Garrett Kaighn, ‘14, is studying at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is deciding between majoring in applied physics and mechanical engineering, although he is leaning towards applied physics.

Q: How did you pick that major?

A: I’m just really interested in physics. And that major more than other ones goes into detail. It’s more theoretical. Part of me wanted to do just a regular physics major, but that’s in the liberal arts school, and I’m in engineering, so that’s the closest I can get.

Q: Are the students in the engineering school separated?

A: Not really. We take slightly different classes. Engineers don’t have to take some of the core requirements. But we all live in the same place and have the same clubs and stuff. We also have Barnard and General Studies. GS is for older people coming back to study. Some of them are veterans or are married with kids. They have separate housing.

Q: So why did you chose Columbia?

A: Part of it was New York City. There’s a lot of stuff around to do. I always kind of wanted to live there.

I like how they emphasize a mixture of technical and liberal arts studies.

There’s lots of diversity—so many different people from so many different backgrounds. I didn’t want to apply to a tech school and have people just study that. I wanted to be around people who do a variety of things.

Q: What do you like best about it?

A: I think I really like being in New York. I’ve always been a city person. It’s just so busy with so many people. It’s so easy to get anywhere. There’s a subway right outside campus, so you can just hop on and get anywhere in half an hour.

There’s always something to do.

And it’s enclosed enough that you don’t have to get out to do things. If you’re swamped, you can stay on campus and get work done.

Unlike NYU it has an actual campus.

Ryan Ho, '14, and Garrett Kaighn, '14, explore New York City together.

Photo used with permission by Ryan Ho, ’14,
Ryan Ho, ’14, (a freshman at New York University) and Garrett Kaighn, ’14, explore New York City together.

Q: What is the campus like?

A: It looks a lot like a lot of college campuses. It has fields and a big quad area. Lots of people sit on the stairs.

It’s really compact. Very efficiently designed. There are a lot of buildings, but (also) a lot of trees and hedges, so it feels open even though the buildings are pretty close together.

It’s all within a six-block area, but it doesn’t feel cramped.

Q: What’s been your most embarrassing freshman mistake?

A: In front of Butler Library, there is a stone walkway, and the stones are uneven. They aren’t uneven enough that you can see it very well. Freshmen trip over them all the time.

Its uneven enough that your toe will catch, and you will trip.

Happened to me a couple of times in the first couple weeks.

Q: What are your classes like?

A: The classes are generally twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes each. Very few classes meet on Friday. So it’s basically a three-day weekend every weekend.

Unfortunately, this semester I did have a class that met on Friday, but it was pretty easy.

My calculus homework would be two hours per week.

My physics class is very challenging. All engineers have to take an intro physics class, and I am taking the highest one. I have so much homework in physics, it seems like I don’t have any in my other classes.

The homework takes about 10-20 hours per week.

All the classes are taught by by professors, not TAs.

Q: What other classes are you taking?

A: There’s Art of Engineering, which is required for all engineering students. Also, Intro to Mechanical Engineering, Calculus 3, physics and chemistry.

Next year I will do liberal-arts core requirements. This is the only semester where I’m not doing humanities classes. The freshman schedule is pretty much largely predetermined.

Q:  Anything you dislike?

A: There are always a lot of people complaining about the administration. There have been a lot of protests about how they handled sexual assault cases in prior years, but us freshmen haven’t been too involved with that.

Things in general seem to be done inefficiently. They have been working on the laundry machine in my dorm for a while, and it doesn’t seem to be making progress. When we use the one next to us, it is free. When they fix ours, we will have to pay for it. It also took two months to install the two printers in our dorm, which couldn’t possibly have required that much work.

The Package Center always has a lot of delays. It’s inconvenient. A lot of people complain about it.

Q: Did anything surprise you?

A: I always knew Columbia was supposed to be diverse, but I was taken aback by the international diversity. At Country Day, you get used to all the foreign students being from China or Taiwan.

On my floor alone, I have people from Canada, UK, Australia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Singapore, India, Turkey and Romania.

It’s exciting to be able to interact with people from different cultures.

Q: And the food?

A: It’s pretty good as far as college food goes.

No matter where you go, you’re going to get tired of your dining hall. We have three dining halls: one serves chicken and grilled stuff. One is open really late and serves Jamba Juice and fries. The third has a pasta line, where pasta is made to order. It’s really good, but there’s often a really long line.

After a whole semester on just three dining halls you start to get sick of it. So a lot of upperclassmen drop the meal plan.

Q: What’s your rooming situation?

A: I have a single. For whatever reason you can have singles as a freshman at Columbia.

My floor is pretty social. We left our doors open a lot at the beginning of the semester. We hang out at the lounge a lot. We can have privacy if we want to but still be social.

I figured I could get a double. (My roommate and I) would get along but not be best buds. No point in playing the lottery with it. I figure I can have a roommate later when I can pick.

Q: What do you think of the core curriculum?

A: It really emphasizes that everyone be well rounded. Everyone has to take the core humanities Literature and Contemporary Civilization class. Everyone has to take writing and all that. So far I haven’t taken a lot of core classes.

I’ve only taken Art of Engineering. The purpose of it is to take high-school math and science knowledge, and apply it to real world problems. But we have a lecture every Friday from teachers from different departments. Very few people show up—never graded or tested on it. So there wasn’t much of a purpose to go to lecture.

We had projects. You had to design a robot that would navigate a maze and put out a candle. We had to figure it out. It was really rewarding.

The second project everyone had to do was design a nose cone (to) put on a rocket, that will protect an egg, and keep it safe. Most people spent literally five minutes making a cone. That is not an exaggeration. They were fine with that. The whole thing was a joke. You just made a nose and a toy rocket you found online. Can’t even call it engineering.

That class was a disappointment. But I’m more optimistic about the other ones.

Q: Are you involved in any extracurriculars?

A: I’m doing some. Right now I’m working on a club called Formula SAE, Society of Automotive Engineers. Every year we build a racecar and take it to a competition in Michigan. We actually decide and build everything. We have a huge budget.

As a freshman, I do a lot of brute labor. I don’t know if I’m going to continue with it. It’s interesting because we are actually making a car.

I signed up for a bunch and didn’t go to anything else.

Q: Any advice for the class of ‘15?

A: Don’t stress yourselves out too much because things will probably work out pretty well in the end.

You’ll find something that fits you wherever you go.

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