Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to Learn What College Fits For You

I have always been fascinated with liberal arts colleges. Ever since I learned about Sarah Lawrence from one of my favourite books (if you can guess what it is, please do), the idea of the small research-based community has appealed to me. Many liberal arts colleges are reputed to be incredibly flexible and tight-knit, which I felt fit me immensely.

That is why when we arrived in Poughkeepsie to visit Vassar, I was actually rather excited. I was still nursing a slight headache from the rushed morning, but I was excited. I would finally get to see a top liberal arts college and ascertain whether it was a good fit for me.

The weather was misty and humid, with the scent of petrichor permeating through all of Poughkeepsie. There were dark brick buildings scattered everywhere. The weather and the construction echoed Ithaca to me, the addition of the Hudson River in the area only added to the scene.
The Vassar Chemistry Department.
The central Vassar class hall.
Glass windows that adorn the Thompson Memorial Library.
The frontal facade of a Vassar residential hall.
We toured the campus, taking note of it's uniqueness and the small amount of land it actually had. It is a very small campus, and the student population was apparently only 2400. There were no graduate students and there were no programs for them anyways -- Vassar was dedicated to being just a college. This allowed students to get to know their professors intimately, as well as provided a strong sense of community between the small population. It was practically everything that a big university would not necessarily have. There was no core -- only three classes were required and students were even allowed to create their own majors. This allowed the school to supposedly make up for the small amount of majors that actually are offered. A lot of the administrative decisions were made by student-run governments, and even most of the theatre productions were small 

Once the tour was over, we made our way to the theatre and attended an information session with one of the many admissions officers at Vassar. She covered the application process from top to bottom, from the necessary scores (they ask to send in cumulative scores) to the two Vassar supplements -- the motivation form and the 'Your Space' submission, a submission that can be anything as so long as it is representative of a person.


After the Vassar visit, we shuttled ourselves back to New York City, where Ms. Kronenberg accompanied us for a walk around Battery Park City, Wall Street, and the World Trade Center. We saw the Statue of Liberty from a distance, mingled with the disparate members of Occupy Wall Street, and reflected on the September 11 attacks at the 9/11 memorial.
The Staten Island Ferry terminal at Battery Park.
Looking to the sea from Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty is in the distance.
Wall Street in full force during the day.
The new 1 World Trade Center under construction.
The South Reflecting Pool at the 9/11 Memorial.
To cap off the day, we spent some time at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant at the London. There, we met with several Vassar alums (and one student) to speak about the school. They related stories of how every student knew their professors' love lives, the reasons for choosing Vassar (which was usually because of the fellowship in the community and the small class sizes), and most importantly, gave us general advice about college and senior year, urging us to enjoy it as soon as college applications were done.
My dessert, a mango parfait.
Despite all the perks Vassar seems to have, I couldn't see myself attending classes there. The campus was simply too small, and discounting the possibility that the community might be more friendly or that the professors would pay more attention, I just knew that it wasn't the right fit for me. I needed the hustle and bustle of a mass of people, the ability to access any part of civilization on a whim.


I couldn't have reached any of these conclusions without having taken the chance to visit Vassar and speak with some of their great students. I am sure that it is a beautiful campus, and that the college itself is marvelous for those who are attuned to it.


For now, at least I know I can look elsewhere for that right fit.

To Vassar College

Today, we had the wonderful opportunity to visit Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We traveled by train for roughly an hour and a half; of course, by that time, N.Y.C. was far from sight.


Before we sat in on our informational session, we took part in a tour around campus. Vassar has a rich history in regards to its buildings; in the main hall, the halls are unusually wide due to the fact that it was constructed so as to provide enough room for women to walk past one another while wearing large hoops under their dresses.

Vassar is coeducational; this was immediately noted when we visited the dorm rooms and bathroom facilities. I did not particularly like the idea of bathrooms open for both sexes, although coeducational floors I enjoy. 

Almost all students live on campus, as housing is guaranteed for all four years. 

There are roughly 2,400 students - all undergraduates. This means that the undergraduates are the professors' priority; all classes are taught by faculty members, and class sizes are minuscule, which ensures an engaging class experience where each student is able to communicate with their professors on a much more intimate level.

