A Tale of Two Campuses, Part Two: Morningside Heights

A Tale of Two Campuses, Part Two: Morningside Heights

Published on October 10, 2017

Editors’ Note: This is the second of a two-part story exploring the experiences of Columbia-Sciences Po dual B.A. students. Read Part 1 here.

“I’m too old for this,” Wan Yii Lee thinks during some orientation ice breaker event where she has to say her name and her major over and over again.

Lee, like her peers in the dual B.A. program, is 21 years old, a junior in college, and going through orientation for the second time. She had already spent the first two years of her college experience building a life in Le Havre, throwing herself into clubs and friendships, making Sciences Po a home for herself. Now, she just feels tired.

When dual B.A. students come to Columbia for the last two years of their undergraduate degree, they find themselves having to suddenly adjust to a life that’s very different from the one they left behind in Le Havre, Menton, or Reims.

New York City is nothing like a small town in France. Columbia, too, is different from Sciences Po. Even dual B.A. students’ relationships with other students in the same university are different: While at Sciences Po, they were part of an undergraduate population separated by little more than English-language and French-language tracks. At Columbia, they enter into a system of linked but, nonetheless, separate undergraduate colleges and are placed in the School of General Studies.

For me, by junior year, the hard part was over. I had my friends; I knew my major. I was used to living away from home. I knew which dining hall had the best pasta and which library had open seats during finals. But if you’re a dual B.A. student, your junior year means reestablishing many of those certainties in an entirely new place. It means leaving behind whatever comfort you found in France and trying to build new comfort in America. It means starting the hard part all over again.

Big School, Bigger City

In Menton, Diego Filiu’s apartment address was 7 Place Saint Julien, and campus was at 11 Place Saint Julien. Columbia’s campus doesn’t feel very large to me, but when I think of studying in a place that could be summed up by a street address, I suddenly realize how comparatively huge Columbia is.

The entire town of Menton, with its population of 28,000, is smaller than the student body at Columbia University itself. When Filiu came to Columbia, he was suddenly studying at a school bigger than the town he’d lived in for his first two years—and in a city far bigger, too. “Coming into Columbia was more [like] coming into New York,” Filiu explains. “The huge city, the huge immensity of space in which you don’t recognize faces.”

Dual B.A. students come from campuses that house, at the very most, 3,000 students. More commonly, though, they’re studying with closer to 300 other people. And then, in their junior year, they’re plopped down onto the Columbia campus with 10,500 other undergrads and over 31,000 people in total. They go from knowing everyone to feeling like they know no one.

Lee explains to me that, in Le Havre, since there were so few people, it felt useful—even necessary—to get to know almost everyone there. At Columbia, though, there are so many other students that she doesn’t see the point of trying to befriend everyone she meets in the same way.

“At Sciences Po, I would go into the library, and I would do la bise to everyone before I sat down. Here, you rustle your papers too loudly, and someone will want to smack you.”

—Elise Blackburn, School of General Studies junior and dual B.A. student

“Will we really ever cross paths again unless we’re in the same club or the same major? We have nothing in common,” she remembers thinking. “This school is so big that I may never see you again.”

There are also large cultural differences between France and America to which students in the program must quickly adjust. Filiu notes that, before coming to Columbia, he thought Americans were “just French [people] speaking another language,” as though the two cultures were the same save different languages. After some time at Columbia, he soon began to see much deeper differences between the two cultures.

He remembers realizing that when an American student says, “Let’s get a meal sometime!” they don’t always mean that they actually want to get a meal. He would make concrete plans only to find that he’d surprised people who saw suggesting plans as more of a gesture than an actual invitation.

Elise Blackburn, a dual B.A. student and junior in GS, noticed a cultural shift when she arrived at Columbia, too. “At Sciences Po, I would go into the library, and I would do la bise to everyone before I sat down,” she explains. “Here, you rustle your papers too loudly, and someone will want to smack you.”

