I arrived at Columbia from my home in Mozambique three years ago yesterday. Immediately after saying goodbye to my parents, I took the elevator up to Carman 9, shut myself in my room, and cried.
I set up my computer and my mini-wireless router (Carman didn’t have wi-fi in those days—hurrah for Ethernet cables), and took refuge in the angsty teen music that had comforted me in dark days during high school. After a good dose of Linkin Park and Nickelback, I began to feel a bit like somebody understood my sorrows. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one to have ever left home and felt lonely before!
It took K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” coming on shuffle, stirring all those joyful memories of the South Africa World Cup, to get me to bounce up and out of my self-pity. My renewed joy was only slightly diminished by the realization that people here called it “soccer” and would probably fail to appreciate the beautiful game fully, but that couldn’t be helped. Only finding other people and conversation could possibly help me feel like a Columbian. So I wandered back to ISOP check-in in Hartley Lounge, and met a wonderfully gregarious crew of 10 people accoutered in red shirts emblazoned with “ISOP.” They were from France, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and many more incredible places—they knew what it is like to feel in-between and never quite rooted, and, best of all, they found my stories of home as fascinating as I found theirs! (Although they were real Columbians, and inevitably much cooler than me.) I hung around with these people, my Orientation Leaders, for the rest of the afternoon, getting to meet all my fellow arriving ISOPers in the process.
Within a few hours, my tears were forgotten, I’d chatted with the Hyderabadi-San Franciscan who was to become one of my closest friends, and I’d met people who spoke over 30 languages combined. Of course, we were all in varying degrees of zombie-fication from jet lag, but there was instant conviviality and camaraderie that first evening in Lerner Party Space. That was Columbia’s very first ISOP, and it was like no other ever since, because Hurricane Irene visited New York that weekend and drove us all indoors. But, from a forlorn Frisbee game just before the rain struck to taking over Roone Auditorium to play board games, we formed enduring bonds. Seeing fellow ISOPers around campus reassured us through all the overwhelming introductions of NSOP to come. ISOPers became my best friends—we joined Delta GDP together to work for development in our home countries—and I was back the next year to serve as an OL.
ISOP is a wonderful time and (in my humble opinion) the best way to be introduced to Columbia. In hindsight, here are a couple bits of advice to make the most of it:
Make sure to let your OLs know how much you appreciate their work, because, having been on the other side too, I can tell you all that programming took piles of planning.
Don’t forget that classes are coming! In a way, ISOP—and NSOP—give you all the wrong messages about Columbia, because it’s college in America without any responsibilities. You’re going to need routines of eating and sleeping that help you cope with the pressures ahead.
You can relate to Americans, too. As magnificently fun as the international student community that ISOP magics into existence is, it’s important to realize that your most important point of connection on campus is that you are all Columbians, sons and daughters of Alma Mater. Be sure to join extracurriculars that bond you with people from the 50 states as well as from the 200-ish nations of the world!