Merely three years ago, as a sixteen-year-old ready to meet the world, I applied to over ten colleges across three different countries. My dream was to study land economy in Cambridge University, or international politics in the University of Chicago. Sometimes, I would imagine the blissfulness of sipping coffee in the downtown promenade with my friends – our bodies plump from the freshman 15 and shamelessly wrapped in collegiate hoodies from the university book store – discussing such and such theory and gossiping about such and such professor. Afterwards, our homeworks and readings done, my imaginary friends and I would dive into a new adventure every week, savoring every inch the city has to offer from exotic restaurant to secret concerts.
Three years later, I am nineteen and a student in New York University, studying theatre and the postcolonial discourse, with a minor in East Asian Studies. Studying in a coffee shop is a luxury that I only allow myself during the slower Summer or Winter semesters. Every other day, I am busied by various nondescript errands for the theatre company I work for, which ranges from delivering a check to a Brooklyn bathhouse to shopping for 1960s men’s fashion. I never gossip about professors, mostly because in a university of 40,000 students where crushing loneliness is a common problem, I barely make friends in my classroom. Those I call “friends” are comprised of an odd amalgamation of students, teachers, aspiring professionals and random New Yorkers from all walks of life that have fallen into mutual weirdness with myself.
Although I wouldn’t trade my odd life for anything in the world, I do often wonder how different my life would be if I had chosen a different alma mater. This reflection also led me to realize that my academic experience in New York University is not perfect, but can actually be maximized by exploring life in another campus.
My adviser suggested the Columbia Visiting Students Program to me after noticing my interests in postcolonial studies. This program will allow me to take a leave of absence from NYU and spend a whole semester studying as a fulltime undergraduate in Columbia. Although NYU boasts a handful of prominent scholars in South and East Asian studies, Columbia University – which is located 8 miles uptown – houses some of the world’s top scholars. From Gayatri Spivak to Carol Gluck, these professors are not mere members but pioneers in their respective discourses. Moreover, Columbia University is home to some of the largest area studies departments in the nation. Other than generic classes like “Modern Japanese Political Thought,” the courses in Columbia are compelling, radical and constantly challenging their frontiers. These range from “Nationalism in the Middle East” to “Judaism and Zionism in South Asia.” My semester in Columbia would not only be a new experience in itself, but would also enhance my undergraduate learning as an NYU student.
For any of you who are hungry to experience life in a different campus, this should always be the place to start. What it is that you want to learn and experience there that you cannot in your own college? These reasons may be academic, like my own. Maybe as a business student in Universitas Pelita Harapan, you would like to learn from the world’s leading business professionals that teach at Harvard Business School. Maybe you are a student at a small liberal arts college who wants to experience learning in a large research university. Or, your reasons may be more personal, maybe you are intrigued by the vibrant student life and spirit at a college and would like to be a part of it for a semester. Many programs will specifically ask you which courses you are planning on taking in your visiting semester. In this case, it is wise to make sure that the courses you choose are unique and not ones that you can easily encounter in your old school. Not only should you venture out in your learning, but taking a course that is readily available in your original university may cause logistical problems that can result in your credits not transferring.
Columbia University is not the only one to offer such opportunities. Most of the world’s top universities have visiting students programs; simply google “visiting students program” along with the name of a university you’ve always wanted to enroll in and chances are there’s a way for you to spend a semester there. Some other prestigious universities that can offer an exchange semester to visiting undergraduates include Harvard University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University and Barnard College.
Apart from the Columbia Visiting Students Program, I also applied to another program to realize another unfulfilled dream. Because my artistic interests always arrive from an intellectual perspective, I decided to enroll in an academic program in NYU instead of studying in a rigorous conservatory-style theatre school. I applied to the Spring at Tisch Open Arts program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. This program allots the opportunity for 13 selected students to undergo rigorous studio training in acting for theatre and film under the guidance of Angela Pietropinto. This program was specifically tailored for students like me, who were passionate about theatre but for some reason or other have decided that it is the best decision for ourselves not to enroll in a four-year acting school. The program is a lot less commitment that a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre, but the three days/week 9am-5pm program is rigorous enough that it will immensely transform me as a theatre artist.
In both my applications to Columbia and Tisch, I submitted personal essays describing the reason why I want to be a part of their community and also explaining my long term academic and professional goals. In the case of the Spring at Tisch program, I also elaborated on my artistic vision and submitted two audition videos. Sometimes, apart from a short essay, visiting students programs may only require short essay answers to specific questions. Generally, they will also ask for recommendations and statements of good conduct from your institution. Overall, the application process is very low stress, as long as you have a clear reason for wanting to study in their campus. Moreover, do not shy away from opening up about your background as an Indonesian student. Both in my correspondence with Columbia and my audition at Tisch, they expressly stated that an international background usually means that a student has an interesting voice to bring to the table.
This past December, within a mere two weeks of each other, both Tisch and Columbia finally told me that they were ready to accept me into their respective programs for the Spring of 2013. Having committed so much time and energy for both applications, this became quite a dilemma for me. Because I realized that I wanted to be a theatre professional in New York City more than I wanted to be an academic, I decided to enroll in the Tisch program, which was only available in the Spring. Columbia will have to wait, and even though applying again for the Fall will entail another arduous process, I was willing to tackle it again because I know that the adventure will be worthwhile.
Then I was met by a pleasant surprise, I was allowed to defer my Columbia visiting students program admission until the Fall of 2013. In the end, I could have my cake and eat it too.
I love being in New York University, and I have never regretted a single decision I have made in the past regarding my academic career. However, for all you students out there, both those studying abroad and in Indonesia, if you’re up for an adventure, it’s always a good idea to explore your neighbor’s grass and know once and for all if it is actually greener.