Filiu also saw cultural changes in the classroom. At Columbia, there’s a greater emphasis on the importance of students’ opinions, he says. He also found the open-ended, big questions that were at the center of his coursework new. He explains, “You give the kind of homework that we have to do at Columbia to a French kid, he would be like, ‘I have no right to answer that question. I haven’t lived enough.’”

A Second First Year

Not everyone experiences the kind of fatigue that Lee describes to me. Anton Fredriksson, who graduated from the dual B.A. program in 2015 as part of the first official class, says that coming into Columbia as a junior made him feel more motivated to take advantage of his new school. “I want to make the most of my two years here at this incredible university,” he thought when he first arrived. “I want to meet as many people as I can, I want to explore the city as much as I can.”

“Everyone is so focused on pursuing their passions, their careers, that it’s very difficult to find a group to break into who is willing to take the time to get to know you.”

—Vincent Gu, School of General Studies senior and dual B.A. student

Côme Lefébure, who will graduate from the program in 2019, agrees that arriving as a junior means he comes into Columbia with more of a grasp on what he wants to get out of it. “When I arrived as a freshman [at Sciences Po], I felt [like] I didn’t really know what I liked, what I didn’t like,” he says. “In two years, you understand what you want to do.”

On the other hand, arriving at Columbia among juniors who are already sure of their place at Columbia can be stressful.

“Everyone is so focused on pursuing their passions, their careers, that it’s very difficult to find a group to break into who is willing to take the time to get to know you,” says Vincent Gu, who studied at the Le Havre campus and is set to graduate in 2018.

Gu ended up finding the community he was looking for by joining Columbia Classical Performers and Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, two groups where he felt students spent time together because they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

But joining clubs can be another pitfall for dual B.A. students. Romane Thomas, a dual B.A. student who graduated in 2017, felt more pressure to get involved in extracurriculars because she was two years behind everyone else. “A lot of people are already in the clubs, so you have to get involved very fast,” she says. Still, she ended up being involved in Model UN, Taekwondo, and Bwog.

Lee describes a more structural issue that dual B.A. students face when trying to join student groups at Columbia. She notes that most clubs limit the number of junior and senior members they take out of a logical desire not to be too top-heavy. And signing up for a club as a dual B.A. junior, someone who’s new to Columbia entirely, is potentially even more difficult.

Perhaps, Lee postulates, it is harder to be accepted to a club if you’re not only a junior but also a new student at Columbia. She says, “I’d imagine that in clubs where there isn’t a double degree student already inside to advocate for our situation, there might be more of a barrier.”

In fact, there are programs in place aimed to ease the transition by sharing student knowledge. Gu is part of a mentoring program where dual B.A. students at Columbia email a group of mentees—younger students in the program who are still in France. Every month, he sends his mentees a newsletter covering some aspect of their future transition. He writes to them about extracurriculars and sports, things he says an adviser wouldn’t necessarily explain to them.

When dual B.A. students find it difficult to integrate into the Columbia community, they tend to turn to each other for support.  “We have so many group chats, it’s absurd. ‘How does this work? What classes do I sign up for? Can I take 18 credits?’” Anne Whitney, a dual B.A. student who will graduate from GS in 2019, says. “The administration doesn’t realize to what extent we rely on each other for information about what it’s actually like to meet people, to join clubs, to switch between academic systems.”

Finding a Home at GS

Lee also wonders how people think of her not only because she’s a junior who’s just starting at Columbia but also because she’s a GS student. “When people see the ‘GS ’19,’ I’m not sure how that affects how they see us,” she says. When she spoke with me, Lee had only been at Columbia for a few weeks, but she already felt there was some divide between GS and the rest of the Columbia undergraduate community.

There are two main issues at stake when thinking about the dual B.A. program’s place at GS. First: Does the dual B.A. program belong there? Are its students really “nontraditional”? The average age of a GS student is 27, but dual B.A. students come in as 19 to 21-year-olds, like their counterparts in CC, SEAS, and Barnard.

