When my acceptance to do my Master’s program in New York arrived, my husband and I decided to trade in our little Vancouver Island home – with its towering trees and vast oceanic shoreline – for the skyscrapers, arts culture, and urban adventure that awaited us in New York City. After doing ample research on different graduate programs in my field, both in Canada and the US, I decided on Columbia’s Master’s in Special Education, due to the incredible location of the university and the connection it has fostered with the community it resides in.
This decision gave me the opportunity to learn and teach in an urban environment. I wanted an experience that would contrast my time teaching in the Greater Victoria School District, which is more suburban in nature; the university offered me just that by providing me with the opportunity to work in a Harlem public school while completing my graduate studies. I was confident that these experiences would help me grown as an educator.
So, with that, our decision was made and we packed up our house in our hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, loaded what we could fit into the back of a rental car, and set off for a two-week road trip across continental America. When we arrived in the new neighbourhood we would be calling home, we fell in love what we found there. And when we drove up to the university campus, it was an almost pastoral setting – which did our West Coast hearts good to see. So often you think of Manhattan as soaring skyscrapers and urban grit, however, although the university is located in the city and you have access to all its metropolitan glory, the campus itself and surrounding areas are rich with parks brimming with greenery, expansive sidewalks, stunning heritage buildings – and by walking just two block west you can glimpse the water of the Hudson river.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t confess to the touch of homesickness I felt my first few days in New York. After speaking with other international students, I realized I wasn’t alone in experiencing this twinge of emotion as we all settled into a new routine in a much larger corner of the world. Collectively, we all felt the spine-tingling, pulse-rushing excitement of being in such a vibrant, dynamic city, and the insatiable hunger to learn more from our studies.
I quickly realized that it can be a challenge to navigate the collegiate culture of the US private, Ivy League education system, which starkly differs from the Canadian model. Also, learning that the Manhattan housing market is as competitive as it is expensive, and that no one knows how to run your Canadian credit check, can be frustrating.
Meanwhile, daily tasks like mastering subways, securing a cell phone with no US ID, or even figuring out the best method to grocery shop in NYC, are daunting. Luckily, there are resources and people to help a new students acclimate. Most universities have departments like student services, international affairs, or a housing office, all at the students’ disposal, to help them find solutions. In my experience, using the available resources and asking questions – even ones I felt sheepish asking – were crucial to getting into a rhythm in a new place.
Furthermore, what made all the difference in relieving my homesickness was to foster new relationships, explore my surroundings, and get involved – both on-campus and in the greater NYC area.
Being a graduate student comes with a lot of perks beyond a stellar, challenging education: First, you are studying in the heart of this pulsating, ever-changing city that always has lists upon lists of events for you to explore; second, and equally as vital, most US higher education institutions do an exceptional job of connecting students with the community through internships, discounts on Broadway shows, free admission to museums, yoga classes, and a host of university-sponsored activities.
My advice is to read posters on campus, sign up for student event list-serves, and take advantage of every opportunity that arises. Getting out into the city so that you find your favorite coffee shop, running route, or bookstore will start to make it feel like home. Any new city can feel overwhelming, but I can say from experience that taking the time to plant roots in an unfamiliar environment can be one of the most exciting, challenging, and defining experiences of your life. I wouldn’t trade these last two years in New York for anything. My worldview on education has expanded, my vision for my future has altered, and I have met some of the most dynamic, exceptional people along the way.
Renée is a BC certified teacher from SD 61 in Victoria, who is currently living and working in New York City as a Learning Specialist. Renée holds a Bachelor of Education in Elementary Education from the University of Victoria, and a Master of Arts in Special Education from Columbia University. For more information she can be found at www.thejordanproject.ca or on twitter: @missus_jay