“Don’t judge people in September! Wait until spring semester to do that.”—my good friend Robert Furlong, Lawrence ’09
Life is full of stupid conversations, and, if you are a first-year, you have spent the last week having them. “Where are you from?” “Are you in SEAS?” “What are you going to study?” “English—I love English.” “What did you get on the SAT?” “What are you going to get on the MCAT?” “Did your OL also recommend Principles of Economics?” “Did you like The Iliad?” “What are you going to do with your life?”
This is best imagined as a monologue, since these questions have no answers. Talking to someone is not always synonymous with communicating with him. I spent months struggling to find common ground that didn’t exist. Well, it did exist, but it was shaky, volatile, marginal, and ultimately forgotten. And yet those first weeks of college are, for all of us, an enduring memory. Here are some snapshots that will linger long after you’ve ditched your first crew and resolve never to set foot in Pike again:
The Arrival. Autumn in New York is lovely, but it’s not autumn yet—there are fall clouds and summer humidity. You might be jet-lagged, like I was, but worry not— there’s a sleepless night ahead of you. And then a convocation speech courtesy of some smug, self-satisfied cad who has a triple major behind him and Yale Law ahead of him. Even if this isn’t you, at least you’re charming and likeable. You will get along famously with Columbians. Or will you?
Going Out at Night. During the year frats lie dormant, but at NSOP they explode: with energy; with sexual frustration; with too many bodies jammed in a four-story brownstone. You might actually want to be a part of this scene—for fifteen minutes. A keg is tapped out, like a watering hole sucked dry by wildebeests. Now is a good time to go outside and call that girl you kind of knew in high school, but not really. Maybe she is tipsy enough to passively prefer other male company, but at least you are miserable of your own volition.
Forced Fun. Disgustingly sober at 3 and shockingly hung-over at 11, you putter around for the better part of the day. Your night is more structured: there is the “BlaZe,” where you learn about the importance of “teamwork.” In reality, eight Columbia students will struggle collectively to complete a simple task. And then another, and then another—until your team finally makes it to Lerner. The sweat and heat makes you want to go out—maybe Beta tonight? Your team is a day late and a dollar short. It won’t be the first time.
Multiculturalism. This takes the form of mandatory-voluntary passive-aggressive diversity training. You get to meet your fellow students and learn to respect their differences. Every viewpoint is equally valid, and everyone is above average. This will be reinforced in Lit Hum and Frontiers of Science. Here is a lesson of my own: the admissions office will tell you otherwise, but a person is not diverse, people are diverse. Speaking of which...
Getting Off Campus. Did you know Columbia is right next to Harlem? Sure you did. Did you know Morningside Heights was purgatory, but Harlem was a wonderland of jazz, soul food, and “authentic pleasures”? Probably not, but your tour guide does—and every Starbucks or apartment erected after 1970 will elicit her worst epithets. But there is always a West African bazaar if you want to believe you’re in a Spike Lee movie, and as for soul food, you can find it on your own. It is expensive, but the company is gratis. Tomorrow you can walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and overpay for pizza. But at a school that costs 55 large a year, today’s “authenticity” is truly priceless.
While researching this article I was dismayed to find that the “BlaZe” was discontinued. I give the NSOP crew credit for altering the particulars but maintaining the spirit. Next year, the same kind of altruistic nincompoops will be cooped up in Columbia housing for months, planning the next event. It will be “different”—the forced fun event will have a different name, the class-wide Core lecture will give a different professor fifteen minutes of mediocrity, and a different young alumnus will slither back home to deliver an oily speech. Changes at Columbia are always on the surface; have you exchanged your Lacoste for Armani yet?
Take solace in this, though. You will soon learn that the University is a corporation, a Big Corporation. And yet it loses tons of money putting on NSOP. This means it must be well-intentioned. Find a professor or two and a group of friends with the same intentions (be wary of the self-sacrificial) and you will do just fine. But it might take a while.
Chris Morris-Lent is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. "Politics, Sex, and Religion" runs alternate Thursdays. firstname.lastname@example.org