#DailyWings: “One belongs to New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” -Tom Wolfe
The Columbia Journo Diaries is a series on my blog where I share my accounts of what it’s like to be a journalism master’s student at Columbia University in the City of New York during a time when the media landscape is relying on digital innovation to survive.
It’s Friday night, and I’m raising a solo cup filled with red wine in my right hand. Someone sitting a few feet away whistles to get everyone’s attention.
“We made it through the first two weeks! Cheers!”
“Cheers!” I place the cup between my lips. The wine warms me from head to toe.
It’s the first night I’ve actually gone out with friends – mainly, other journalism students at Columbia who decided it would be a good idea to celebrate the end of our second week of reporting bootcamp. We have a picnic set up in Riverside Park right by the Henry Hudson Parkway, barely five minutes away from my apartment. I’ve been living here since the end of July, and not once did I notice before how beautiful the sun is when it sets over the skyline. I remind myself to do this more often. No matter how stressful journalism school gets or how many times you fail, I say to myself, never forget to appreciate what’s right in front of you.
It’s getting darker now. Instead of sitting in a circle, everyone has broken off into smaller groups to have more personal conversations. I ask a friend of mine, Courtney, if she misses her hometown.
“I’m homesick, but I’m not unhappy,” she says. I nod. I know exactly what she means.
There are days when I miss North Carolina so badly that there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a Cheddar Bo biscuit or for someone to say “Hi, y’all.” Then, there are other days, like this particular Friday, when I look around and wonder how I ever lived outside of the city.
Before I moved to New York, it always took me 40 minutes to drive to work every day. Once I got to the office, I sat at the same cubicle for seven hours. Now, it takes me five minutes to walk to school in the morning, but on any given day I spend at least two hours walking inside the city either in search for a compelling story or to run errands. Of course, that doesn’t include time spent taking the tube. I’m confident that, by the time I graduate in May, I will have gotten off of every subway stop in Manhattan. At the rate we’re going, maybe even two or three times.
This “semester” (I put “semester” in quotation marks because technically each semester of j-school is split into four mini semesters), my reporting class is covering Midtown West (FYI send juicy newz tipz to firstname.lastname@example.org). I have class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, with a 2-hour lunch break. Occasionally, class is swapped instead for “reporting time,” or chunks of our day that are built into our schedules to give us time for research, interviews and writing. On days when we’ve got reporting time, I walk at least five miles a day.
Like most transitions in life, this one hasn’t been easy. One week into the program, I cried in fetal position for an hour on the bed because New York felt lonely and my computer charger had broken a few days earlier. I spent my first week of j-school stuck in the computer labs well past 10 o’clock because my laptop was out of battery and every project was hitting me like a train, full speed ahead. On one occasion, we had to interview eight different people in the city (AKA street reporting) and then compile a 1-minute audio story using those interviews – all in the span of eight hours. We were to present them, one by one, the next day.
Street reporting in New York isn’t as scary as I thought it would be. Ironically, it’s the interviews I do with random people that make me feel like the city is and friendlier smaller than it feels. Sometimes, you do get funny looks or flat-out rejections. Other people will insist, “Oh, I don’t want to be interviewed,” but offer a little fact about yourself and slip in just one open-ended question, and they’ll ramble on about their lives/passions/pleasures for half an hour.
Then, of course, there are those people on the streets who come up to you instead with a comment or opinion they’d like to share. A few of them are cat-callers. Others are just a category of characters all their own. Like, the other day, my friend and I were chatting in Central Park when this random person came up to us and said the strangest thing I’ve been told so far since coming to New York: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but might I say that you ladies are just GORGEOUS. You (the person pointed at me) with your long, beautiful black hair – you would turn a gay man straight. I mean, I’m just gonna go take my eyeliner off now and find a beautiful woman just like you and we’re gonna have some babies.”
Every day, New York surprises me with something new.
Despite the curveballs, I know this – Columbia, New York, the city – is where I belong. Even though my undergraduate degree is in journalism, it doesn’t feel like I’m “repeating” anything. Columbia has a completely different pace and curriculum from those of UNC-Chapel Hill. Sure, we learn about nut grafs, ledes and kickers (the building blocks of a story based on good journalism), but the lessons are coming from different professors who have their own unique standards of quality, reporting experiences and teaching styles.
The other thing is that everyone here is just so damn talented. There are students who have had internships – even entire careers in journalism – at incredible media companies I’ve only dreamed of working for. And that’s both inspiring and terrifying at the same time. But one of the first lessons my reporting professor shared with us on the first day of class was, “Put your head down and focus on competing with yourself, not other people.” In other words, become better than you were on Day 1.
And that’s what I intend to do.