Second: Does the program benefit from its placement in GS or not?

Lee remembers an icebreaker at the New Student Orientation Program with a group of GS students, some of them in the dual B.A. program. Everyone had to go around the circle saying their “GS story”the path that led them to GS.

Lee felt like everyone around her had taken a path very different from her own–people who’d had jobs or created companies before coming to GS. When it was her turn to speak, she felt as though she was nowhere near as “nontraditional” as her peers.

But without a doubt, dual B.A. students have spent their undergraduate years in a nontraditional way. And because GS is tailored specifically toward nontraditional students, it would seem that dual B.A. students fit that bill. Even the way of life dual B.A. students adopt in France—living in their own apartments, paying for their own electricity, making food for themselves every day—places them closer to GS students than to undergraduates from the other three colleges.

“The dual B.A. students were drawn to the GS students because of their background,” Fredriksson says. “They had more in common, having lived abroad, living on their own, finding their own apartments.”

Jessica Sarles-Dinsick, the associate dean for international programs and special projects at GS, and who was previously the admissions manager for the dual B.A. program, attributes the program’s placement in GS to three factors.

First, she believes students who choose the dual B.A. program are exceptionally adventurous; she explains that enrolling in the program is “opting in to a nontraditional experience.”

Second, and more logistically, the GS Core Curriculum requirements are more flexible than Columbia College’s. GS is made up of 70 percent transfer students, so the administration is especially well-equipped to deal with transferring credits and facilitating a transition between the two institutions.

Unlike in CC, where certain Core classes like Lit Hum and CC are completely mandatory, GS requirements offer a wider array of options to fulfill the Core. For example, instead of Lit Hum, students can take any two literature classes (defined as a class that focuses on “the study of poetry, fiction, drama, or related genres”) or one literature class and one humanities class. And certain Sciences Po classes can count for Global Core requirements; students can take classes that fulfill both Core and major requirements.

This kind of flexibility around credits and fulfilling requirements helps ensure that dual B.A. students can complete both degrees in their four years.

While some students I talked to, like Lee, seem unsure of how they feel about being in GS, others were unflaggingly positive. Fredriksson comes off as somewhat of a spokesperson for both the dual B.A. program and GS. When I ask him what he thinks of being in GS, he all but laughs at me before saying, “I could see no downside; it was always an advantage.”

He goes on to describe his life at Columbia as a series of concentric circles. At the center was the dual B.A. program, his smallest and closest community. Outside of that was GS, then Columbia undergraduates, then Columbia University, and finally New York. With GS, he says, it is “a family inside a family,” just one additional support system he could draw on as he transitioned from Sciences Po to Columbia.

Coming from small Sciences Po campuses, perhaps dual B.A. students feel especially at home in GS, which offers a smaller community inside the greater Columbia one. Fredriksson notes that GS’s relatively small size means students get a lot of attention from administrators.

“What if we had 10 dual degree programs and half the students in GS were enrolled in dual degree programs? That would change the character of the place.”

—David Madigan, Executive Vice President and Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Dean of the School of General Studies Peter Awn agrees. “When you’ve got 2,200 undergraduates, I’m bumping into people; I recognize them,” he says. According to him, this close community means dual B.A. students “know they will get personal attention whenever they need it.”

Awn notes that when he asks dual B.A. students near the end of their time at Columbia if they’d rather have been in Columbia College than in GS, they say almost unanimously that GS is the right place for them.

Fredriksson echoes this thought. “The ratio of admin and advisers to students was more concentrated. I had a really good relationship with the dean and … the GS administration.”

The Future of Dual B.A. Programs

In a report released in April 2016, the Educational Policy and Planning Committee released a report on global education at Columbia. The committee’s goal was to study Columbia’s current global education and to determine the ways in which it should be expanded. In a small section devoted to dual degree programs, the report calls the dual B.A.s currently operating at Columbia “enormously successful examples of well-planned and broadly conceived global education.” This section also discusses the potential for expanding dual degree programs at Columbia.

