In honor of our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine, Bwog offers a preview of the December issue of The Blue and White—which will be welcomed by campus next week. In this piece, contributor Channing Prend, CC ’17, takes a look at the post-baccalaureate students that are changing the chemistry of pre-med classes. Note that names have been shortened to initials for privacy concerns.
“Fuck no. I would probably be failing all my classes if I acted like I did as an undergrad!” S.K., GS ’15, exclaimed. “When I was in college, I went out at least four nights a week.”
I first met S.K. at Professor David Reichman’s Gen Chem office hours. She seemed aggressive, and I avoided making eye contact with her at all costs.
“Will we be expected to know this for the midterm?” “Does this principle extend to polar covalent bonds?“ “Do we need to be comfortable applying this model to heteronuclear diatomic molecules?”
She, and the other students in the room, interrogated Professor Reichman. I recognized them as the overachievers who frequent the front row of lecture and stay after class every day to ask questions. Furthermore, they all appeared to be upperclassmen. I was wholly aware of my inferiority.
About a month into the semester, S.K. and her cohort accepted me as a constant fixture in office hours. One day, I was deemed worthy enough to warrant pre-class small talk.
“Are you a freshman?” E.S., GS ’15, asked.
“Yeah… What about you?” I stammered.
“I’m a postbac,” she replied. I nodded, not wanting to reveal my ignorance. Through a subsequent Google search, I learned of the School of General Studies’ Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program.
The program was founded in 1955 and currently enrolls more than 350 students. Eligible applicants, according to their website, are “college graduates who have taken few or none of the basic science requirements needed to apply to medical school.” Postbac students come from a wide range of academic backgrounds, including English, psychology, law, political science, and finance. For most, coming to Columbia marks a change in professional identity.
“I originally wanted to become an attorney.” E.S. explained. “Let’s just say that after a few years working in a public defenders office, I realized that the lawyer-client relationship isn’t the most direct way to help people.”
Since postbacs previously attended a four-year undergraduate institution, they have no illusions about this being an exhaustive college experience. “We’re not here to have fun.” S.H., GS ’15, remarked. “I think most of us treat this as a job.”
The postbacs are motivated by a very specific goal: medical school. For this reason, very many take advantage of resources like office hours. “I gave up my entire career to be here.” C.C., GS ’15, stated. “So obviously I’m taking my academics more seriously than I did as an undergrad.”
“Members of the postbac community are bound by a shared and deep commitment to academic excellence,” said Victoria Rosner, Associate Dean of the Postbac Program.
C.C. put it more bluntly, “We’re all trying to get good grades.”
With acceptance rates as low as 2.1 percent for the top medical schools, its not surprising that postbacs are so concerned with their academics. “Med school admissions is less holistic than undergrad,” S.H. commented. “GPA and MCAT scores are some of the most important factors.”
The postbac program has many resources to help students through this ruthless application process. “We have a staff of full time advisors, study groups, academic tutors, MCAT prep, and even some linkage programs that allow students early placement into selected medical schools,” Rosner listed. These opportunities result in nearly 90 percent of Columbia postbacs being accepted into medical school upon first application.
This statistic, however, doesn’t always comfort. “I’m trying not to think that far ahead,” S.K. stated. “Right now I just need to make sure I don’t fail all my classes.”
Postbacs share many of the same goals and values. “Students in the program feel an immense amount of camaraderie,” Rosner declared.
For many, these relationships are confined to the classroom though. “We see each other in office hours and at study groups,” S.H. stated. “But the foundation of these friendships is essentially doing work… and bitching about classes.”
“I think there was some sort of postbac Halloween party recently,” A.P., GS ’15, noted. However, no one that I spoke with actually went. (“I don’t have time for that,” A.P. said)
However, there does seem to be a common culture that surrounds studying and overachieving. This characteristic attitude often makes it easy to determine which students are in the program.
“Basically, if you come to office hours, I assume you’re a postbac,” my Chemistry TA, who preferred to be kept anonymous, told me. “Unless you look blatantly prepubescent.” (He said this while staring right at me).
Classification is not always so simple, though. The average age of a student in the program is twenty-seven, so many of the younger postbacs are not visibly distinguishable from the rest of the undergraduate population.
“Where did you go for undergrad?” Professor Reichman asked me as we chatted, pre-interview. “I’m eighteen,” I replied.
According to Dean Rosner, in a typical Gen Chem class about 25 percent of students are postbacs. “I would think that young undergraduates perceive them as role models,” Rosner said. (Asked to comment on the postbacs however, the prevailing response among freshmen in my class was: “The what?”)
Most postbac students are similarly uninterested in their younger classmates. “I didn’t come here to make friends with a bunch of immature freshmen,” S.H. told me.
“I don’t give a fuck what they think of me,” S.K. professed. “They’re all a bunch of little shits.” (When I informed her that I am a freshman, she held fast: “I stand by my comment”).
For the few underclassmen that were aware of the program’s existence, their view was hardly one of admiration. “It’s not really that fair. They’re only taking two classes, so they have more time to devote to Chem,” stated Tatini Mal-Sarkar, CC ’17. “I don’t really care except that they screw up the curve.”
These two groups, though they share Havemeyer 309, are inherently different. “The postbacs really capitalize on the resources available to them,” Professor Reichman said. “But many of them have been out of school for years. They don’t have an immediate grasp of the material, like a freshman who took AP Chem last year.”
To make up for this discrepancy, postbacs will continue to overachieve in Gen Chem classes throughout Columbia. “It’s never too late to pursue something you’re passionate about,” A.P. exclaimed. “Oh God, that sounded so cliché. But it’s actually true!”