The traditional college experience is a distinctly American, decidedly sacred cultural institution: Hundreds of miles away from home, over-excited teenagers attend tailgates, consume only one brand of beer, and cry off their face paint after particularly moving football victories. At some point, for all the reasons in the world, I decided that I did not want this to be my experience. Instead, I fantasized about New York—a striking stretch of nocturnality where trains and drugstores operate 24/7, a fact that meant the world could never be silent or still. Simply being here, I realized, meant I could go anywhere. Perhaps as a trade-off, schools in this city seem to boast considerably less spirit and cohesiveness.
At Columbia, we partake in a unique college culture. Over dinner, we remind each other of our own singularity—we are cultured, socially aware, unbothered by dull things. Maybe this is something we discover only after we find our place here, or maybe it’s a secret we have known since the beginning: We wouldn’t have chosen this school if we didn’t think we could belong to it. While many do relish that short-lived pang of self-congratulation after slipping the titles of literary masterpieces into casual conversation, my peers and I would probably agree that there is an equally—if not more—compelling reason we made this choice: From our dorm buildings, through the windows of high-enough floors, we can make out the heartbreakingly beautiful skyscrapers downtown. Although impostor syndrome might creep in every now and then, it is a reminder that, after all, we belong here—to both Columbia and the city of New York.
Sometimes, I wonder if my rejection of American sports culture—and, as a result, the traditional college experience—was also a subconscious prioritization of urban liberation over campus community. This is not exclusive to Columbia—in fact, it probably more aptly characterizes other schools in this city. A friend of mine who attends college downtown revealed that school pride is nearly non-existent, and that the only indication that he is a student at all is the fact that he attends class. (At many city schools, students commute rather than live together in on-campus dorms.) While I was struck by his unfazed acceptance of campus disunity, I think I understood—with freedom comes independence, perhaps to the point where it eclipses community. In many ways, when I think of other schools around here, I consider myself lucky to attend Columbia, which—although far from tight-knit—at least offers its students the physical proximity to each other afforded by an actual campus.
Despite my qualms about Columbia’s community, I am unspeakably grateful for the way it has pushed me to wholly embrace New York, to step out of my comfort zone again and again. I like the way certain stories play back in my head by location: At a gallery in Chelsea, for example, I impulsively introduced myself to someone who later became a close friend. On another occasion, at a falafel joint in the ugliest part of midnight Bushwick, I cried over nothing until my friend and I were kicked out—a moment that marked the first time I was completely un-embarrassed about being emotional in public. I think of the backdrops of more tender moments as well—for example, that East River pier an ex and I snuck into and spent the whole night at, simultaneously counting the high-rises of the Brooklyn skyline and all the reasons we were thankful for New York. These memories, and many more, became my narrative of Columbia—that vast, complicated space between constant support and urban independence—despite the fact that they did not involve my fellow classmates, nor did they take place on Columbia’s campus. Although I have made some of the best friends I have ever had at this school, I’ve realized the need for more cohesiveness, and that it was entirely up to me to find it. In all that it lacked, Columbia pushed me to seek out broader communities elsewhere.
In reflecting upon my near-constant romanticization of urban spaces, I have thought a lot about the liberation of sleeplessness. Occasionally, I wonder if I would be a different person at a more community-oriented school sprawled over thousands of acres, in a town where stores and restaurants close at more conventional times—and while it is entirely possible, I don’t think I would necessarily prefer that person, whomever she might be. There is something incredibly meaningful about spending this particular period of youth in New York City—I really believe that. Here, every heartbreak feels especially vivid, like the rest of the world is so close to me, watching. Here, the lights don’t turn off. I have grown into myself, both at Columbia and in the city that seeps into it—and for everyone else still in search of their own narrative, New York will be here for as long as you let it. As for when I’ll fall asleep, I hope I’ll be awake long enough to never know the answer.
Melissa Ho is a junior in Columbia College studying economics and art history. She thinks she’ll love New York forever. And you? Let her know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your Worst American Girl runs alternate Fridays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.