This month’s Forthcoming is with Chianna Cohen.
Chianna is a junior at Barnard College, a private liberal arts college which has a collaborative relationship with Columbia University. She’s from Western Massachusetts around the Amherst College area. She studies computer science and East Asian Studies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about Barnard! Why did you apply? Was it normal for people at your school to apply to top tier schools?
Barnard is an undergrad college with Columbia, but it has an interesting relationship.
I went to a private boarding school, Northfield Mount Hermon. There was a pretty good percentage of people who go to “top tier schools”– I don’t love saying it that way– but probably like five to six people in my grade came to Barnard or Columbia.
Why did I apply here? So I come from the Mount Holyoke/Smith College area, and there was a lot of like women’s college energy. Almost all my role models in life went to Smith, and so from a young age, I always thought of women’s college as a real possibility. I know a lot of girls are like, “I’m never going to go to a women’s college.” But when I was looking at schools, I looked almost exclusively at the Seven Sisters (SP note: highly selective liberal arts schools in the Northeast, basically the Women’s college equivalent to the Ivy League schools before they became co-educational).
Ultimately, I applied ED to Barnard, because I like the combination of the city and the women’s college ethos. A lot of people who come to Barnard toured Columbia as well, but I didn’t even look at Columbia, I was only looking at NESCAC schools (SP note: NESCAC stands for New England Small College Athletic Conference. It’s a group of selective liberal arts colleges in the Northeast). The other ones were kind of in the middle of nowhere. I applied to Barnard on a whim. I came here, and I really like it.
What were you up to extra curricular wise or even like class wise in high school?
I did a lot of extracurriculars in high school. I was very invested in dance, editor of our school newspaper, and I founded an identity based club about adoption. Additionally, I was pretty involved with the Asian American student association.
In terms of classes, a lot of people here have taken every single AP class that exists, but I only took like two junior year and four senior year or something like that (AP CS, AP Bio, AP Chem CAL BC, 2 humanities APs I think). I also took some more advanced math like past AP Calc which I was lucky to have in my school.
I often feel shame about the school I went to because there was so much privilege there, and I think a lot of people there don’t realize it.
Do you remember what you wrote your essays about?
The summer before senior year, I was approached to write the matriculation speech for my school, and so I basically submitted that as my one of my essays. It was about glow sticks.
I also have this joke, where I say I’m “Jasian.” I’m adopted, and so I’m Jewish Asian–or “Jasian.” The essays was based on that joke, and it was the typical college essay where you’re trying to find your identity and how it fits into your experience/outlook on the world.
You’ve mentioned that you felt kind of misled by your college counselor. What do you feel misled about? What would you have wanted to do differently?
I think my college counselor didn’t really push me enough to look at really different schools and think outside the box. I’m really glad I ended up at Barnard. It’s a small community within a big city and big university. But I wish my college counselor had pushed me to look at schools like UChicago which are radically different from the rural area I’m from. I also didn’t really look at any public colleges.
The other thing is that about 70% of my school applies ED, which is a function of privilege, but I also think my college counselor really pushed me to apply ED. It might have been nice to not apply ED and instead apply to a bunch of schools and see where I ended up.
I had a fear of getting rejected from college. For example, I liked Brown, but when I told my counselor, she said, “You have higher than average chances, but I can’t guarantee it for anyone.” But with Barnard, she said “if you apply, you’ll get in.” Part of me just wanted to apply and not think about it anymore, but I think I could have used a cheerleader telling me to just apply and then make a decision.
What was the weirdest thing you had to get used to at Barnard, or like in college?
Definitely reaching out to professors. I’m in the CS department, and in the intro sequence, there were 400 people in my class. I was definitely that annoying freshman who was reaching out to the professor/TA about small things. I feel like I’ve chilled out. I’m the head TA of the course I’m referring to. So now I see all the freshmen freaking out about getting one bad grade from the other side.
They decided a little while ago not to limit CS majors which is good for equity reasons but not great for class size and financial reasons. The CS department is becoming really big and your classes are huge. Usually with other majors your class size gets smaller as you go on, but with the CS department you get to more advanced classes then suddenly there’s a bunch of master students. Your classes never get smaller than 120-150. This is definitely not the experience I signed up for when I wanted to come to a small school.
The other thing is applying to college clubs. I wrote an article about it freshman year. If I could do it over, I probably would have worded it differently. But the club application process is super intense, maybe because in the city, people feel a lot more distant and so they want their clubs to be really small and close knit. But it also means, especially for cultural clubs, it’s super exclusive. The Asian American Alliance, for example,may say that they’re the Asian voice on campus, supporting the Asian American Community, but it feels like no one can be part of their community except the like 12 active board members in their club. It’s not just the Asian American Alliance either, this culture applies to a bunch of other clubs too.
What is one thing you cared a lot about in high school that you don’t care about it all in college?
Kind of going off the last question, dance. It’s been a much smaller part of my college experience that I think anticipated high school. I was in my high school dance company, and I really liked choreographing. I’m classically trained in ballet. But I realized in high school that it wasn’t gonna be everything, and I wasn’t gonna become a professional dancer or anything. I still factored it in when I was looking at colleges because I wanted the opportunity to take dance classes. For example, I really liked Yale, but they don’t have many dance classes, so I didn’t end up applying.
But it ended up being like such a minor part of my college experience. I think I’ve taken one dance class a term. My interests changed. It was a part of my identity in high school, but now there are a bunch of other things to do.
Students at Barnard and Columbia share classes, extracurriculars, and even dining halls. What’s the difference between the two? And how do you experience that difference?
