Saturday, July 20, 2013

What A Journey

Where is the line drawn between a voyage and a residency? How long does it take to consider some new place your “home?” Is there a rulebook? Has somebody established the conditions that must be met to qualify the difference? Or is it subjective? Over the last 4 weeks, I have attended more events and more shows, covered more ground, been more places, and learned more things than I have ever before in such a condensed period of time. I lived in a college dorm, and took the compressed equivalent of a college-level course. I wrote my first research paper, and learned exponentially more about the history of the presidents and executive power in America than ever before. I spent the majority of my free time downtown, in the heart of New York City. I lived in the Upper West Side on Columbia’s beautiful campus, went to Greenwich Village, SoHo, Chinatown, Little Italy, Times Square, the Financial District, the piers, a boat cruise around the city, Long Beach… the list goes on. Nearly every single day I went somewhere to see a Broadway show – or go shopping in the cute boutiques around Washington Square Park - take a chance and try the Korean Barbeque across the street? Why not! - or just sit and enjoy the temperate (evening) weather on the stone steps that surround the statue of the Alma Mater. 
Though we were only really living in New York for about 4 weeks, the actual Ivy League Connection process lasted for much longer. I don’t even remember when I wrote that first essay about Martial Law to qualify me for an interview at the next level. That was the very first official step I took towards attending a class at Columbia University. A few weeks later, I was admitted to an interview round with some other students, and that very day, Anmol and I were chosen to be a part of the Ivy League Connection. When I initially applied to be a part of the ILC, the grand scheme of the ILC didn't really occur to me. At the time, it just seemed like a good opportunity, and a fun way to spend a summer. All of this happened months ago. I remember wearing a coat to the interview so it was probably during the winter, which was the end of first semester. (Ignoring the fact that Bay Area weather is very strange and I was in fact wearing a coat yesterday despite it being the middle of July.) So when I finally heard that I was accepted, and came to terms with the fact that I would get to take this class at Columbia, I was beyond excited. Anyway, my point is that the Ivy League connection has been a significant part of my agenda for longer than just the time of my stay in New York.

This last blog is a tough one. It’s our last chance to get everything out, to actually look back on everything we experienced and come to terms with how we’ve changed, how we’ve been affected, and how we’ve been influenced. Over the last couple of days I’ve found myself reading my draft  and adding a paragraph here, getting rid of a couple of sentences there. Wondering if I’m going to accurately describe the way I feel and come off the way that I intend to. It’s my last chance to tell this audience what I did, who I met, where I went and how I felt.
The Alma Mater
Our first dinner with alumni, in San Francisco, was terrifying. It was the first time we were sitting down with actual Ivy League graduates, at a very nice restaurant that required at least minimal etiquette knowledge – with our parental units, to boot, so we really had to be on our best behavior. The intimidation factor hindered my desire to communicate, and in retrospect I really regret not talking to the graduates more. From there on however, it got easier. At our first alumni dinner in New York City, I sat with the most eloquent, articulate man I’ve ever met. He basically told me the story of an art fraud case he handled in the past as though it were a prepared speech or the narration of a dramatic film. Alright, so that was pretty intimidating too. He was very invested in our conversation and frequently jumped into others across the table as well. It was fun dining with the Yale alumni, although now I think about it I’m not sure if Chad ever even got to eat his entrée. The dinners got less scary from that point on. We began having dinners with current students, admissions officers, and recent graduates, all of whom were much closer to our own ages and extremely interesting people. I got more comfortable talking to them and asking them questions, which was definitely a relief because I learned a ton about the schools they attended and got a real, accurate representation of the kinds of students that attended those schools.