The relationship between the Columbia–Sciences Po dual B.A. program and GS brings up the relationship between the dual B.A. program and Columbia as a whole. A dual B.A. program between any two universities carries an implicit guarantee of some sort of equivalence between those two places. Essentially, Columbia and Sciences Po can offer two degrees for two years at each university  because Sciences Po accepts Columbia’s credits and vice versa.

But this partnership is not the only dual B.A. program that exists at Columbia. There is also a very new pilot dual B.A. program with Trinity College in Dublin, and one with the City University of Hong Kong.

The recent increase in dual B.A. programs in GS brings up questions about the role of dual degrees and the space they should occupy at Columbia. David Madigan, Executive Vice President and Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences, asks, “What if we had 10 dual degree programs and half the students in GS were enrolled in dual degree programs? That would change the character of the place.”

Awn says that GS will never have that many dual degree programs, but that the identity of GS is both to recruit nontraditional students and to mount a few highly selective, very high-end nontraditional programs. Dual B.A. programs are part of GS’s nontraditional academic mission.

Since there are so few dual B.A. programs at Columbia, each feels as though it has a specific purpose. Students have to get something more than just two years in each place; the pairing of the universities is supposed to somehow amplify or multiply the educational experience of each one.

I talked to Dhruv Oberoi, a junior from City University of Hong Kong, or CityU, who just entered his first year at Columbia. The dual B.A. program at CityU is slightly different; one enters CityU before applying to the dual degree program, while one applies jointly to the Columbia and Sciences Po dual B.A. Since going to CityU, Oberoi says he’s noticed that more people have begun to apply to CityU specifically in order to do the dual degree program.

The link between CityU and Columbia is an interesting one, precisely because the two universities are so different. Whereas Sciences Po and Columbia share a certain old-school reputation given their age, CityU is relatively new–it only became an accredited university in 1994.

It’s also received less external acclaim than Columbia or Sciences Po; of the seven Hong Kong universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report, CityU is fourth.

Oberoi says that he’s been told Columbia and CityU are paired with each other because they share two similar sets of classes: the Core at Columbia and classes called General Electives at CityU. He doesn’t necessarily see the two as particularly similar; he says the General Electives were easier than his Core classes have been so far, usually taught in long lectures rather than seminars.

Dual B.A. students from both programs end up spending a lot of time together when they come to Columbia; they’re in the same orientation groups, and many of them live in Fairholm, a dorm on 121st Street. Oberoi tells me one of the biggest surprises of coming to Columbia is that suddenly all of his friends—many of them being dual B.A. students from Sciences Po—speak French.

Oberoi is studying computer science. When I ask him why he decided to do the dual degree program at Columbia even though he’d have to take classes that had nothing to do with his major, he says, “Under no circumstance was I going to read the Republic on my own.” The dual degree program with Columbia, then, is a way to still get a liberal arts education after studying at a university like Sciences Po or CityU, which emphasizes narrow specialization.

“Double” B.A.

The hallmark of the dual B.A. program, and the reason students choose it, is its ability to facilitate multiple college experiences in one. Even the difficult parts––the transitions to unfamiliar and sometimes unhelpful systems of academics and culture––contribute to the multifaceted experience of spending your time as an undergraduate in two places.

The parts of each experience that students seem to remember most vividly is the adjustment to each new system––the realization that they have to start from scratch in a place where everything works in a specific and not always simple-to-follow way. In France, they are thrown into adult living. In the U.S., they must quickly integrate into a much larger student body, learn to find their place in a university with multiple undergraduate components, and adjust to the culture of a big American city.

It’s two experiences of figuring everything out. Fredriksson says, “It’s two full college experiences on different continents.” Maybe that, more so than the two degrees from two universities, is what makes the program so valuable.

It wasn’t half and half, but truly double,” Fredriksson says. “Maybe double B.A. is more appropriate than dual B.A.”

Trisha Mukherjee contributed reporting.

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