Uni in the USA review
New York, New York. For those who crave the bright lights of the big city, there is no better place to go to university. And there is no better university than Columbia, the urbanite darling of the Ivy League. Columbia not only offers you immediate access to every metropolitan resource you can imagine, it manages to combine this with a campus that makes you part of a college community.
And, when you’re not out exploring Soho or jogging in Central Park, you are busy struggling with the homework that makes this one of the top educational institutions in America. With strong academics, great school spirit and one of the most exhilarating environments in the world, this is a school where Saturday nights will never be dull.
Columbia was founded in 1754, making it the fifth oldest college in the US. It was initially named King’s College, but after the Yankees decided they were better off without the Brits, its name was changed to reflect the roots of America.
When it began, New York was far from the bustling city it is today and Columbia was situated in what would now pass for the countryside. This may be the reason for the spacious campus environment, an unusual quality in a college surrounded by the big city. Students who crave the American-college feel will not lack quads, old brick buildings and beautiful architecture – Columbia has managed to embark on the new without getting rid of the old.
Brits should, however, be warned that if they are searching for an old world East Coast campus feel, Columbia may prove a disappointment. The university is a huge institution which encompasses fifteen different undergrad and grad schools on its extensive Morningside Heights campus.
As a result, it feels like a little oasis of student life amid the stresses and strains of an adult city. Most of the faces in your immediate environment will be young ones and the area is shaped by the students who live in it. Columbia College – the undergraduate school of Columbia University – is small enough to have a real sense of community, but its existence inside a vast university means there are always new people to meet. And, for those men who get sick of Columbia girls, the close affiliation with the all-female Barnard College offers whole new avenues of exploration!
Students enjoy life on the Columbia campus so much that 90% of them choose to live there for their entire college career. Columbia has great housing and 60% of students are guaranteed a single room. It may seem strange by English standards but in America it is not unheard of to live in doubles for most of your college career.
Most freshmen at Columbia choose to live in either Carman Hall or John Jay – buildings that inevitably turn into social centres for that class. On-campus accommodation is definitely the way to go – after all, who wants to pay the extortionate housing prices of NYC?
It takes a certain type of person to thrive at Columbia. New Yorkers are known for being as tough as they come and life at New York’s top university follows this trend. Many quiet country mice will be turned off by the overwhelming nature of the big city, the constant noise, and the proximity of Harlem – historically one of the least affluent and most crime-ridden areas of Manhattan. Now, however, the neighbourhood around Columbia is expensive, trendy and firmly part of the Upper West Side – to such an extent that it’s felt the campus no longer feels so much like an “island of safety”, resulting in the loss of some of its cultural identity.
Nor is this a school where the administration is prepared to baby you along. Columbia students (like thousands of their contemporaries) moan about the amount of work they are expected to do, the number of courses they have to take and the fact that the faculty expects a constant and high-level of commitment from them. Yet when questioned, they fiercely defend their school. It seems that those who survive that initial ‘sink or swim’ feeling, grow to love and appreciate both Columbia and New York for the independence their ‘tough-love’ approach inspires.
Although Columbia produces a class of highly independent and determined individuals with degrees in street smarts as well as academics, it does offer them a certain amount of help along the way. Columbia is well-known for the superiority of its advising system. This extends from the faculty to the in-dorm assistants, ensuring that you always have a place to go to with any questions. Columbia also has a nationally famous website ‘Go Ask Alice’ that answers any questions about sex, drugs, alcohol and general student debauchery that you could possibly think of posing.
Columbia students like to work hard but they also like to play hard. Luckily this is a university that offers them the opportunity to do both. Columbia has great resources, great teaching and about a million and one extra-curricular pursuits that you can get involved in. Whether you are playing in orchestras, ripping up the sports pitches or taking part in the huge social action programmes that work with New Yorkers, chances are your schedule will fill up within days of arriving on campus.
The Columbia atmosphere is not for the laid-back. The bustle of the busiest city in the world is right outside your doorstep and even the laziest students are energized by it. Furthermore, Columbia actively expects you to do more in life than academics (something that some of the more uptight East Coast universities could learn from). It is thus perfectly possible to take five classes, belong to two clubs and one sports team and still enjoy an active social life. Be warned though – your eight hours’ sleep a night might suffer slightly!
One of the nicest things about Columbia is the amount of school spirit its students have. While students at colleges that bask at the top of the Ivy Leagues routinely bitch about their academic institutions, students at Columbia, a school that is normally ranked slightly lower, rave about their university. School events such as Homecoming (another of those bizarre American occasions involving sports teams and beer) help to increase this sense of belonging to the community.
After all, how difficult is it to sport what has to be one of the nicest university colours (a perfect baby blue) and gather around one of the coolest university football symbols (the lion)? Columbia students even managed to remain enthusiastic when their football team hit the infamous ‘Streak’ of failure back in the 1980’s – forty-five losses in a row! And in a sense this sums up the Columbian student – enthusiastic, optimistic and determined to succeed in a high-pressure and demanding environment.
Hitting The Books
Columbia College enjoys the unique position of maintaining an intimate academic community within a major and wealthy university. As such its undergraduates have access to all the resources they could possibly want – including strings of research labs and an impressive college library.
Yet, at the same time, they work in small classroom settings – around 70% of the classes have under twenty students – and thus benefit from actually getting the attention of the professor. Sometimes this attention may seem a little much, especially for those British students who prefer to hide in the back of a large lecture hall. With a student-faculty ratio of 7:1, there is little escape – a disadvantage for those students hoping to breeze their way through college but, ultimately, one of Columbia’s biggest strengths.
For while NYC offers Columbia students the chance to play hard, the faculty also expect them to work hard. This is a competitive environment and requires a certain amount of dedication. For one thing, Columbia students take five classes a semester, one more than the average number, and a significant juggling feat for those Brits who are used to specializing.
But while the moans may go up around campus, this curriculum actually allows Columbian students a huge degree of flexibility in choosing their courses. The most popular majors include English, History and Politics but many students choose to double major. The ultra-talented, and ultra-efficient, may even find time to do joint degrees with either the fantastic Juilliard school of music or the school of engineering.
Some Columbia students complain about the bureaucracy of their academic system and state that the individual student has to be both assertive and energetic in finding out what they want to do. Columbia does not baby its students but, clichéd as it sounds, the more you put in, the more you get out.
And, of course, you get to do it all in a centre that could not be more conducive to academic learning. Whether you’re taking a history course, studying Egyptian art or struggling with the finer points of physics, New York is guaranteed to have a library, organization or exhibition just for you.
Core curricula are the dread of many British students headed across the Atlantic. After all who wants to take more maths after finishing GCSES? Columbia, however, is renowned for core classes which pride themselves on stimulating their students in intellectual discussion about the matters that are truly important to the world. This may all seem a bit pretentious, but students rave about the small seminars and the chance they get to pick apart the world’s great philosophers, writers, artists and politicians on a weekly basis.