environments, such as rural, suburban, or metropolitan, that you would not want to study in? Why?
3.Would you be intimidated to ask random students on campus questions during