Monday, April 4, 2011

On being courted by schools: Considering The New School

Part 2 of 3

(To recap: I was admitted to both grad schools to which I’d applied, and attended both Admitted Students Days to decide between them. It was an enlightening comparison. NYU’s was the first day: see the preceding post for its review. I know this post is very long, but it's main audience is my family.)

Though my bias was initially for The New School, I showed up Saturday morning ready to be disappointed, keenly on the lookout for problems and concerns that would steer me away from their program.

I was humored to note that the building was on a corner some friends and I had recently visited as part of a lesbian history walking tour of Greenwich Village: on this block (separately) lived my heroes Willa Cather and Murray Hall. I tried not to read anything auspicious into this.

I stepped into a small, innovative building dominated by light natural wood and wall-to-wall windows showing the brick sidewalk and its very Village pedestrians on one side and whimsical tree-filled courtyard on the other. The space in which we initially gathered was a school-run café, with a small selection of fresh bagels, mango slices and fresh blueberries, granola, lime-aid, and organic fair trade coffee. I diligently tried to ignore the pangs of love my heart emitted because of this perfect spread.

My fellow accepted-student attendees were a small (50?) crowd of people of mixed ages, more on the young adult end but including visible representation of people through late middle age. The group was actually racially diverse, including lots of Latinos. I later learned that 22 countries were represented there: given the small total number of students, that’s a pretty high percentage! I immediately felt more relaxed here, if only because of the attire. At NYU, it was business suits and dressing to impress. At the New School most people wore jeans and t-shirts. The staff and faculty present (of which there were many) were casual, friendly, and happy looking, emitting kindness and enthusiasm. They had a hilarious logistical problem: that too many current students and alums had showed up to speak on the panel, because so many people wanted the opportunity to praise the New School and encourage us to attend.

As we introduced ourselves (which we actually had the opportunity to do here, unlike at NYU), the interests/professions of fellow students in Management program kept prodding me with glee: the first handful of people introduced themselves as engaged in women’s studies, feminist theory, gender, abortion access, education, ESL, mentorship, fine art, already running a nonprofit, film, media, prisoner services, food and nutrition i.e. feeding the poor, grassroots environmental organizing. (I stopped writing further interests down because I realized they would continue to each be exciting.) The goal of more than one other student is the same as my own: “I want to be in a high-level management position in a development organization.” After I introduced myself, the dean quipped, “Wow, you’re really in the right place.” Yes, yes, and yes! These are my people.

This was corroborated by a current student, a tiny Asian woman, who spoke late in the day: “Usually people are afraid of public speaking, but do you notice how relaxed we [current students] all are? How passionate? Even though I’m just a bitty woman and I’m holding this scary heavy phallic thing [i.e. microphone] in my hand up to my mouth, I’m not afraid to speak, not afraid at all!” And then following this delightful statement, a man sitting next to me rolled his eyes and put on a distasteful face protesting her ‘phallic’ comment and looked around for corroboration of his small-mindedness, and two other women sitting nearby gave him such immediate and strong stern looks of don’t-even-go-there feminist protectiveness, causing him to retract his expression before I could even compose my own protective face! :)

But I get ahead of myself: We started off the organized events of the day with a student-led tour of the facilities. Though the guides were just flying by the seat of their pants, leading to some humorous backtracking and a lack of necessary keys in a few instances, it was great to have unmediated time to grill current students about what life at the school was actually like, an opportunity which we all took full advantage of. The guides must have felt like they got the ninth degree, but their unflagging enthusiasm and honesty was very encouraging.

It was, of course, also great to have the opportunity to see the actual classrooms, computer labs, library, study spaces, etc. that we would be using. This tour was a nicety NYU had not bothered with, or which was perhaps not possible because the amenities there are so spread out. Most of my time at The New School will be spent in two adjoined buildings, a convenience I greatly appreciate.

As for the facilities themselves: they were small but great, actually fun. Thank you, Parsons students, for creating such innovative creative spaces. Throughout what would have otherwise been an unremarkable institutional building, there were unexpected open spaces, a plethora of light, whimsical interior design, bold colorful murals, many surprising and challenging sculptures, practical unique benches, random social/activist installations, and very efficient use of space. It felt like we’ll be studying in a modern art museum, but more relaxed. And speaking of, we apparently get free MOMA access for life. (Cue angelic choir, and slight concerns for my productivity: I know where I’ll be doing my reading!)

