The Intimidation Factor

College is a scary place.  It’s scary in the same way that crazy old man’s house at the dark end of the street is scary.  It’s like the silhouette of the immense castle in the dark, with bats flying around in the moonlight.  It’s scary because you haven’t been there before—it’s an unknown.  Until you take that first step on your adventure, you will always be afraid.

 College can be very intimidating, what with the size of the campus, the amount of classwork and the high cost of tuition involved.  Add the expectations of attending a “name” university, especially from friends and family, and it can be a terrifying experience indeed.  I could not help recalling my own sense of intimidation the first time I stepped off the “1” train at 116th Street—pardon me, at the Columbia University station.

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That was the first clue that I may have been out of my element.  Unlike many other station markers, the name of the school wasn’t simply displayed on a black-and-white destination sign, or even on one of the rarely-seen grey site markers used by the MTA; no, the name of the school was spelled out in marble tile, as if the station was assigned to the college itself.  Since Columbia pre-dates the station by 250 years, it’s no wonder that the university seal and school colors figure prominently in the station’s design.  If that wasn’t enough, a sizeable number of passengers clad in all manner of Columbia blue gear let me know what this place was all about. It was a college town within a single neighborhood; a neighborhood that wasn’t mine.

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Once you exit the station, you are smack-dab in the middle of academia—the west gate of Columbia, complete with Roman scholar statues, bid you entry on one side of Broadway, while the imposing dark gates of Barnard College await you across the street.  The collection of buildings that line the street was a mix of ancient and modern, with the former definitely holding sway.  Looking uptown, the Union Theological Seminary adds a feeling of reverence to the place, its white and grey stones standing out against the browns and reds of the other buildings.

Taking all of this in, I immediately felt overwhelmed.  It must be understood that I was coming from a college whose entire Manhattan campus takes up a floor and three-quarters of a single office building, so please allow me my feeling of oh-my-gawdness.  I dared not enter the gates; first because my own destination was a little further north, but mainly because I felt I was not allowed to do so.  I was not a student yet, nor a relative or a faculty member or a visiting professor or guest speaker or janitor or whatever.  The sheer size and grandeur of the place both enticed and terrified me, so much so that I even kept a wide berth between myself and the walls along my path.

When I finally did reach my destination, I had to take a step back—no, I actually had to cross the street first, then take a step back—to take in the enormity of Teachers College.  The photos on the website and brochures did not do the place justice, let me tell you!  If Harry Potter and company had come out of the main building (Zankel Hall) dressed in robes and carrying brooms, I would not have batted an eye; the place instantly reminded me of Hogwarts, both in size and architectural style.  The fact that it sat along one of the widest two-way streets I’d ever seen seemed to make all the sense in the world; it was probably a moat back in the late 1800s.  The dark, heavy exterior of the buildings helped to enhance the feeling of antiquity, which always seems to ramp any academic facility up a few notches on the credibility scale.  The only thing missing was the ivy…and maybe a dragon.

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Once inside the main building, the 21st century made its presence known right away; a large touchscreen display sat across from the main doors, providing quick information and directions in the nine-building, interconnected maze that incorporates Teachers College.  While the doors themselves seemed heavy and ornate, they also had modern glass and ADA-mandated access information.  Students and faculty passed through security by means of a keycard system.  All this technology was dwarfed by the words displayed in italics above the security desk:

“I believe that education is the fundamental means of social progress and reform” – John Dewey, 1897.

That was it.  That was the moment I think I fell in love with Teachers College, and by extension with Columbia University.  No longer had I felt out of place or overwhelmed by it all, because we had something in common; our belief in the power of education.  Seeing that quote made me feel that I could do well here; that it wasn’t about the centuries old architecture or the amazing statues or the awesome wood paneling or the cushy-comfy student lounge…it was about education, first and foremost, to be learned and to be taught.  It was about a place with over 125 years of history pushing its students to the forefront of the new millennium, generations leading the next.  I wanted to be a part of this.

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A year later, I have yet to see all of the nooks and crannies of Teachers College, and there are many new and exciting things to see in Columbia as a whole.  While I still have a sense of awe about the place, I am excited to see what awaits me.

That old house doesn’t seem so scary now, does it?

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