From our trip to the 9/11 firefighters memorial
Some of my favorite experiences during my journey took me by surprise. My favorite location in the city quickly became Greenwich Village – I was instantly in love with its peaceful, tranquil vibe, and every time I visited I made it a priority to spend a decent amount of time in Washington Square Park. Now, Greenwich Village was on my top ten, but it’s hard to accurately portray a neighborhood just through photos and saturated paragraph-long descriptions online. During my stay in New York City, I went to the village 3 or 4 times (not including one failed attempt to cross the street into the Village due to the Pride Parade). I expected to love the off-Broadway show: Potted Potter. Potter was terrible. Seriously. If you’re in the neighborhood reading this blog, I don’t recommend it. In a complete spur of the moment, three friends and I decided to buy tickets for a matinee of Annie, and the only reason I was excited about that was because of the appeal of the Broadway seal. Annie was fantastic. Beforehand, a trip to the piers at sunset to see a shore-side showing of The Silver Linings Playbook seemed like just something fun to do on Wednesday after class, but the excursion was easily my favorite of the whole trip. I’d never seen the film before and it was amazing. The temperature was perfect, and our spot on the lawn was top-notch. Just hanging out for hours before the movie even started was enjoyable. Just being there was relaxing and fun. I also expected to prefer the contents of the MoMA over those of the Met, but spent an entire 3 hours in the European paintings wing alone of the Met, whereas I felt totally 16 at the MoMA walking around that one floor of solidly colored canvases, going “what?”

The Pride Parade

My favorite spot in New York City - Washington Square Park

Some weeks into the program, I was having difficulty writing substantial blog posts. The issue came to my chaperone’s attention and she then brought it to my own. Now I can’t speak for everybody on this, but the idea of having to blog every night for a month was hardly the most enticing aspect of the Ivy League connection. I know that I personally spent more than a few nights blogging, instead of socializing, or sleeping. Typically, it would take me the better part of an hour just to string together a semi-coherent series of thoughts to substantiate a “good” blog post. Don’t just talk about your day, event by event. That was the rule, basically. And it was hard. And often, I didn’t succeed at doing that. So my blogs were short, and boring. When I was, from multiple sources, chastised for my lacking blogging output, I acknowledged the concern but really tossed it over my shoulder. What’s the point of blogging every night? Is what we’re doing really that interesting? Obviously not if we’re supposed to avoid talking about how first waking up early sucks but breakfast was good and then class was interesting and after that we went to the MoMA … But that isn’t the point of the blogs. So what was the point? To say why class was interesting, what you experienced at the MoMA. Straighforward right? Easy enough. So what was my problem? My peers were consistently shoveling out deep, soul-searching stories about how amazed they were by the elements of Columbia: diversity, intellectual commitment, college life. I think one of the inherent expectations of those in charge of the ILC is that we will go through a metamorphic phase during the trip. That experiencing Ivy League life will change ours. And I guess my problem was that I had this stubborn mindset that it didn’t.

The diversity of Columbia didn’t blow my mind. I actually honestly think that our very own Bay Area is just as, if not more diverse than what I experienced at Columbia. On the surface, the student body of Columbia’s summer programs is incredibly manifold – take my own RA group for instance: Germany, Turkey, Belgium, South Korea, Washington, DC, New York. It doesn’t stop there either, something like 40% of all of the students were international. But diversity goes beyond nationality, beyond race. That kind of diversity was really the only kind present of campus. The official application process was pretty uncompetitive. All we needed to get into the class was a good transcript – and something like $8,000. So there’s the kicker really, everybody there, no matter what country they came from, what elite boarding school they attended, everybody was from basically the same socio-economic background. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but besides my WCCUSD classmates and I, the kids that I met at Columbia all came from well-to-do, successful families. Don’t get me wrong, they were smart. Not one kid that I met was unintelligent. Everybody had a colorful, captivating story, personal experiences etc. This one girl down the hall used to be in a relationship with the son of a celebrity, another girl did commercials, and another interned for a senator. So in a way, there was diversity present in all of these kids’ experiences, but these experiences were not specific to certain countries, and though I’m sure there was some cultural specificity, I didn’t get to immerse myself in a whole lot of it.

The level of intellectual commitment, I had expected. The classes offered were all taught at the same level as actual undergrad ones, and everyone there was a straight-A student, so I wasn’t surprised in class when all of my peers were capable of articulately answering confusing questions on the spot. The thing that differed between the classrooms of Columbia University and the classrooms of El Cerrito High School wasn’t the presence of the educationally devoted, but the absence of the intellectually uninterested. My classmates at El Cerrito High are smart people. My friends care about their education and performance in class, they want to go to good colleges and they work hard. So I wasn't surprised to find that my peers at Columbia were the same way. I definitely admired it, and I adored being in the midst of such academic dedication - but it didn't surprise me. 

