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Columbia

Columbia

©istockphoto.com/peterspiro

When we arrived in Englewood, New Jersey, there were letters of acceptance from NYU and CCNY, but no word from Columbia, which was my first choice. So I made an appointment to talk to an admissions counselor at Columbia. He reviewed my application and then said,”You’ve only taken the College Entrance Boards, but we require at least two addition exams in specific subjects for entrance to Columbia." I couldn’t refute what he said, but persisted in explaining my situation and requesting a chance to take whatever additional exams were necessary. 

Then he said, “Where are you from? South Dakota? I don’t think we’ve ever had a student from South Dakota. We get so many applications from students in New York City, we give some preference to students who come from other parts of the world. Maybe I could arrange for you to take a couple additional exams. If you do OK, we will let you in.”

I arranged to take two additional exams and the counselor then informed me that I was accepted to study at Columbia.

The same week I got a job at the Grand Union grocery store in Teaneck, right near Englewood. Grand Union was an interesting store because it used an automat style of stocking. All possible goods were stocked from the back room by sliding them down tilted racks just like in the automat restaurants. I had earned enough money for the first semester’s tuition, but needed to work nearly 40 hours/week to take care of the second semester tuition.

My day was kind of hectic. I would catch an early morning bus across the George Washington Bridge and then take the IRT subway down to Columbia at 116th street.  After class it was back to Englewood to work at the grocery store until they closed at 9 o’clock.  Then it was study time. Some days I would quit work at 6 p.m. to get a little more study time. I’d make up for it by working longer shifts on the weekends. The folks at Grand Union were very good to me. After only about a week of stocking I was promoted to checker. There were no scanners, but I played a game with myself to see how fast I could ring up $100 worth of groceries and then would try to beat my record.

College, on the other hand was not as much fun. I was accustomed to doing homework and study at school and seldom had to take books home in high school. At Columbia I learned the meaning of study. Columbia College was only about 2000 students. Of the 500 in my class, half were pre-med just like me. The others were pre-law or pre-engineering. Most of my classmates were Jews and most from New York City. Columbia had a very innovative program for the first two years called Contemporary Civilization and Humanities. These two programs combined literature, the arts, music, philosophy, etc. into two parallel courses.  When you went to the bookstore to get your books for the semester they would be all tied up in a stack about 3-4 feet high.

My most difficult class was German. The only language I had studied was Latin in high school and it was a non-spoken language. Since most of my classmates were Jews who spoke Yiddish at home, it was a breeze for them. In fact I may have learned Yiddish and not German for even the professor was Jewish. I worked very hard just to get a “B” grade.

In December of my first year I heard there was an opening at Railway Express. This was part of the postal system that handled packages. I had to start the second week of December and the job would last through January 1, but the pay was more than double what I was making at Grand Union or the Teacher’s College. The teachers' dining room shut down for the holidays but I still had 10 days of class to juggle along with the Railway Express job.

After class I would study, and then I would catch the subway to the Bronx where the Railway Express train yards were located. Parcels would come in from all over the country by train and we would then sort them out putting them in trucks for delivery in the New York area. I would get about two hours sleep on a table in the cafeteria and then start work at midnight. I would have to dash back to Columbia in the morning and if I had an 8 a.m. class I would be late. 

I got Sunday off and would head back to Englewood to sleep. One Sunday Agnes Chastain invited friends named Woodbury for dinner. They had a daughter that went to college at Bucknell and Agnes wanted me to meet her. Agnes came and aroused me from sleep just before dinner. I remember nothing of the dinner, because I kept falling asleep and finally excused myself and went back to bed without eating. I had had less than 8 total hours of sleep during the past six days.

Two years later, after I transferred to Bucknell, this girl came up to me and said, “I’m sure you don’t know me, but I know you. I had lunch at your house once and you made a great impression by not saying a word but simply falling asleep.”

Bob Larsen

Bob Larsen is a retired surgeon whose eclectic career has allowed him to see the world.

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