Throughout the building they have composting bins, actually diligent recycling bins, waterbottle refilling stations, and the like. The faculty offices are cluttered and seem well-used, giving me high hopes for being able to regularly find them there. The library is small but precise, and we will ironically have full use of all NYU facilities including their extensive libraries: NYU will even deliver requested books to The New School for us. “Their resources are our resources.” The computer labs are extensive and gorgeous, with monitors, scanners, and equipment suited to a fine arts program.

And speaking of equipment (this is the point at which my heart truly gave out any resistance and began to swoon), we get free priority use of professional-quality high-res still and video cameras, access to classes on documentary filmmaking, and all other Parsons resources. !!!! <3 <3

To top it off, we get free access to all New School language classes, no tuition needed. So the two things I was hoping to do outside of school over the next two years, namely learn how to do filmmaking and learn Spanish, are supported and encouraged in Milano’s program.

But I get ahead of myself again. (This is a good sign.) After the tour, we gathered in a space that reminded me quite a bit of the sanctuary of my childhood church (UUS:E) for the usual speechifying. The Dean won me over right off by apologizing that we’d left the breakfast spread behind in the previous room, saying: “Sorry we don’t have someone plying you with coffee and sweet rolls, but if you want that, it’s right downstairs, you can figure out how to get it yourself: now that’s empowered social change!” Especially on the heels of the NYU students of the day before, who had needed to be served, this struck quite a bell.

And then to the meat of the program: while I thought that NYU wasn’t asking the right questions in trying to make us “employable”, I think The New School responds perfectly to what has motivated me to pursue this degree, and what I hope to get out of it: “We want to honor that intrinsic value that you’ve placed on your development and what role you can place on society.” “We want to help you along on the road to make the change you want to see in the world.” “Personal development so you can better serve.” “Adding value to communities” “Implicitly social-justice values-centered work.” “What’s most important is that you are an engaged, informed, effective citizen, who knows how to effectively stand up and speak up, to actually enact change when it is needed.” “Making a difference in messy, difficult situations: in the real world.” “Setting a foundation for you to be able to learn further on your own in the unexpected and unprecedented situations in which you will find yourself.” Yes! I thought. By starting from this spot-on premise, I can build the education I seek! And, delightfully, unlike NYU starting with the expectation of selling out, “There is no reason you can’t seek personal satisfaction in all you do.”

One of the main programmatic features I was most interested in is relevant international and domestic work experience. While I knew this was part of the program, I hadn’t realized to what an extent it was available and in fact required. The students collectively do more than 200 client-based projects a year, with each student completing a consulting project for almost every class, and more over the summer. By the time I graduate, I’ll have a full resume of completed real-world consulting projects with NGOs and governmental agencies ranging from the UN and NYC councils to tiny startups in the jungles abroad.

While at NYU, independent international projects were tensely tolerated, such projects are encouraged at The New School. “A tremendous amount of students do their projects and work abroad.” And it’s not just ignorant poverty-tourist token projects. An example project cited by the Dean: “In the Amazon, managing a polluted river that stinks.” Another example project: “Organizing and building a floating barge swimming pool for Harlem.” Current student: “My pet project is slum rebuilding and mapping. I’ve helped rebuild slums on three continents already.” Another current student: “My current project is actualizing rural electrification in Brazil.”

Like NYU, the New School has an international summer program, which they call the International Field Program. It is much more rigorous than NYU’s program, lasting two months or more, and going to a much wider range of locations abroad. They require you to attend a course all semester before you go that teaches about the country and its language, as well as relevant skills you will need for succeeding in your work there such as data gathering, etc. When in the overseas locale, students participate in real projects with local partner organizations, and delve much further afield in their research and work. It sounds like a deeply rigorous and rewarding experience, and I can hardly wait.

Similarly, The New School fully supports students doing their final thesis-equivalent project on or in an international setting: “As long as there’s skype or a phone, we can make it work and support you in your work there.” This made me confident I could purse the kind of research and work that brings me to this field of study in the first place.

Of course, their curriculum reflects this support of international issues, with excellent classes across the spectrum of international NGO concerns. Milano also has excellent curricular resources on environmental issues (unlike NYU) thanks to having a parallel environmental studies and environmental management program. Throughout the New School they offer 40 courses per year on water alone. (Ma, I though you would like that.)

It turns out the folks at the New School really actually know what development work abroad is all about, in a way even most people working "in the field" don't understand: From an international student: “At the New School it doesn’t assume Western values, it doesn’t assume an outsider’s view, it focuses on community development and that you might be from that community, and engages that community. It’s not about foreigners coming in from outside and ‘developing’ someplace and then leaving. Though we teach how to do that well, too.” This kind of insight is so refreshing and exciting, and you have no idea how rare it is to have these dynamics acknowledged.