The college life – well this was something new. I’ve been to sleepaway camps, but that’s a lame comparison really. Dorm life at Columbia is vastly different, you get one roommate, and you live in close quarters with the rest of the girls in your hall, in the 13 story building you live in. You go get food at the dining hall when you want to go get food; John Jay was open for a good portion of the day. It’s totally different from camp in the sense of all of the freedom we got. Friends of mine spent the day touring Princeton one day – you could literally go anywhere you wanted, to other states if you so desired, so long as you made curfew.

I was blandly unfazed by it all at the time. In my eyes, the many-cultured student body was just a student body. People are people. I liked a lot of the people I met, and I befriended them. There were a lot of people I didn’t like too. That wasn’t because they came from a certain country, and it wasn’t because they came from a certain economic background (because almost everyone came from that economic background). So it wasn’t until after I got home, that I realized that maybe, I’ve been looking at the wrong sense of the word “diversity.” When it all boils down the true essence of the diversity I experienced, it wasn’t the kind that you measure in color and number. The diversity in the people I met lay in their personalities. Race, nationality and personal wealth definitely all play into personality, but that personality factor often lies under the surface of the aspects of diversity that are easier to measure. So that’s why I was so exceedingly underwhelmed by the superficial state of diversity at Columbia during my stay, because I was not, at the time, able to see the diversity that everyone was seeing; I was too focused on the external aspects, and incapable of seeing why it mattered where everybody came from. One aspect of diversity that did take me by surprise was the political diversity I experienced. I've never attended school with as many conservative students as liberal, and there was so much political focus and involvement. People were in the loop, they knew what they were talking about. 
4th of July on Long Beach

Carnegie Deli
The class - oh my goodness, the class alone was an experience for me. American Presidential Power at Home and Abroad - From Washington to Obama. That was the full name of the course, and it was true to what it entailed. The class examined a few of the presidents throughout American history, and how they handled their claim to executive power. I totally expected the class to be a history class, and was taken off guard by the huge focus it had on political science. Even more so, the class was geared rather intensely towards the how-to's of research paper writing. Half of the total class time was dedicated to research in the libraries and writing our papers. Professor Porwancher, the instructor, taught me more about writing than I've learned in most of my english classes to date. I feel incredibly prepared to write research papers in college now, something that I would be terrified of, had I not taken this summer course. This class has left me feeling confident about writing college-level papers, and participating in engaging academic conversation. I've gotten the opportunity to learn about the atomic bomb in so much more depth than I would have gotten a chance to otherwise for a long time. The entire  Columbia library was at my disposal for weeks! The class was a real interest to me, and I just love having an increased amount of background knowledge about our country. 
My class! 

Something that I wasn’t completely aware of before my arrival at Columbia, was just how many classes were being offered as a part of the summer program. To put it into perspective, there were nearly 1,500 students there for just one session. I went into the program expecting there to be something like 7 or 8 classes around campus. Beyond that, I was surprised that not all of the classes were academically focused. A girl down my hall that I met was taking an art class, and from the various people I met, it seems like there were more than a couple art classes. I think it would be great, in the future, if the ILC offered scholarships in other areas, like an art, or theatre. Some of the universities we visited during the first week of the trip (Yale comes to mind) have fantastic art departments, and being given the chance to participate in an art program would definitely benefit somebody who is devoted to the field.

I truly can’t believe a program like the ILC even exists. The fact that it is so generous and recurrently successful is unbelievable, and that the program is exclusive to my school district puts into perspective just how incredibly lucky I am. I’m exceedingly grateful to everyone who is a part of the ILC, who makes it possible for students who would not be able to otherwise, take advanced summer courses on the other side of the country – at Ivy League schools nonetheless.

The ILC is incredible. I’m amazed at all of the work and time that its founders have dedicated to keep it afloat and raring ahead. I’m grateful for it. And I’m grateful to the sponsors that make it possible for all of the ILC students to attend the classes. Though I honestly think that I missed out on the life changing aspect of the ILC, this past month has truly been the time of my life. I had a great time as a whole and I have so much gratitude for everybody who made it possible for me to have such a great experience.

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