Vassar emphasizes the transcript as one of the most crucial aspects when considering applicants. Challenging courses and taking advanced classes when offered the chance to do so is noted, and an emphasis on standardized test scores (ACT, or SAT & SAT IIs) is apparent. I noted that students may submit ACT scores, or SAT scores. If students choose to utilize the SAT in their application, they must also include two Subject Test scores as well. 

We would be able to learn much more later in the evening when we sat down with Vassar representatives for dinner.

Tonight we dined at Gordon Ramsay along with a handful of current and past students of Vassar College. We had the opportunity to ask them questions that usually go unanswered during typical informational sessions and tours, and for this we are very grateful. 

Vassar is a rather small liberal arts school, and this in itself provides an educational opportunity where a tight-knit community thrives. Students and faculty are able to build a close relationship due to the incredibly small class sizes, which can lead to greater participation in class and support. Its convenient location is perfect for commuting by train to city of New York for internships, recreational activities, and so on. However, it is located far enough away from the urban area to provide a learning environment free of distractions that the city can cause.

The representatives spoke to me about how the student government plays such a prominent role in the college; the administration is very hands-off and allows its students to carry out events and plan activities for the student association. Each house/dorm building elects a governing body, which composes a part of the student council. Being a part of the student association is a great way to be involved on campus and hone leadership skills.

This being my first time in such a school, I found that I did not particularly enjoy smaller institutions outside of cities.However, Vassar is without a doubt a wonderful school; if you are seeking a school that is small, comfortable, and has a close community feel, along with a great liberal arts program, it is a college to consider. 

Goodbye, New York

Today, we had the wonderful opportunity to visit Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. We traveled by train for roughly an hour and a half; of course, by that time, N.Y.C. was far from sight.


Before we sat in on our informational session, we took part in a tour around campus. Vassar has a rich history in regards to its buildings; in the main hall, the halls are unusually wide due to the fact that it was constructed so as to provide enough room for women to walk past one another while wearing large hoops under their dresses.

Vassar is coeducational; this was immediately noted when we visited the dorm rooms and bathroom facilities. I did not particularly like the idea of bathrooms open for both sexes, although coeducational floors I enjoy. 

Almost all students live on campus, as housing is guaranteed for all four years. 

There are roughly 2,400 students - all undergraduates. This means that the undergraduates are the professors' priority; all classes are taught by faculty members, and class sizes are minuscule, which ensures an engaging class experience where each student is able to communicate with their professors on a much more intimate level.

Vassar emphasizes the transcript as one of the most crucial aspects when considering applicants. Challenging courses and taking advanced classes when offered the chance to do so is noted, and an emphasis on standardized test scores (ACT, or SAT & SAT IIs) is apparent. I noted that students may submit ACT scores, or SAT scores. If students choose to utilize the SAT in their application, they must also include two Subject Test scores as well. 

We would be able to learn much more later in the evening when we sat down with Vassar representatives for dinner.

Tonight we dined at Gordon Ramsay along with a handful of current and past students of Vassar College. We had the opportunity to ask them questions that usually go unanswered during typical informational sessions and tours, and for this we are very grateful. 

Vassar is a rather small liberal arts school, and this in itself provides an educational opportunity where a tight-knit community thrives. Students and faculty are able to build a close relationship due to the incredibly small class sizes, which can lead to greater participation in class and support. Its convenient location is perfect for commuting by train to city of New York for internships, recreational activities, and so on. However, it is located far enough away from the urban area to provide a learning environment free of distractions that the city can cause.

The representatives spoke to me about how the student government plays such a prominent role in the college; the administration is very hands-off and allows its students to carry out events and plan activities for the student association. Each house/dorm building elects a governing body, which composes a part of the student council. Being a part of the student association is a great way to be involved on campus and hone leadership skills.

This being my first time in such a school, I found that I did not particularly enjoy smaller institutions outside of cities.However, Vassar is without a doubt a wonderful school; if you are seeking a school that is small, comfortable, and has a close community feel, along with a great liberal arts program, it is a college to consider. 

Skull&Bones 6

Of course, the first day Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Kronenberg, our chiefs and school board members, join us on a tour, we forget to wake up. We are so late that we almost miss the 7:15 Poughkeepsie train out of Penn Station. We make it, though, by a hair's breadth. 

