As a college student, one of my dreams to was to live in New York City shortly after graduate school. A number of my friends shared the same desire, which is not that unusual among college students, particularly if you expand the dream to include some of the other great cities of the world—London, Chicago, Tokyo, Paris, San Francisco, for example. I wasn’t able to move to NYC until six years after graduate school, but looking back on my college time and the intervening years, I see with more clarity the experiences that helped prepare me for life in a great city.
My husband currently runs a program for college students in NYC. These students typically come from the American South or the Midwest, live in the city for a semester, do professional internships and take classes. It’s been fascinating to see how often these students, each of them eager to be here, are unprepared for what life in a great city is like. Most seem to have gleaned their main impression of NYC from television shows and a few movies, and adjusting to real life in a great city takes some time and effort. Some are willing to make that effort and by the end of the semester are already plotting their return to the city. Others can’t wait to leave and return to what is familiar, although it is not uncommon for some of the homesick ones to find themselves “homesick” for NYC after a few weeks away.
Watching many waves of college students interact with the city, as well as going through my own adjustments to living here, I’ve thought about the things I would recommend to a student who dreams of making a start in a great city. Here are a few of those things.
1. Take a class in urban community, or read several of the classic books and essays about the nature of healthy urban life and design. As Jane Jacobs says in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Great cities are not like towns, only larger. They are not like suburbs, only denser.” She goes on to explain that there are significant differences in the way the structure of cities work, and how important it is to understand those differences in order to appreciate the benefits. The safest and most vibrant city streets are composed of a dense mixture of residential and commercial buildings of varying ages and quality, structured to benefit foot traffic and public transportation, rather than car traffic.
Someone who moves from the suburbs or a rural area may love the vibrancy of city life—good restaurants and bars open at all hours, spontaneous public gatherings, public music and art, good people-watching—but not realize that this kind of community does not exist in the same dimension with huge parking lots and single family homes with wide spaces between them. And those who worry about personal safety in the big city may not realize that neighborhoods with people coming and going on the streets at all hours are much safer than places where there are very few eyes on the street. The neighborhood may be noisy, you may not have intended to strike up a relationship with the newspaper vendor on your corner, you might miss the privacy of your car or find your feet sore at the end of the day. But these perceived drawbacks are intricately connected to the things that make a city thrive and produce the benefits that city life is known for. Better understanding of the basics of city design will help you to see the pros and cons of city life with new eyes.
2. Take classes in art history and music history. Spend some time with art and music that is not familiar to you. Learn how opening your eyes and ears to sights and sounds that are new to you can change your perspective on the color, the shape, the nuance of your own life. But go beyond the classroom and the MP3 player. Go see the actual painting, walk through the installation, interact with the conceptual art piece, hear the symphony performed, brave the opera.
Opera is a good way to stretch yourself to experience something new, because it is an art form that is often little understood or appreciated, and yet has unique ability to transport an audience. Some critics have argued that part of the power of opera to move us is related to the intense resonance created in order to fill a huge hall with a single human voice. A non-singing listener is made up of the same body and organs as the singer, but is not able to make those rare and beautiful sounds that resonate through both of them. So it is necessary to be present in the theatre to fully experience the power of opera.
If you live in a great city, there will be multiple opportunities to interact with art and music in ways that deepen and enrich your life, but if you have no framework for understanding or appreciating them, you won’t even realize what you have missed. If you do pursue these experiences in any great city, you will find yourself surrounded by people who are passionate about these art forms, and their knowledge and perspective can be an encouragement and an education.
3. Eat food from cultures and countries not your own. Explore and taste new things. Learn how to cook. The writer and chef Marlena de Blasi said, “It has always been true for me that to know a place, I must first know how it eats and drinks. Everything unravels at the table.”
The great cities are home to generations of immigrants who have brought their own cultures with them and blended them with others. Each great city contains a history of many places, as well as the unique mixture that makes up its own story. One of the best ways to learn something about the variety of the world and the range of your own senses is to explore good food. Learning to eat well is an educational process as well as a sensual one. Be willing to try new things. Consider what the philosopher and writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin meant when he said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
4. Learn to speak another language. Another language not only allows you to communicate with people from other cultures, but it also gives you a new frame of reference for thinking and seeing. Languages shape cultures in many ways, even as they shape the muscles of our mouths and throats. Learning a new language can also help you understand much more about the structure and priorities of your mother tongue. These are things that many people in the great cities already know, because they speak another language too.
Many of the suggestions above echo a similar theme—of opening up your mind to new experiences and perspectives that are beyond your familiar frame of reference. While this may seem like one of the more simplistic ways to describe a college education, I am continually surprised by how often students I meet seem to regard their college years as a time to primarily prepare for a specific career niche. They may understand the need to learn everything they can about computer programming languages, but often see no need to learn something about modern art or to listen to music not immediately accessible to them or to eat something unfamiliar. The willingness to write off whole areas of culture as “not my thing” is very strange for anyone as young as the average college student. I’ve had plenty of experiences in the past of standing in front of a painting I didn’t understand or listening to a piece of music I couldn’t follow or eating something I didn’t like, but knowing at the same time that more experienced and intelligent people than I had thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated their encounter with the same thing. That knowledge has usually caused me to wrestle with it longer or pursue another perspective, assuming I had much to learn in the process of really forming my own opinion. And there are few things more exhilarating than seeing what was once a closed door, open to you.
A college education should be primarily about learning how to think for yourself, which likely means that you will not eventually agree with every expert that has gone before you. But as a college student, you are at the beginning of this process, not the end. Take every opportunity to learn from the rich experience and expertise and passion of those around you. And if you desire to live in a great city, do not miss the chance to prepare yourself to be a part of what it has to offer.