From Community College to Columbia

Posted on December 02, 2016  -  10 min read

I dropped out of college at twenty. The next few years were spent at various jobs until I ended up as a legal assistant at a law firm. The firm was filled with fax machines, typewriters, and massive paper files. What was the norm in 1988 was still the norm in the legal industry at the time. It was a slow moving beast, mired in paper and yesterday’s technology. I wanted to work with modern technology and be part of the future but there was no future for an aimless college dropout. I couldn’t see a way forward, so I went back.

The Borough of Manhattan Community College

Community college was an eye-opening experience. On one hand you had the highly motivated students, usually older, who had experienced life first hand. Many had full time jobs, kids, and experience working low wage jobs. Most of the ones I met worked in retail or dead end jobs, and college for them was a ticket out of their daily struggle and into a comfortable future. On the other hand, you had the unmotivated students, usually younger and straight out of high school. Most treated it as an extension of high school, 13th and 14th grade, as a way to defer working for a little bit. While I could sympathize with them, I fell into the former group of students. I was motivated, but I lacked a clear picture of where I wanted to be. My idea of dreaming big was a degree from the local four year college and a modest job doing something better than what I had been doing at the law firm. At this point, I was doing well in school, working my way through a business management degree, content with my potential future. Who knew that taking a mandatory speech class, and randomly choosing a time slot that worked well with my schedule would land me with a professor that would change my life?

My Speech 101 professor, Dr. Poster, is a long time teacher and administrator at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). She has a reputation of being a tough teacher, who expects a lot from her students and will hold them to a high standard. While plenty of her colleagues passed students who handed in sub par work, she held firm and expected quality work. She has an uncanny ability to see the best in her students, and to push them hard to realize their potential. Which is what she did with me. She brought me into her office one day and asked me about my plans for the future, what I wanted to do with my life, and where I saw myself going after I finished at BMCC. I gave her the rough layout of my college and career goals. Then she dropped a bomb on me.

“Why don’t you apply to Columbia?”

I had never even given Columbia serious consideration. That seemed way out of my reach, me, a college dropout in a no-name community college. I wasn’t a savant, I hadn’t done anything truly worthwhile, what chance did I have? She convinced me that it was worth trying and helped connect me to some people who could help with the application process. To my amazement, I got in.

Columbia University

Walking through the gates on 116th street and Broadway the first time was surreal. Stepping onto the Columbia grounds gives you the feeling that you’ve been transported miles away from New York City. I walked through rows of trees lining the main entrance which drew me into the center of campus. To the left were the stairs leading to Low Library, and to the right grassy fields and cleanly trimmed hedges leading to Butler Library. I can only describe the feeling as a sort of reverence, standing in this place where many generations of students have come and gone. A sort of… temple to the religion of academia. I had lived in New York City my entire life and had never known there was such a place.

My first semester there, I took a “relatively light” load of four classes while still working part time. Very quickly, I realized that four classes was not a light load and I had to quit my job. If I was going to pass my classes, showing up and doing homework was not enough. I was under water my first week of classes, drowning under the crushing weight of the volume, frequency, and difficulty of the work. It turns out that community college had not adequately prepared me for the rigors of real academia. Classes were much harder, especially since I was majoring in Economics-Mathematics, a major which combined the two disciplines and was similar to completing 80% of both degrees. To survive in this tough academic environment, you enter a sort of perpetual fight or flight mode. Fear had a lot to do with the stress. Fear of failing a class and extending my stay another semester with the associated costs. Fear of failing out of the school, leaving with significant debt without a degree to show for it. Fear that now that I had reached for the stars, I would fail and come crashing back to the ground. All these fears would be my main motivator and subsequently the reason I was able to graduate on time.