And her comment hints at the famed New School intellectual diversity in classroom discussions. Other current students commented on this: “I can push back in class, and people are open to hearing it.” And even, “I feel free even in an econ class to question the effects of capitalism… not to just accept the market system because it’s so pervasive.” You have no idea how glad I was to hear that I wouldn’t be the only one going against the grain, and that in fact I could learn from other students and faculty who share these same thoughts and values.

Students at the New School really actually seem to learn from one another. That comment in the paragraph above from the international student speaker, “Though we teach how to do that well, too” note how she says “we teach” though she is the student, not the teacher. Everyone listened to everyone else, and referred to one another’s expertises. At one point a professor directed a new student to the two students on the panel who could help her register her NGO in Canada, and twice I saw faculty turn to students for information to complete an answer to a question. Not that the faculty are passive participants in our education. They see themselves not only as teachers but “We’re your cheerleaders, your councilors, your guides.” At one point student quipped: “The faculty bedazzles me.” A member of the faculty responded, joking: “I don’t know about being bedazzling, but I know I am humbled by the students. I hope I can get recommendation letters from them in the future.” The personal respect and breadth of human resources evinced by the sum of the talented faculty and inspiring student body is very exciting.

Ok, I’m getting really tired, so I’m going to stop trying to make perfect paragraphs out of everything and just list off other key observations.

The New School teaches fundraising, philanthropy! NYU doesn’t. This is a very important thing to learn, so for this reason alone I should attend The New School.

“The freedom to chart my own course of study.” "Encouraging unorthodox courses of study. The school says “Yes”, “Why not”, “Let’s make this work,” rarely “impossible.”"

Almost everyone there works part-time while doing school. Working part-time and school full-time is best. Lots and lots of people work for the school, and everyone said the school makes it very easy to find part-time work you enjoy. Also, at NYU you can’t do a project at the place you work. At Milano you can: this just makes sense. They fully support and respect people having lives outside of school. And, every single other concern I mentioned in my write-up about NYU, like supporting female leadership and having a queer community and working with the kinds of organizations I one day hope to run? Not a concern here.

As for fun things outside of class, “There are lots of opportunities to go to events not related to poverty or genocide or other depressing things that we all get immersed in.” They offer free yoga, pilates, and zumba, plus frequent subsidized outings incl. hiking, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, etc. The leaders of the recreation department were inspiring (I’m using that word a lot, aren’t I?) in their attitude of support and getting people to try new things, and finding recreations that are a good match for people’s skills and stretching their boundaries and learning new things.

And then came the hilarious part where it turns out I’m signing on to the arch-rival school to Petra’s school. There were two current students there who had transferred from Columbia University: One had been “missing that sense of community with students and connection with faculty, and my heart of social organizing ached, and I love that The New School is a bastion of liberalism.” From the other student: “There’s a certain school, I won’t name it, it’s above 96th St and below 125th St., and its students are all really, you know… smart… We’re better than them. They know the theory, we know the practice.”

And from another student: “I wanted to look around a class and say not that these students are really smart and not have anything else to say about them, but that these students are Cool with a capital C, I’d want to work with them, hire them, passion oozes from them. If I were in a back-alley brawl, I’d want New School students on my side.”

“That school up north on this island [i.e. Columbia], they’ll be in the offices. We’ll be doing good work in the slums. Where do you want to be? Comfy, or effective?”

Petra corroborated many of their frustrations, though of course she rightly wants me to point out that Columbia is an excellent school, which it is, with impassioned, talented, practically-minded students, some of whom are willing to get their hands dirty (and of course in my opinion, of this most excellent group she is the most awesome and most potentially-effective and certainly the prettiest).

So, by the end of the day (a very reasonable 2:15 pm), I was totally and completely sold. Not only did they have all the basics I’d require (academic excellence, good facilities, classes giving me the exact skills I’ll need, opportunities to apply these skills abroad, and a network of people in the fields in which I hope to work), they have everything I’d want in any community with whom I’d spend my time: They share my values, my interests, they inspire me, and I felt at home.

Oh, yeah, and by the way? They're offering me a s*@#-ton of money. It will be quite affordable to attend. I was holding off on even thinking about this factor, because I really wanted to choose the program that's right for me regardless of cost, but really? It's like icing on top of an already delicious cake.

(P.S. Now, I know I haven't talked at length about the curriculum or faculty of either program, but that's not because I'm not considering these essential factors in my decision: it's because they're largely comparable between the two schools: both equally excellent and high-caliber and experienced. I'll talk more about just what is contained in The New School's program that I'm signing up for in a following post.)

1 comment:

Darrick said...

I'm sold. Can I join you?