Chapter Seven, The Mother-Son College Odyssey

Today was a freezing, rainy downpour of a day in New York. Eli and I got up, packed, dropped our suitcases off in the storage room of the hotel and then hiked over to 50th Street to take the #1 train up to Columbia. We had one umbrella between us, not a very big one at that. Eli was wearing sneakers; I was wearing ugs. I had a wool coat and he had a “water resistant” jacket that didn’t bear up so well in the rain.

On the way to the 116th subway stop, dedicated to Columbia, I said to Eli, “I’m so glad we did this together. I had so much fun in New York.”

“I did, too,” he said. “This was the most fun I’ve had in all of high school so far.”

“I really enjoyed it, too. Thanks for letting me come along.”

We were both holding onto to the same pole, practicing our subway surfing. “Well, you didn’t embarrass me too badly.”

“Did I embarrass you at all?”

“No.”

Mark one up for me!

The walk from the train station to the Columbia campus was freezing and wet. When we arrived, we joined an information session in a huge auditorium full of parents and their teenage children.

There were hundreds of parents in the packed hall, all of whom were investing a lifetime of hope in their 17-year-olds. There were families of every race, religion and background. I could hear different languages everywhere. Eavesdropping on the family behind me, I listened to the parents converse in an Asian language I couldn’t identify. After 10 minutes of animated conversation between the mother and father, the daughter inserted, in loud, exasperated English, “I’m not walking that far. My jeans are soaked!”

Some things, I guess are universal.

The admissions officer began his presentation by saying, “If you fall in love with a college on a miserable, rainy day, you know you’ve chosen the right college.” We all laughed. He was a really personable guy.

Then he had all the students in the room stand up and say their name and where they were from: Fort Lauderdale, Pittsburgh, Austria, Germany, North Carolina, San Jose, Minnesota, Bethesda, Redondo Beach, Philadelphia, Latvia, London, Port Washington, Seattle, DC, Massachusetts, Berkeley, Boulder, Santa Cruz and on and on. Point made. Columbia students come from everywhere.

Then he said, “I’m going to brag about Columbia for a while and it’s all true.” He started with a list of famous alumni and famous research accomplishments at Columbia. He told us that Nicolas Sarkozy had been on campus just two days ago. Then he gave us some history. He told us Columbia was the first college founded in the colonies, and that the Morningside Heights campus was the third campus for Columbia. “When, we moved here in the 1890s, this was all farmland and open space.”

The history was fascinating. There’s something to be said for a school with traditions. He added, “We pride ourselves on great traditions and constant innovation. We like the balance of structure and flexibility.”

We learned about the core curriculum at Columbia—a strong basic liberal arts foundation no matter what your major—a foundation in writing, art, history, music, science and the arts that gives every Columbia students a shared intellectual experience. And every student, in order to graduate, has to pass a swim test. “Manhattan is an island and the founders thought everyone needed to swim in case the British came.” That tradition has stuck at Columbia, except for students at the engineering school. “They don’t have to pass the swim test,” he told us, “because they can build a boat or a bridge or a catapult to get off the island.”

We learned about the Fu College of Engineering. But even the engineers have to take the core courses. “If you just want to do math and science,” he told the students, “Don’t come to Columbia.”

All undergraduates live on campus and freshman have to eat in campus dining halls.

And he closed his talk with an emphasis on what it is to have your education with New York City as your playground and as an incredible resource. Students get free or low cost tickets to every cultural event possible. There are infinite opportunities for internships. “We think 8 million is the right size for a college town.”

We learned what Columbia looks for in its undergraduate class. This year there were 26,000 candidates and 90% of them get bad news. He stressed the importance of diversity in selecting a freshman class. “The diverse, international, multicultural student body is one of the greatest resources we have at Columbia.”

If you want to go to Columbia, top test scores and grades are a given. You have to be able to express specifically why Columbia is the best fit for you. “We don’t want any ‘insert name here’ statements of purpose. Do your homework. Know where you’re applying to and then make your case.”

And of course, you have to want to live in New York City. You have to demonstrate your intellectual curiosity and you have to show that you’re special. “What we’re really looking for,” he told us, “is something that sets you apart, something that illustrates your creativity and your initiative.”

That’s a tall order for 17-year-old juniors who are already up to their eyeballs in schoolwork.

After the admissions talk and the run down of financial aid policies (Columbia is need blind, which means they make admission decisions without regard to whether a particular candidate needs financial aid), we went out for a tour of campus with a very enthusiastic, pre-med freshman who walked us around in the freezing rain for an hour and a half. She talked inside buildings when she could, but we spent much of the time, in our freezing, soggy clothes, huddled together for warmth, trying to avoid the puddles as we followed her from famous sculpture to famous building.

Despite the miserable weather, I could tell that Eli was excited. He asked lots of questions on the tour. The one he seemed most interested in was, “Can you really get low cost theatre tickets?” I think our boy has caught the New York bug. I know Grandma will be happy. She’s the one who took him to a Broadway show every year from the time he was old enough to sit through one.

After the tour, we met Melaku Assegued, a Columbia freshman who graduated from Kirby last year. He got excused from his work study job to meet us for lunch and we made our way to a little coffee shop on Broadway for hot lunch and conversation.

It was quickly obvious how beneficial it is to talk to a student who isn’t being paid to give a PR tour. Melaku loves Columbia and it is clearly the right school for him, but he gave a more realistic picture of the pros and cons of the school—the lousy food on campus, the dorms that are in disrepair (the word “rats” was definitely mentioned), the professors who aren’t great (along with the ones who are).

He was full of good advice for Eli about applying to college and advised him, “The first week in college, join everything you can and talk to as many people as possible. That’s when people make their friends. It all happens in the first week.” Melaku gave us a realistic assessment of the workload and the core curriculum and stressed how much he loves being in New York City, how small Santa Cruz seems when he goes back to visit.

I know Columbia is only the first college on our tour, but it’s suddenly moved up into one of this top choices to apply to. I think Eli was ready to apply then and there. It will be interesting to see how his taste and perspective changes with the range of schools we’re going to visit on this tour.

We left Melaku, with profuse thanks, took a train back to the hotel, a taxi to our Budget rental car in midtown, plugged in our portable GPS and took off through Manhattan to the Lincoln Tunnel and on to the New Jersey turnpike.  Ah yes, toll roads! I forget about them in California.

Two hours later, after driving through incredibly hard rain, we pulled up at Abby and Eric’s house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I showered, we did laundry and joined a wonderful three-generational group for a fabulous seder. It was such a treat to be a guest in someone else’s home instead of being the maker of the seder, a role I’ve had for the last 30 years. To share the same ritual, the same foods, the same songs, the same traditions in another home, the home of a very old friend, all the way across the country—what a treat it was.

And now it is after midnight and we need to be up at 6:30. I could write more about the seder and the joy of old friends, but I’m tired and it’s late, so I am going to stop here.

Tomorrow morning, Eli starts the day sitting in an 8:30 Calculus class at Swarthmore, just like he does at home!

Until manana….

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