This is July of 2016, I am in New York and I have been since last night. The place has a feel that it has stood for ages and a very strong feel that some redefining event is about to happen. It is so full of people, all like an overcrowded dense torpedo storming the streets and yet each so distinct that you gaze and appreciate their expression. There are as many styles as there are people. And attitudes more. Such a jumble, such a jungle and yet such a solace that we all can find our own place at our terms, with or without approvals. As I say, I see a woman with tattoo of somethings written on just right ankle all around like a delicate Indian Payal! And it looked superb like the black bracelet on my left wrist. People here seem to have mastered the art of looking at people without really looking.
New York University campus in Manhattan is spread over a large area around a central Washington square park. It has huge impressive buildings and all named prominently. It is definitely an active vibrant campus with several peculiarities which are its own. It is a non walled campus with no limitations of boundary wall for students. Anyone can move in the campus of this university. There are no checks and no boundaries. The dormitories or hostels have locking systems such that none other than students can enter. Come to think of it, that is how medical colleges in India have always been, free campus and hostel warden and hostel rules instead of electronic locks. Of course this is New York and Manhattan area at that. People from all over the world, of all ages and all types can be seen here I believe on any given day. Today, a Saturday while I walked through the campus, a few students approached me, each in his assertive way, some working for Syrian refugees and some feminists or activists having their agenda for discussion! The gardens or buildings were not maintained as in Oxford or Cambridge, painstakingly and beautifully. Here it was plain functional with no attempt to lure compliments for beauty and creativity. No lawns and no flower beds here and no book shops as in UK inspiring awe. No cafes abound as in UK although several types of food and drinks available all around.
UK and USA feel so dissimilar that one can assign them distinctive instincts and attitude. Their universities and education system probably reflects this variation. The US education feels more contemporary, progressive and competitive and that in UK traditional, mature and contemplative.
I eat yogurt with granola, fruits and nuts the local way at least once a day, for a meal. I like the rampant use of nuts. Soup simply is not breakfast thing neither at Lynchburg nor New York. In UK, soups are fresh and available for breakfast. Sandwiches usually are big here, 12 inches long and too much for me to take all by myself. The 6 inches sandwich less common. I see a place called ‘Think coffee’ with no question mark or full stop. Today it sounded like a full stop to me and I stopped. Another place is just called ‘the’ with small t ! Lot of people on the street move with pet dogs.
I decided to go to NYU area and see how Sunday is. I seem to love the thought of it sometimes and sometimes feel overwhelmed with its magnanimity, possibilities and evolving thought. But here I go. A man playing piano at the Washington Square near the fountain felt serene. Visited the New York University Book Store. It is a huge book store, although not as huge as Blackwell’s or the like. It has the T shirts and amenities for students and a computer store within it which has mainly I pads and accessories. There are a whole lot of books on rent, with requirement of the book in which course and year mentioned on a card kept there. On Sunday it seems lot of students hang around eating places, some in small groups and some with their I pads looking occupied. A summer school group seemed to have arrived and there were excited students and parents near the main eating place. I allowed myself to wander and move in any street or avenue around the area. There can be many people around and yet one could feel isolated. New York is a phenomenon quite unlike any other. I miss cities like Lynchburg and Iowa. What I feel convinced about is that it is safe. Perhaps as a student, it is just a lively and active place with lots happening to remain in touch with where world is moving.
Today by evening I felt I had touched the true American spirit. It all started with a basket ball game being played on a ground close to where I live. It was played with such vigour and purpose that I felt the vibes similar to that of an intense Forensic workshop in progress. After stopping by for 10 minutes, when I continued to walk to Starbucks for a coffee and writing, I realised that people around me were a mix of work and fun like I was. That spirit of enjoying, handling life as it comes, whatever it may bring is the spirit of America. The confidence that I shall find my way amidst any maze is perceived. There is a reverence for preciousness of life and expression. Expression of self in any clothing, colour, size, hair type and colour all are directed to emphasising the uniqueness of a person. That seems to be the predominant thought. There is no concept of conformation in their lives except to confirm to non conformation. I find my comfort level in this thought. My weirdness I carry becomes just me with no burden of thought attached to it. It helps me to think openly, almost like a liberated feeling. How do I define myself and my work are the only thoughts that linger. Nobody and nothing is an outcast. It could be a great place to self explore, to educate, to create and to innovate.
I did not visit the place as a tourist. I did not visit any museum, castle, church, park or any monument. Not connecting to its past made me see its present unbiased. Two years back my visit to New York for 7 days was perhaps waiting to be completed now. That visit had a flavour which complimented this visit and together they emphasise the vastness to explore. To me life is a jigsaw where I wonder what the picture is and where does my piece fit in. To this, New York seems to be telling me not to conform to any picture and that a piece is a picture too!