Poughkeepsie Station
The ride north along the Hudson is spectacular. The Vassar campus, about a ten minute drive from Poughkeepsie, is an empire of red  brick and grey stone separated by trees, green spaces, and theaters. I counted at least four of them, which is impressive when one considers that only about 2,000 undergraduates go to Vassar (average class size, 16). Though not even in the top five majors (psych, econ, English, biology, and history, if I remember correctly), dance, drama, and live music are a huge part of campus life; one does not need to be in the department to perform. (Fun fact: Vassar boasts the third largest collection of Steinway pianos in the world; every dorm hall has one.)

Upon reflection, though, it's not so surprising. Almost all of the students live on campus all four years, and  they spend almost all of their time there. Add a few feet of snow for a few months of the year, and watch the theaters get filled up.

Vassar is not for everyone, but there are--get this--over 125 clubs and organizations on  campus. And here is another but: whom Vassar is for will surprise anyone. At dinner tonight, I spoke to an incredible young man named Ken Miles, whose titles and honors I could not possibly remember, except for the observation that they far outstrip his years, and the only thing that outstrips them is his charm. Ken told me about Vassar's connection with the African American community, which dates back to a sit-in in 1969 and the subsequent creation of the Africana(!) Studies department. Amusingly, Ken relates how when he applied to and started his life at Vassar, he had no idea about this connection of the school and his community. He attributes this to Vassar's particular sensitivity to the needs and preferences of its students of color, born out of 40 years of an increasingly welcoming experience.
Desert and candy? Cohort and Vassar alums after dinner

From now on, when some of my students inform me that they will be taking an extra week's vacation in the spring to visit Traditionally Black Colleges in the southeast, and that I therefore need to give them slack on their homework, I will encourage them with even more slack if they promise to visit Vassar in the northeast, as well. 

In between Vassar and dinner at the Gordon Ramsey, here's what we did:

From Battery Park, we contemplated Lady Liberty, off in the distance. Then we 
contemplated occupying Wall Street, but then thought, that would never work. From there, it was over to the 911 Memorial, the abyssal pools and the Surviving Tree.


Ms. Kronenberg came along and, being a New Yorker, provided context and depth, for which we thank her.



I Love NY

I can scarcely begin to believe that I have already been through three states in four days. But I, of course, must come to terms with that; after all, each place had their touch of food to compensate for the lack of static existence over the past few days, which I do not mind at all.


Welcome to Madison Square Garden!
Today began with a rousing knock and bagel delivery from Mr. Litvin, reminding us to be ready soon to go to the train station. We departed early in the morning (around 9 AM) from Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, and made our way to New York City. We checked in our luggage into the Empire Hotel before setting off for Columbia on foot. Mr. Litvin took us on a tour through Central Park, where we saw many of the ancient basalt rocks as well as the Dakota Building, the former home and site of the murder of John Lennon, one of the Beatles.


One of the pristine lakes in Central Park.
Eventually, we boarded the subway train to Columbia University. Being able to ride on New York's famed transit system was an amazing experience. The sheer mass of people far outweighed any Bart ride I have ever been on. Truly, no one uses a car in this city.


 We arrived promptly at 2 PM for the information session. The admissions director who delivered the session, Diane McKoy, had been at Columbia for over thirty years. One could see she knew the breadth and depth of the school. She covered a myriad of things during the information session, such as the general SAT score range for admitted students (2130 - 2380), the many programs Columbia has available for cultural enrichment (including a Directed Arts program that pays for tickets to city operas, plays, and concerts), and of course, the famed (and sometimes infamous) Columbia core. She outlined the exact courses we needed to take, and when, including a sports course in addition to another physical education course, a writing workshop, contemporary studies, and a set math program. The core had existed in Columbia for decades -- meaning that it is obviously a system that works for, at least, some people.


The Low Library, the central administration building for Columbia University.
 Our group split into the engineering and arts groups and toured the campus. We visited a few of the undergraduate halls around campus, as well as the main residence halls. Our tour guide advised us not to leave campus for as long as possible if we attend there, as the New York rent was "way too high."


The main quad, otherwise known as the "Urban Beach"
Finally, at Columbia, we met with regional admissions officer Dana Pavarini and another undergraduate student, Stephanie. We did not need to ask her much as Ms. McKoy had covered practically everything in the information session, but we asked a few clarifying questions (such as the supplement and the testing required for the application).


