Student life at Columbia has a number of dimensions. Students make the best of their four years at CU by finding a balance between life on campus, and off, and between academics and extracurriculars. Columbia affords it's students a wealth of opportunities on all fronts, though it's easy to miss many of them.
"Freshman year... Columbia is like unprotected sex. You're glad you got in, but not so glad you came."
Despite New York City being right outside the Gates, Columbia has a vibrant campus life. Two staples of daily campus life are The Spectator and The Bwog. Between the two, you'll have a good idea of what's going on and have a feel of the pulse on campus at the moment. However, the two hardly provide comprehensive coverage.
Since the Class of 2008, classes have formed virtual friendships via Facebook before arriving at Columbia, which quickly fade from memory upon meeting real people, or result in even more extremely awkward run-ins.
Most of your initial friends will be the people living on your residence hall floor, until you start joining clubs and forming cliques with people of similar mindsets, deriding your initial friends as lame while slowly becoming increasingly closed-minded. You will then awkwardly acknowledge your former friends while walking around campus with a tepid wave or (if necessary), superficial conversation about housing, classes, or Spring Break plans.
Academic life for most students revolve around the classes they're taking that semester, and usually not much further. Unless you're taking 20 or more credits in a semester or have subjected yourself to the pre-med program, the chances are that you'll have time to do a lot of other things.
As professors will often complain, undergraduates rarely take advantage of the rich academic life at Columbia beyond the classroom. As one of the premier research institutions in the nation, Columbia hosts numerous lectures, seminars, symposia, and conferences on every subject, attracting intellectual heavyweights from across the globe. The problem is that you won't know about most of them unless you take the initiative of looking for them.
While some events get a lot of ink and coverage, like the yearly World Leaders Forum, many departmental events aren't mentioned unless you're on the department listserv. Take the time to skim the Todays Events section of the university events calendar to see what's happening. Between the academic departments, graduate schools, and professional schools on the Morningside campus, the list of events is an embarrassment of riches- but only if you go.
What's that? You say you want more than a one-way flow of information, you want to break free from The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and engage in free-flowing high level one-on-one discourse with your professors? Good luck with that. Professors' willingness to engage with students on a personal level is a mixed bag. All professors have office hours, but some treat them like a free clinic's open hours where they diagnose your problem and answer your questions in 10 minutes. Others actually take the time to get to know you. If you want more empirical evidence of the faculty's ambivalence towards you, consider that each faculty member has funding to take students out in small groups for a meal, even for large lectures. See how many of your professors actually take advantage of this. As a general rule, you'll find that seminars are more likely to yield meaningful interactions with faculty than lecture courses. Similarly, talk to the faculty who genuinely move you, not just the stars, and don't overlook grad students and non-tenured faculty. They're just as good for law school and other recommendations as the tenured type.
The Bwog does an occasional Lecture Hopping feature to cover some of the events that students never go to. For students in the sciences, research opportunities on the Morningside campus or at the Med Center can be had. Oh yeah, there's also the Core Curriculum, you may have heard about it.
There are hundreds of student clubs at Columbia. First years typically sign up for at least a dozen clubs at the activities fair in September. However, within a few months, most settle upon two or three clubs, which they tend to pursue throughout their remaining time at Columbia. Commitment varies widely. Varsity Sports, Club Sports, and student publications can consume more time than schoolwork for some students - the joke goes that Spectator writers and editors "majored in Spec" during college. Beyond clubs there's student government, club sports, and community service among other on campus outlets for your energy.
It might be said that a large proportion of students, like at any Ivy League university, have no life. For the rest of us, there's lots to do. The on campus social scene is somewhat decentralized. Fraternities host their fair share of parties, and while they once weren't a central pillar of social life at Columbia, ironically, they've been growing in size and prominence since the declaration of the War on Fun. The rest of the scene tends to revolve around individually hosted parties in upper class housing, especially in some of the suite-style buildings like Hogan and East Campus, which have common areas. While first year housing is officially "substance free", parties still occur with enough frequency, especially in Carman where the large doubles and wide hallways lend themselves to large gatherings.
The campus social scene more or less blends in with the neighborhood scene, of which there isn't much. As you may have heard, Morningside Heights isn't Greenwich Village. Nevertheless there's a decent bar scene, although it's taken a few blows with the loss of both Amsterdam Cafe and The West End as traditional seedy college bars, each giving way to establishments with slightly more refined pretensions. However there are still a few options around, like The Heights. There are also many restaurants in the surrounding neighborhood. First years take particular joy in patronizing these restaurants because they're usually sick of their meal plan at John Jay Dining Hall and the other on-campus dining locations.
New York City affords students more opportunities than they know what to do with. Columbia offers a number of programs to help on this front, primarily the Arts Initiative at Columbia University. The Arts Initiative created the Passport to Museums program, providing Columbia students with free admissions into 34 museums around New York, including the Met, MoMA, Cloisters, Studio Museum in Harlem, New-York Historical Society, Morgan, and more. The Arts Initiative opened the Ticket and Information Center (TIC) in January 2008 and has since sold over 500,000 discounted or free tickets to cultural events on-campus and around the city. Other programs, like Urban New York, also connect students with free tickets. In addition there are a number of New York City guides to the city available, mostly from third parties. There are plenty of concerts throughout the city, and notably, lots of opera at the Lincoln Center.
Jobs and Internships
Students can also find school-year jobs and internships around the city. While CCE can offer some help on this front, you'll probably be on your own. The Arts Initiative maintains a list of job and internship postings.