I had fixed an appointment for information session and campus tour of New York University scheduled at 10:30 am for one day of my visit. I reported 20 minutes in advance and was greeted by the student ambassadors and Admissions office person and took my place in the room. A booklet of the University was given which contained basic information related to New York University. A video was then shown to us which had 4 to 5 students of different streams talk about how New York University is different from other places in these fields. It conveyed how one person who was interested in History and had chosen it as his Major, after two years realised that Neuroscience was his calling. That he could talk to Professor in Neuroscience and get to change his Major was quite encouraging. One student of Dance showed how dance was an art but had a great deal in academics to supplement its understanding. Then we were briefed by an Admission person about the University and its admission criteria. She also cleared concepts on early decision and regular applications. The applications which require audition or a portfolio would require longer to be ready and hence the last date must be remembered. She briefed us on NYU campus in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. The degree offered at Shanghai campus is valid in Shanghai and USA and about half the students are from China. The campus in Abu Dhabi seems to have more cultural diversity than even New York campus! She emphasised that there was no need to send more than 2 recommendations from teachers and third may be added in specific circumstances. She explained how there are about 65,000 applications and hence adding any document amounts to increasing workload substantially. She also conveyed how half the students submit their forms on last dates and how it is advisable to submit in advance.
Students working as NYU ambassadors took us in groups of 8 to 10 (parents and students), showing a couple of academic buildings, hostel buildings, talk about the food facilities, entertainment privileges and part time jobs. The student who showed my group around was Colin, a sophomore (2nd year student) in Culture and Communication stream. With his humour and experience as a student, he could more than convince me that the New York University can be a wonderful learning place for a person who can feel at home in place like New York. New York and the University share a common space. There are no campus walls and no specific corners which define where the university area starts or ends. To limit the university area in a map would be limiting the area only in that map for it is meant to be there. Colin put it beautifully that if I had to wait 12 years in school to get to college, I did not want to wait 4 more years to start my life. He did two part time jobs along with his classes and he thought it was a great way to know life and meet more people. When university offers accommodation in either hostel rooms or in apartments, he thought an apartment was spacious relatively with private room but more rent. Sharing a wash room with 2 other people in the dormitory was a relief to him as he was used to sharing a wash room with 8 persons back home in Boston. He had 6 siblings he informed. The food available was quite a variety and nobody seemed to have any complaints on food or its cost. He also believed that because segregation in accommodation was not done based on your course, it offered opportunity to know more people and that was how he made two of his closest girl friends, one of which he still was in touch with, he added. He could also share his experience about how some big names and celebrity related to his subject came to the campus and when he participated and communicated with them during these visits, he was able to secure a project with one and discounted ticket for another program. The discounts that students get for academic and entertainment programs was something he excitedly informed and enumerated. The classroom teaching is quite restricted and he had just 15 hours in a week! Of these there were only 2 classes of 1.25 hours of lecture each, a lecture meaning a group of 100 or more students being delivered a lecture by one person. Each lecture is followed by a 4 to 6 hour discussion time fixed the same or next evening, where any student goes up to discuss the contents of the lecture with the professor in his room. Not many students go for the discussion he said but he found it advantageous because it helped to re discuss main issues and also helped the Professor to remember you better by name, which he said helps in getting a recommendation letter later. Talking about safety on campus, he informed that all buildings had an electronic lock on the door and students or people concerned can enter with their ID which served as key and that there was a password to be entered after using the key. Then one would encounter the security person which made it impossible for anyone to really access entry to any building. The streets would be as alive as day till 11 pm, but practically active round the clock, just like New York, the city which never sleeps, he stated. In one of his discussions, he brought out the spirit of learning in diverse culture very well. He said any question or incidence is looked at in such a diverse way by diverse people that the experience of discussion in itself is enriching. I could understand his statement only partly and yet correlate with how Devanshi feels enriched by interacting and working with people from varied communities and countries. This place seems to address the globe actually and not just touch upon the variations off and on. With vibrancy it expects open active minds and spontaneous communication. That to me is the core of education anyway. A lot of their education is in smaller groups and as a seminar and it is indeed a fun and memorable way to learn, although it requires a lot of time for planning and execution by the Faculty. Colin also mentioned that the dormitories have a policy to keep all new admissions together and that ensured that all the people who are clueless of what is happening to them are together. There is a centre where any freshman (first year) can go in any time for any kind of query, including any academic or personal issue or something as minuscule as getting lost amongst buildings.
I realised that education here in USA is being looked at as an important area and being improvised upon keeping up with the present context. Life is a broad concept, education and livelihood were meant to compliment it in an individualised way. Somewhere along the line we tried to make education, livelihood and luxury larger than life and swayed the balance towards the concept formulated by majority rather than fulfilling innate needs of a person. I think bringing in the importance of a skill, to look into life in a larger perspective and appreciating the world, people and transient nature of things is the goal of education. Colin was finding his direction and enjoying it, which is what matters I thought and his education did not seem to come in the way.
I visited the biggest book store of USA after the session at NYU. The store is called ‘Strand’ and was definitely huge. To make it memorable, I picked the collection of poems by Maya Angelou for my daughter hoping she does not already have it! Yes I have lost track of books she has. Although some books which I find open next to her in the morning with all the lights switched on, I remember them sometimes. This generation has lot of people who read much more than most of us ever did and that is such a hope! With combination of education philosophy of NYU and eager youth as students, I visualise miracles, revolution and masterpieces.