 Next, we had dinner at Trattoria del Arte with ECHS alumnus and current Columbia student Matt Arcinega and a few other Columbia undergraduates. I specifically spoke with Evan Munro (Matt's roommate) and Andrea Hazday about the student life at Columbia. They affirmed that while sports school spirit was not necessarily the best, it was compensated by other clubs and activities throughout the campus.


They also expressed their love of the core, as the system allowed each of them to study a wide range of topics that was uniform throughout the school. I also spoke quite a bit with Matt about Columbia, as well as other subjects, such as his brother Joe (whom I attended Cornell with last summer), Boy Scouts, and the Yale Ivy Scholars program (he was one of the first participants in the program).


Before I visited Columbia, I was rather iffy about applying there. I knew a little about the core and it's stringency turned me off from the school. But after speaking with the students and learning was the core consisted of, I became much more open to applying there. The decision for that is only a few months away, but right now, I am considering applying. And I can't thank the students and the admissions staff enough for justifying my reconsideration.

After dinner, Mr. Litvin took us to Times Square, Grand Central Station, and Bryant Park. New York City is truly an marvelous spectacle at night, with the grandeur of ancient Gothic and Greco-Roman-influenced architecture contrasted with the neon lights and mass hordes of people that crowded the streets. It is an experience everyone should undergo at least once in their lives. 


Bryant Park at night, with the backdrop of the city.
Tomorrow, we are headed off to Poughkeepsie to visit Vassar. It should be a great change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the big city, so it will be quite interesting. In the meantime, till tomorrow!
Skull&Bones 5

Blogging stops at 2-3 a.m. every night, then it’s 3-4 hours of sleep, if we’re lucky (not tonight!), and then one more hour or so on the train. We get to Penn Station at 11 a.m.; the kids step outside and it’s New York City: Madison Square Garden on top of us, madness all around. Up 8th Ave. in a cab, towards Lincoln Center, slowly, in the midst of all the glorious din. (“Oh look there’s… Oh, and there’s…”)

Too early to check in, we drop off our bags at the Empire, on West 63rd. We have two hours to walk to Morningside Heights and the Columbia campus. We go by way of Central Park. After the last three days, the gods of summer smile on us and grant us a breezy, dry, sunny, warm day.

Start spreading the news
We clamber on the black basalt, whose sister rocks—separated hundreds of millions of years and two oceans ago—make up the Scottish highlands.

We pay tribute to John Lennon at the Dakota and have pretzels at the Natural History Museum. The park is as lovely as could be, but at 96th Street we descend to the 1 train. As we would find out later at dinner, the first test the city administers is at the turnstiles: how many times will it take to swipe that damn card? We do just fine. Most of us, that is.
For how impressive the Columbia campus is, area-wise it’s relatively small, maybe 25-30 square blocks. And where UPenn has more of a gothic vibe, architecturally speaking, Columbia is definitely and heavily classical. (For you kids: think Harry Potter vs. Percy Jackson.)

What's Pan doing on Apollo's turf?
At Columbia, it’s all about The CORE. At the info session, on the tour, at the dinner we would be having later… the core is queen. What is it? The writings, and I quote, of dead white men; dead hundreds, thousands of years. The core is 35% of total curriculum, 25% for engineers (because they’re also building aqueducts, presumably, stone by stone… but I digress). The core is called the core because calling it the canon is subjective, perhaps even smacking of cultural chauvinism, whereas calling it the core is only localizing it at the foundation of all Western (Civ.) learning; so that’s more objective.

I don’t care. I love it and I teach it, in digestible doses, to my AP Language and Composition high school juniors. My students, and Columbia’s students, initially balk. But when my students come back to visit from college, they are grateful. And when Columbia’s upperclassmen reflect, they are also grateful. Maybe grateful isn’t the word, though; maybe the word is resigned, resigned to the fact that Columbia’s core is now their core.

Some would call it brainwashing; some would call it education. At Columbia, being the dialecticians that they are, they call it contextualization. What they mean, I think, is that’s it’s all good and fine to take a class on Zen, turn in a blank final essay, and get an A; that’s what college is for. But no matter how much that Zen blank paper is not supposed to mean anything, it means even less, if anything, without the context of the core.

Now it’s 3:30 a.m. and I’m speaking in koans.

koan


Good night.

The Big Apple

Have you ever forgotten that you did something because you were so busy? Well, I've been feeling that way ever since I've arrived to the east coast. Time just zooms by and eludes us every time. 

