Merton came to Columbia as a sophomore from Clare College, Cambridge, commuting to campus every day from the suburbs. An early influence was Mark Van Doren, who became a lifelong friend, and whom Merton met while taking an 18th century English literature course. Painter Ad Reinhardt and poet Robert Lax were also close friends. Merton also briefly flirted with communism during this time.
In his next year, he became much more involved on campus, joining the staffs of the Columbia Review and Jester, as well as the Philolexian Society and ADP. In October 1935, he joined a protest against the then-autonomous Casa Italiana over Italy's invasion of Ethiopia.
He did not obtain his BA from Columbia until January 1938, and went on to do some graduate work in English at the university. All throughout this period, his readings informed a deepening Catholicism, and Merton came to attend mass at the nearby Corpus Christi Church. He was formally baptized there on November 16, 1938. He also continued his graduate work, penning his masters thesis on William Blake, and received his MA on February 22, 1939. He also received the Van Rensselaer Poetry Prize for that year.
He then decided he would pursue a PhD, moving to Greenwich Village in order to be nearer to campus. It was during this period that a part-time teacher named Daniel Walsh influenced the direction of Merton's Catholicism away from Thomism. Merton then received his Confirmation at Corpus Christi, on May 25, 1939. In October of that year, after a long night out at a jazz club, Merton had the epiphany that he wanted to devote his life to religion.