I’d best describe the time between when a semester begins and when it ends as a long slow grind. You’re grinding out work, studying, reading, writing and problem sets. Once you complete a task, work begins on the next one, over and over until it’s time to sleep. In community college the bar is set a lot lower, mostly because the bar of students is a lot lower. Teachers expected average work and students presented a wide range of quality. At Columbia, I noticed that the range of quality was a lot smaller, and the quality of work was a lot higher. This meant that in order to be an average student at Columbia, I needed to work harder than I’d ever worked at BMCC. I had friends who were top students at BMCC, who were accepted to Columbia at the same time as I was. They echoed similar sentiments about the intensity of the work. I had thought of myself as an average student at best, and here were people I had considered harder working and smarter than myself struggling to get by.

There was an aura of stress surrounding the student body. As my time at Columbia progressed, I noticed I started showing it as well. I don’t know if this was an experience unique to Columbia, top tier schools, or just college in general but I do know that during my time at BMCC I had never experienced that dreadful fear of failing a class. At BMCC the worst that could happen was that I would get a C. At Columbia the worst was failing a class and throwing away thousands of dollars as a result. On the flip side, however, I’ve never seen as many hard-working people in one place in my entire life. The maturity and discipline it took for these students to buckle down and study was inspirational for me. It helped to be surrounded by these hard-working students. I fed off the energy of my fellow students. I found it refreshing to be surrounded by people who were motivated especially coming from an environment where a fraction of your grade was determined by your attendance.

I noticed the disparity between the students the most during group assignments. Once at BMCC, I worked with a group to produce a final report which would make up a large portion of my grade. One of our group members disappeared part way through the semester and did not respond to any of our emails. Left in charge of her portion we had to split her work. On the final day of class, when we were slated to hand in our report, she showed up with a crumpled print-out with a paragraph which was supposed to represent her portion, fully expecting us incorporate it with our work. Baffled, we had to turn her down and let her know that her work was unacceptable. In comparison, at Columbia, I worked with a group to present a report in which we all agreed to go the extra mile and create a video showcasing our findings. All members of the group were active, engaged, and contributed beyond their fair share of work. Though this is only anecdotal evidence, I found comparisons between idiosyncratic differences in the student bodies different enough to be startling.

However, the student body was not without its flaws. Though racially diverse, the students at Columbia mostly came from the same privileged socioeconomic background. I found the school’s population to be homogenous. I was used to interacting with students with working class backgrounds from New York City. The difference was quite stark, and I found myself having a difficult time forming friendships with my peers. I naturally gravitated towards older, “unconventional” students, who were also returning to college, mostly military veterans. I didn’t have much time to socialize though. I had a carefully planned course schedule to adhere to if I was going to graduate on time. I stuck my nose in my books and worked harder than I had ever worked in my life.

Post Columbia

I graduated. It surprised me much more than it should have. In hindsight it wasn’t all just studying and stress, there were plenty of good times along with the bad. I met a lot of great people during my time, many who have gone on to do some impressive things. I had worked my way through two and a half years and landed an internship which eventually turned into a job. From there, I transitioned to my current role as a Data Analyst at Penguin Random House, the largest book publisher in the US. Without my education from Columbia, data analytics would be a complete mystery to me. Putting in the hours and studying outside of work isn’t a chore as it would have been prior to going back to school. An example of that is that since graduating, I’ve been able to teach myself programming. I had attempted to do so in the past but had never pushed through the tedious parts, always getting stuck. Also, thanks to the fundamental math and economic education I received, I find working with large data sets much easier.

Looking back at it now, I can appreciate the rigor and the intensity of the work. Columbia helped push my boundaries and helped me realize what I’m capable of doing. Just three years prior, I matriculated from BMCC, content with a future that was just slightly better than the one I left. However, I would never have even thought to reach so high had Dr. Poster not seen something in me and pushed me to apply. It’s truly amazing what an effect one person can have on the trajectory of another person’s life and I’m grateful to her for what she’s done for me. She made me promise that I would never remove BMCC from my resume, to show others what students from a community college could achieve. I leave it on there for her, and to remind myself of my roots.