Being Noah Tesfaye #4: How New York City and Columbia University Changed My Life

I am currently beginning to write this installment of the blog on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving. I have had quite a year to remember, and a host of things to be thankful for. I had the utmost privilege of going back home to Ethiopia to visit family and just last week, I just spoke at the NCSS, National Convention for Social Studies, with my fellow editors of our school’s media literacy class. There is no opportunity, however, that I am more thankful for than receiving the chance to go to Columbia University for three weeks and study Constitutional Law.

Let me share the story from the beginning. In January of 2017, I was trying to find something I could do over the summer, and I stumbled across this program called Columbia’s Summer Program for High School Students. I thought it was super interesting and I thought I might as well apply for it. I wrote my application through Chemistry class with the support of my teacher. I was excited to get the opportunity to go, and then I saw the cost. That brought my jaw straight to the ground and sprung tears into my eyes. I so very much wanted to go, and realized that my family could not afford to pay the nearly $11,000 for being a boarding student, all for a summer program. Nearly no parents can afford that, and so when I saw the option for a scholarship, I jumped to it and prayed that I could get some money off so my parents could pay for the tuition. I get my acceptance email a few weeks later, which was great to hear, but no word of my scholarship, the one true acceptance letter. I begin to panic and fear that they didn’t accept my financial aid request. So I waited, and waited, and then one late spring afternoon, I saw the email that changed my life. Before I even got to New York, a city I have always loved and dreamed about living in, I knew that Columbia gave me the opportunity to pursue a passion that I didn’t I would have, but I made it my duty to take advantage of that opportunity.

Fast forward to June of last summer, and I’m on my first flight alone to JFK. I couldn’t contain my excitement the days leading up to check-in the Sunday before class. I jumped into my dorm, so thrilled to be at this position and opportunity, determined to tackle class the next day. At this point, I had little to no understanding concretely of what Constitutional Law was, but I knew I wanted to argue in the Supreme Court one day. That first day, I saw so many bright, excited classmates who, in all honesty, intimidated me. I was that one black kid, in my mind, here with the opportunity of a lifetime, amongst some of the smartest young minds I have ever known. But the second class began, I noticed something so profound that I had never noticed ever in my life. I felt my race disappear. I only was myself. Noah Tesfaye, not black, but a student determined to thrive in this situation. In that one moment, I realized that this was the beginning of something special, and boy did I underestimate what would happen.

Never in my life had I received the autonomy that I was granted those three weeks. Over the first few days, I began to connect with people on such an intimate level at a rate unprecedented in my lifetime. They didn’t see me for all the baggage that I carried with me. They were empathetic, yet they didn’t care about anything surface level. The types of conversations about the law, reading through our book of cases in Riverside Park, were moments I will never forget because never in my life had I seen so many people just connect with academia and law in a way that evoked such emotion. We argued about gun control, affirmative action, and everything else in between. Yet, I realized that I found friends who were human too. We could be discussing our idol Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Notorious RBG, and instantly flip to our obsession with Kanye West. There would be discussions about Roe V. Wade that would somehow evolve into our agreed opinion that cold brew is life (something I still cannot get out of my life might I add).

The three weeks I spent in New York gave me the break I needed. Living in Silicon Valley, although I do enjoy my home, the stress I feel being black in my town disappeared. Completely. I have visited almost every major city in the US, and no place has, and never will, give me the sense of true safety like New York. The fact that I could walk down the street to go get coffee and not receiving any judgmental looks felt like I could run free for the first time in my life.

Another conclusion I made through my experience in New York was that I saw the extent to which real friends can support you. I struggled for years trying to understand why my social anxiety brought me to friends who I did appreciate, yet did not appear to want me to succeed as much as I did. What my friends, or RBGang (for obvious reasons), made me realize was that we could all succeed. Together. There was never a friend left behind. There was never a moment where any of us were left out. We all picked places to eat, museums to visit, and random things to do. Sure, I’m sorry I had to drag them to Magnolia for bread pudding every few days, but other than that, we had a true give and take relationship that I never knew was possible.

But more than anything else, Columbia made me realize that there could be a place where I belonged in every sense of the word. We all shared one common interest and were all determined to work to achieve our goals. Up until that point in my life, I had never known that there was a place where people could merely accept me for who I am. Again, for a person who isn’t a black person isolated, or any minority for that matter, it is hard to understand what that is truly like. I could be me, in my purist form, unencumbered by any obstacles. When you’re the only student, working day to to day, living in isolation from anyone like you, it’s hard to believe that there could be a place for you somewhere in the world. But if only for just three weeks, I was able to live that dream that I never knew was possible. It was the happiest three weeks of my life because I could not believe that so many people my age were able to understand me for who I am.

So I want to say thank you. Thank you Columbia University for giving me the chance to come to your program, granting me a scholarship to come to New York and begin the study of the subject I plan on studying for the rest of my life. I hope that more students like me can get that same opportunity I did, and I wish there was more awareness for students less fortunate than I am to one day attend this gram in the future. Thank you to Camila Vergara, the best professor I could have asked for, both as a teacher, and as someone I can talk to when I have any questions to this day. And most of all, I want to say thank you to my friends, RBGang. You are the greatest group of people I have ever known. Your insights, personalities and energy gave me the motivation to continue to pursue my dreams because I know what I am working towards. The way you guys made me feel honestly gave me the courage to believe that it is ok to be just me, and no one should make me change who I am. I will always keep in touch with all of you, and even though we don’t all live in the same places, we share a connection that I hope to carry with me for the rest of my life.

I was going to end the post here, but unfortunately, I just read that Columbia won’t be accepting any more individual financial aid applications for their summer program next year. I am really sad that this option isn’t available for students who wish to come to this program in the future, but here is the info if you are interested in this summer program. If you are reading this Columbia University, I would really appreciate you continuing to grant students the same opportunity I received to go to your program and continue to help change the lives of students who cannot afford the full price of your program. I hope I can serve as an example of how much your scholarship helps students across the nation and the globe.

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