My Grad School Decision Was Based On The City Experience

My Grad School Decision Was Based On The City Experience
It has been over a decade since I returned home from New York, yet the slightest mention of the city tugs at my heartstrings. I lived alone but the dazzling lights and the night time cityscape helped me escape loneliness. I would walk around for hours in silence and overhear the linguistic rhythm of strangers around me. Many people are overwhelmed by the ubiquitous pedestrians and towering skyscrapers but I embraced the spectacle and character the city had to offer. Strolls in Sakura Park offered relief under the cherry blossom trees. The Manhattanhenge’s dreamlike setting of the sun, a walk along the Hudson River, watching people groove inside jazz bars in Harlem- the city manifests its soul in every corner.

My experience comes from the limitations and liberties of a student life. I had no hefty bills to cover from my pocket so the cramped living space didn’t trouble me. In fact, the tiniest room I ever lived in on Riverside Drive gave me the biggest life lessons. I had secured the Fulbright scholarship and chose to go to New York University. It was a decision based less on the Journalism rankings which were pretty stellar on their own, but more on the city experience I’d get owing to the location. A strong contender had been Northwestern University, with a higher Journalism school ranking, but for me the decision was a predicament of living in Evanston versus Manhattan.

As a Journalism major, I had applied for a concentration of Reporting the Nation. This ensured that I would spend less time inside the corridors of grad school and more time on the streets, digging facts, interviewing people and looking for stories. The city was practically the laboratory. With the straps of a backpack dug into my shoulders, and a video camera in tow, I was ready to explore, one avenue at a time. School assignments entailed multiple visits to the Zuccotti Park to meet protestors of the Occupy Wall Street. These streets and a generation of activists they gave birth to, reshaped the US political debate. I recall a professor of mine encouraging me to venture outside Manhattan. What followed was an exploration of boroughs.

In Jackson Heights, Queens, I met people from my own country, Pakistan, and while fishing for stories, introduced my peers to the informal (and often negative) term ABCDs (American-Born Confused Desis) often used to refer to South Asian Americans with origins from Pakistan, Indian and Bangladesh. The city exposed me to issues such as effects of gentrification in its neighbourhoods and carrying the weight of migrants coming from the Dominican Republic.

My school wasn’t exceptionally diverse. But the city was. The experience of diversity was perhaps catapulted by my choice of housing. International House wasn’t just student housing. It was a community that gave you space to know people beyond the surface. Friendships made in lobbies and dining halls have nurtured my growth in life. Only in New York City would residents on one floor be from Skopje, Buenos Aires, Delhi and Cape Town. My friend Rohini from Dhaka was studying climate change, Sepideh from Tehran was on her way to becoming a clinical psychologist, we had varied interests in what we were studying in school, but our conversations on life, love, politics, world, health etc were unceasing. A city changes you when it broadens your perspectives. That is what it did.

I met numerous people that were living there in transition- to make money, to find work at Theatre District, to unveil a purpose amid chaos. The city was almost like a pilgrimage of sorts, offering people a spiritual journey. The best kind of training for a journalist is to be left on their own on a street like a willful loner using their imagination and observations. The looming buildings, the people you cross paths with, flocking to underground subways to find gifted vocalists, every stop, street, avenue and borough has thousands of stories waiting to be told. Navigating my way through the city’s grid plan, I learnt a lot in school, but a lot more in the city. Amid those crowded streets, I would thrive on finding stories and the city’s culture, diversity, art and food, would fuel my passion every day.