I first stepped onto Columbia’s campus at nighttime. I was a senior in high school, visiting my cousin in the engineering school and had just arrived from Los Angeles. The sun had just set, but the campus buildings were brightly lit and aglow with white haze. They were intimidating with their red bricks and copper roofs and appeared as academic-looking as I had expected. My first thought was, “What’s a poor girl from a Mexican neighborhood in L.A. doing at Columbia? It’s Ivy League.” Almost seven years later, graduated with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Columbia, and with a good job in New York, I now know there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish in college. I am the strong-willed free-thinker Columbia wanted me to become and New York is where I truly found myself.
Columbia University is a city within the City. Columbia College, one of four undergraduate schools on the university’s Morningside Heights campus in upper Manhattan, is a small college within a large academic setting. Its liberal arts tradition, based on its unique core curriculum, aims to produce students learned not only in factual knowledge, but in the ways of the world, the social and political issues that affect people, and the critical thinking required for today’s young leaders.
Founded as King’s College in 1754, when America was still a cluster of colonies ruled by England, the school was the first institution of higher learning in the then province of New York. Its first alumni included John Jay, who would later become the first chief justice of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, who would later become the first secretary of the Treasury.
Suspended during the American Revolution, the school reopened in 1784 as Columbia College, this time rechartered without ties to church or state. It remains the country’s oldest independent institution of higher education.
Today, the face of Columbia’s student body is as variegated as autumn leaves in Central Park. Going coed in the early 1980s, the students come from all fifty states and more than forty different countries. Every race, culture, and religious background is represented, which makes for a school founded on tolerance and understanding that knows how to celebrate its diversity. All this resides within the framework of New York City, the original melting pot of the nation.
Beyond Columbia’s wrought iron gates lies a city brimming with energy, culture, and unforgettable, real-life experiences waiting to happen. Museum Mile, Restaurant Row, Lincoln Center, Broadway, Wall Street, Greenwich Village—upon arriving in New York City, the feeling that it is the center of the world becomes overwhelming! Which is why New York City becomes the perfect accompaniment to an education at Columbia; in many ways, it becomes its own classroom. An arts humanities class (one of the core requirements) might opt to study cathedral architecture inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is just down the street from campus and which happens to be the world’s largest Gothic-style cathedral. A music humanities class (another core requirement) might understand opera a little better by attending Puccini’s La Boheme at the famed Metropolitan Opera House. A student can visit the New York Stock Exchange to understand the mechanics of economics, and a drama student might learn something about acting technique by catching any number of off-Broadway plays.
But one need not venture outside Columbia’s campus to breathe in a little culture or excitement. The surrounding Morningside Heights neighborhood is home to many ethnic restaurants, bookstores, and bars, where one can catch live jazz, stand-up comedy, or a local band any night of the week. There is a twenty-four-hour bagel shop and the all-night diner, of Seinfeld fame that has hosted many nocturnal cram sessions. There are poetry readings at cafes, used books being sold at every corner, and perhaps the largest slice of pizza anywhere in the city.
Columbia’s students fit right into the neighborhood’s bustle. During a leisurely stroll down College Walk, the school’s main thruway, one might pass two students disagreeing over an interpretation of hell in Dante’s Inferno, or a group of students jamming to hip-hop music on the steps of Low Library, the school’s main administration building. Such diversity at Columbia is a very valued component of its student body; therefore, the college’s admissions process allows prospective students many opportunities to let themselves, their interests, and their aspirations shine through.
The combination of Columbia College’s rigorous academics, esteemed faculty, diverse student body, and location within New York City makes Columbia a truly unique option for higher education. At least, this is the sentiment felt among everyone on campus. From the minute students step onto College Walk for the first time, to the moment they step onto Broadway as newly-minted graduates, the whirlwind four years they’ve just spent will be filled with academic triumphs, unforgettable New York experiences, and relationships with professors and friends that will outlast those first few years in the professional world.
The core curriculum, designed to engage each student in the innermost workings of the world’s greatest literature, art, music, and political and philosophical thinking, is matched by the world of knowledge waiting outside the school’s wrought-iron gates. Required assignments of visiting some of the greatest art museums in the world or taking in a musical performance at any number of famed venues will hardly feel like tedious homework. Plus, the core is ultimately matched by the college’s wide-ranging academic majors taught by the intellectual leaders in their fields.
Nary a moment is wasted in four years. The Columbia student knows how to balance schoolwork with the myriad social and student on-campus activities, as well as the vast number of goings-on in the city at any given moment.
Students are graduated with factual knowledge as well as street smarts. One student may have spent hours working on differential equations, but also balanced that with tutoring an inner-city high school student in algebra. Another might have composed a thesis on presidential-congressional relations while campaigning for a spot on the college’s Student Senate. Columbia’s legacy of student involvement and activism, recorded in the school’s rich history, is unmatched by any other high-caliber institution of higher learning.
Columbia seeks out the nation’s young leaders—those high school seniors who have made great strides in their school and community. The comprehensive admissions application is a canvas on which prospective students paint a picture of themselves, their goals, hopes, and interests. Once admitted, Columbia’s Office of Financial Aid and Educational Financing will make sure all possible avenues are taken to finance a first-year student’s education, and will continue to do so for the remaining three years.
Four years at Columbia College breeze by. Perhaps this is best reflected by the number of grads who stick around to pursue graduate work in any one of the university’s remaining fifteen schools, or by the number of grads who pursue jobs in New York City. But far and wide, Columbia College alums share that everlasting something special—four years in which they were urged to find themselves and become freethinkers, ready to serve as leaders in their communities and beyond.