Barnard has its own campus–it’s like four buildings. But it does have a weird relationship with Columbia. They’re financially separate, and I know, the financial aid is really different and some departments are separate. Since I’m a CS major, most of my classes are at Columbia… actually, like all of them. Same with East Asian Studies. But there are some departments that are at Barnard. For example, Barnard has a dance department, and all the Columbia students who major in dance come to the Barnard campus to take dance classes.
Colombia is really famous for its core curriculum, where you read a lot of classics that old white men wrote. At Barnard, they have this different thing called Foundations which is a lot more women’s college classes about social inequality and history. My favorite requirement is the “Thinking Locally” requirement, which is basically a class based in New York City. Those classes are really interesting.
I was going to write an Op-ed freshman year about how Barnard fails as a women’s college. I went to Wellesley and they really sold me on a women’s college. They advertised the fact that all of the student leadership were women. And STEM classes were all female. And all these strong politicians come from Wellesley. While Barnard has a little bit of that and has a lot of support for women, you don’t get the same vibe from people and from the campus because there are a lot of men around.
The dorms aren’t geographically separate. They’re all mixed up on the campus but they are Columbia dorms and Barnard dorms. It’s also easier for Columbia students to room in our dorms than the other way around.
There are stereotypes about the colleges, like “Ah she’s a Barnard student because she wears turtlenecks and hipster clothes.” But I don’t think it’s that noticeable. From the professors’ point of view you can’t tell by looking at people’s stuff because everyone has a Columbia email and look the same in Canvas. Additionally, Barnard students are considered the same for research and for teaching assistant positions with Columbia professors in my experience.
I know that you mentioned that you came from a school that was a lot more like your college than most people, but I was wondering if you still struggled with imposter syndrome?
Okay, so I think like part of the culture that’s left over here is that Columbia college students put down Barnard students because it seems like their test scores, on average, are lower and whatever and the acceptance rate is probably double which is also the case with most women’s colleges.
I frequently feel like I am smart but I have to prove it, because no one will believe me right off the bat. It’s not not imposter syndrome, but it’s me constantly hyping myself up and being like “Listen to me! I also exist here, and I deserve to be part of this conversation because xyz.” I don’t know if it’s imposter syndrome as much as insecurities in terms of how people are perceiving me.
Can you tell us a little about the tech internship application cycle?
Tech internship recruiting starts in August and goes till November. I had no clue about this freshman year, and so I was like “wait, that was the thing that happened?” I’m on the board of Columbia Womxn in Computer Science and all the internships I applied to sophomore year were because random people on the board said they were applying and I was like “Oh, wait, I should check that out.” Going to Womxn in Computer Science events and trainings and interview coaching were honestly the number one way I prepared. I also applied to internship opportunities that sponsored us.
There are people I know who, in early August, create a spreadsheet of one hundred companies and will grind leetcode (a way people study for technical interviews) every single day for two hours. You don’t have to do that. If you don’t get an internship your freshman year that’s perfectly fine. I went to China with Shayley, and it was probably the best experience of my college experience so far. I probably wouldn’t be an East Asian studies major now if I hadn’t done that study abroad summer. Not getting an internship first year is totally normal and also sometimes really cool.
What do you look for in an internship now? What do you think is a good internship that’s worth applying to?
I think with tech the whole question is: are you going to apply to like a big tech company or startup? This year, I had it easy. I got into this like program my sophomore year, and they gave me a return offer for this summer.
There’s a lot of prestige and clout I think people want when they apply to big tech companies. But there’s a lot of learning you can do at smaller companies because you’re actually doing a lot more of the real work.
On the flip side, I have also mentored people who have interned at smaller companies, and they said it was a mess because the startups didn’t really know how to handle interns and that’s a really awful experience.
For me, the choice is really: in big tech, you have a stable, likely established internship program that probably has a lot of other interns. You’ll have a cohort, and that’s definitely something to consider. Compare that to a smaller startup where you get a more hands-on experience but also might be a lot more chaotic. It also might be harder on your resume in the future. Like what happens if this startup collapses and no one knows about it?
This is something I’m also learning but tech recruiting and the technical interview is an art that you have to really study for to master, and I still have not really mastered it.
What advice do you wish someone would have given you before you started college?
College is really a balance about trying everything but also making sure you save time for yourself. As a day student at a boarding school, I always felt kind of excluded because I had to drive home the drive back and was never really as close to everyone. In college, I thought I would do everything and make all the friends and be everywhere, all the time.
In some ways, that’s really great your freshman year. I made a lot of friends and I had a really great experience freshman year. But I have a hard time when people are up late, and I’m really tired. I can’t just be like “I need to go to bed.” It’s hard to give someone advice about this, it’s something you have to figure out yourself. I’d encourage people to learn how to step back and know your boundaries.
There are other different ways to take classes at schools like Columbia
When looking at colleges, I didn’t explore the different ways you could take classes at different schools. But some colleges have agreements with other colleges nearby so you can cross-enroll with varying degrees of ease. For example, my sister’s college Swarthmore allows for exchanges at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, or UPenn.
Your experience at school can be heavily dependent on your major
On paper, Chianna goes to a small women’s college, but since she’s a CS major, she mostly takes Columbia classes. Columbia advertises that 80% of classes have fewer than 20 students, but Chianna’s classes all have 100+ people in them. Big classes aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to keep in mind when you’re looking for schools. There’s more to brochure statistics than meets the eye.
You might have different priorities in high school vs college, and that’s okay
Some people weigh extracurriculars/specific departments really heavily when they choose colleges to apply to. Sometimes it works out. But other times, you can get to college and completely change your major (like I did) or choose not to participate in clubs you thought you would. It’s good to keep that in mind when you make your decision.
Chianna’s interview is part of a series called Forthcoming, an interview series where people reflect on their educational/extracurricular experiences. If you’d like to be interviewed for Forthcoming, please fill out the form at the bottom of this post. If you have questions or suggestions for future interviews, please get in touch here!