New York City is not a college town, but it can feel like one.
Boston may boast an academic reputation, Los Angeles may lead in college students per capita, but New York wins when it comes to sheer numbers: one million students, the most in the U.S. But while the city is large, those million students tend to live and study in specific neighborhoods that quickly take on the characteristics of much smaller college towns.
For example, 60,000 students attend 12 institutions within the half-mile-square of the Downtown Brooklyn district. That’s more than the entire student body in Cambridge, MA or Berkeley–and that’s hardly the largest of New York’s college clusters. Even students who live off campus tend to end up close to one another, hemmed in by apartment prices and transit lines.
As local businesses cater to the needs of students, hawking free internet, late hours, and negligent carding policies, it can become easy to forget that one is living in one of the world’s largest cities. That, in a nutshell, is the challenge of attending college in New York City.
Here are some tips on how to get the most out of the Big Apple as a college student.
Remember Why You Came (to New York for College)
Hundred of thousands of young people are willing to pay an enormous premium in rent, living expenses and tuition to study in New York. Why? Because they want to be in the action; supercharge their career with exposure to leaders in their field; encounter fresh ideas and perspectives; and keep their options open in a place where every conceivable industry is well represented. The benefits of a city are network and connections: Everything you could possibly need “just a short subway ride away.” But there’s a catch: you still have to take that ride.
It’s far too easy to get wrapped up in the many small college communities embedded inside New York and miss the advantages of the larger city. Case in point: Morningside Heights, home to Columbia University (my alma mater), Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music and sundry seminaries. It’s comforting to live in a beautiful neighborhood studded with bars, dorms and cafes, but it’s important to see campus as a respite from the city, and not your entire college experience.
Even NYU, which famously lost its campus in 1973, suffers from this problem–their insular college community is simply scattered throughout the off-campus residential neighborhoods where many students live. The solution is to change your focus: the New York part of “going to college in New York” is just as important to your education as the college part.
Engage With the City
Extracurricular activities take on a whole other meaning in the city. Imagine you’re interested in journalism–in Ithaca, Princeton, Palo Alto, and most suburban colleges, your best move would be joining the student newspaper during the school year and then looking for summer internships. In New York, the student newspaper is fun but unnecessary–there’s no need to dabble in campus coverage when you can dive into a school-year internship at The New York Times.
Working with potential future employers year-round gives New Yorkers a tremendous advantage over even those students who can afford to visit the city for a summer internship. This opportunity exists if you’re interested in any industry with a significant New York presence–which is to say, almost any major industry. On-campus organizations are still worthwhile, but in the city you also have other, even more productive ways to spend your extracurricular time.
This concept extends to recreation as well. In New York, hanging out in a house or dorm is a rare and often unpleasantly cramped experience. Instead, students meet and socialize at restaurants, bars, and cultural events, and here too it’s essential to go beyond campus gates and college neighborhoods.
Within the first year or two, a New York college student will have experienced all of the major tourist highlights–and that’s when the real fun begins. The city is so large that even its “minor” institutions would be major anywhere else: consider the Brooklyn Museum, America’s 14th largest art museum, often missed in the shadow of giants like the Met, MoMA and Guggenheim. Four years is barely enough time to get a start on a city with food from every culture, books in every language, and music of every genre.
Stay a While
It’s very possible that you’ll fall in love with the city and stay post-graduation. But even if you don’t, having spent some time in New York will make it easier to live wherever your life takes you. The maxim that “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” may not be universally true, but it certainly is when it comes to core life skills like renting an apartment, navigating a public transit system, and living on a finite budget amongst infinite temptations. And if you’re thinking of living abroad, New York is also the only city in the U.S. that even vaguely resembles the dense urban cores of an Old World megalopolis–making it the best possible launchpad for an aspiring global citizen.
As I reflect on my eight years in the city, the thing I’m most thankful for is New York’s intangible yet profound potentiality, a subtle pressure that forces every New Yorker to think a little bigger, to imagine a little more, and to be a slightly better version of themselves. The thing I’m second most thankful for is 24/7 door-to-door Thai food delivery. I might starve without that.