This morning we caught a train from Philadelphia to New York. Things happen so quickly that I forgot we were even in Philadelphia this morning. We arrived to the Empire hotel a little later. We settled down and soon after, began our trek to Columbia University. On our way, we walked through Central Park. It was nice walking down the park. The weather was enjoyable and a view of the eastern side of New York just happened to remind me of The Great Gatsby.

We took a subway train to Columbia University. The college was really nice, small, and enclosed. Even though it was in New York, it still had a college feel to it. We had our information session with Diane Mckoy who was very informative. She spoke of all the exciting things that Columbia has to offer from club activities to its academics. Something that stood out was that they had over 200 international study abroad programs. We then had our tour and afterwards, got to speak with our regional admissions officer, Dana Pavarini. She helped answer some questions we had about the school. We learned that AP college credits are transferable but it doesn't exempt you from taking the course. Also, we learned that the engineering programs offered there were excellent. Something strange I learned was that every student, besides the engineer majors, had to pass a swimming test. The myth is that they needed to be able to cross the Hudson River to New Jersey in case of an attack by the British. I'm not so sure about that but it seems that every college we've visited so far has had some crazy/interesting stories behind it. We couldn't chat for too long since we had to leave to get ready for the dinner tonight. We were grateful to have her company though.

Columbia University


Times Square doesn't shine as bright as you.
me, man in a cookie monster suit, and Jobel
The ladies: Julia and Tanya


Tonight we ate at Trattoria Dell'Arte, a fancy italian restaurant. Here we met with students of Columbia University and a fellow grand strategist from Yale. It was nice getting to meet another group of superb students from  an amazing college. We conversed on a matter of subjects ranging from the Yale Ivy Scholars Program to each of their own reasons for applying to Columbia. It was very helpful to speak with Matt Arcinega who also took the grand strategies course. He gave some words of advice and it was to give it all I got. It may sound simple but hearing it from him somehow motivated me to want to try even harder. The dinner was delicious but the desert was even better! After desert was finished, Mr. Ramsey left and the entourage soon followed. We bid our farewells and then headed towards Times Square.
Times Square was beautiful. We toured around New York for a while and finally made it back to the hotel. This hotel is really nice but expensive. All the food items are outrageously priced and there's no water around! Anyways, today was a wonderful day. I managed to grab a couple of souvenir items (I love NY shirts) and tour around. Luckily we have another day to stay here. I'm looking forward to tomorrow.

New York, New York

When we disembarked the train at the Pennsylvania Station in New York, the first thing we immediately realized was the excellence in our planning - the weather was absolutely gorgeous. We took advantage of it shortly after we dropped off our things at the Empire Hotel as we trekked through Central Park on our way to Columbia University. 


In the Garment District of NY.
A firetruck struggles to permeate the city traffic.
The lobby of the Empire Hotel.
Central Park.
The Dakota, former Beatle John Lennon's home.
Times Square.


Our feet being tired after days of intense walking, we decided to utilize the city's public transit system and take the subway to Columbia University. Once there, we engaged ourselves in an informational session and campus tour at Columbia, and learned about what the undergraduate students' options were at the institution. We also had the chance to sit down for a private session with the admissions officer for the Bay Area. She and an accompanying student of Columbia were kind enough to have a seat with us to answer any questions that we had. 


At Columbia, prospective high school students may apply to one of two undergraduate schools - Columbia College, and Columbia Engineering and Science. Though both schools are distinct in terms of concentration, all undergraduate students must complete the Core Curriculum, similar to general education requirements. Regardless of their major, in order to provide a splendid liberal arts education as well as shape young students into well-rounded individuals, the Core is rigorous, yet undoubtedly rewarding. Fulfilling a science, global core, foreign language, and physical education requirement is required. 

Most prospective students groan at the idea of Core; however, all of the students that I spoke with at the dinner this evening asserted that it was one of the best aspects of Columbia. Not only does it open students to classes such as writing and art humanities; it also provides a sense of community among the students in the fact that every person is taking the same class and a common experience is shared. 

The company of the several current Columbia students was pleasant; I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with them regarding student life and academia. 

After dinner, our cohort decided to seize what we had left of the day to explore New York City. We visited Times Square, Grand Central Terminal. 


New York is such a vibrant city, during both the day and the night. Hopefully this will not be the last time I am back.