Be. That. Guy.

Done learning for this year? Think again: hear about what Ben Gersten has to say about his unique Columbia experience. 

Name, School, Major, Hometown:

Ben Gersten, GS/JTS, Neuroscience & Linguistics (CU) / Bible (JTS), Roseland, NJ

Claim to fame:

  • As a TA for Science of Psych, during a guest lecture about the auditory aspects of different letters, I accidentally said, “You might want to measure this sound’s ‘P’-ness.”
  • For 5 semesters I was a dedicated participant in the group fitness Zumba, Cardio Kickbox, and Step Aerobics classes at Dodge… and I never saw another guy in one of my classes. Do you lift bro?
  • Past CoChair of KOACH, the traditional egalitarian community at CU/BC Hillel and still riding that wave.

Where are you going? Washington, DC. I will be working at the National Institutes of Health in a lab that studies the interaction of cancer drugs and hearing loss.

What are 3 things you learned at Columbia and would like to share with the Class of 2022?

1. A email address is powerful. Even though we can all name about a hundred things we wished Columbia could give us, the one thing it did give us was an email address that means something to people beyond Morningside Heights. The worst that someone can do to a cold-call message that came out of the blue from a plucky undergrad with a can-do attitude is delete it. Master the art of the perfectly worded message and own it. “Dear Role Model, Hope all is well. Can you do me this favor because I hope to be successful someday?” You can create your own opportunities and take control of your own success just by hitting “Send.”

2. Be That Guy. If your bald Music Hum Instructor says “You should go to the opera with your hair slicked back” ask him, “Is that how you’re going to dress?” If your neuroscience professor sends an email to the entire class that says, “I will not divulge any information about the exam,” reply all saying “It’s easier to grade papers with more correct answers.” If a Columbia admin says you need to front the money for some kind of surcharge, compliment the secretary on her beautiful children and forget to come back later. We were taught too early not to laugh at others. But people are straight up funny. Don’t let crazy or silly go unnoticed. Be. That. Guy.

3. All it takes is one. Someone I know once gave me the token of wisdom “All it takes is one friend.” This same concept is basically true at Columbia as well. All it takes is one bad grade on a paper in Colloquium on Major East Asian Texts to think twice about using the methods of analyzing the Hebrew Bible to analyze Ancient Chinese Literature. All it takes is one time tripping on the rickety bricks with the toe of your flip-flop to commit to only wearing Chacos / Yellow Crocs on hot days ever again. All it takes is one time going to the bathroom on the 2nd floor of Butler to know you’ll need a list of all the clean toilets on campus (don’t worry I gotchu). Finally, all it takes is one public safety officer with a keen eye for red leather to save your wallet from disappearing 4 times.

“Back in my day…” Ferris only had the stupid windy stairs, Global Urbanism counted for the Global Core (#duh), Draft beers were $4 for everyone on Monday nights at Mel’s, There was a computer lab that was air conditioned year round on Butler 2 (RIP), and EC seemed like the world’s coolest, most exclusive place.

Justify your existence in 30 words or fewer: On my fifth birthday in July 2000 my parents got me the Oops!… I Did It Again album and I still listen to it.

What was your favorite class at Columbia? Intro to Linguistics with John McWhorter. It changed the way I think about language, the brain, the sciences, and the humanities. In a single class I found a personal mentor and a career interest. Everyone should support Linguistics at Columbia; some very nice and very bright people are involved with the small yet proud program! But also… does Step Aerobics Class with RJ Jenkins set to “Ladies of the 80s” empowerment songs count? Because he got me in shape and dancing… that’s pretty important too.

Would you rather give up oral sex or cheese? String cheese can be eaten in lots of different ways.

Whom would you like to thank? Bernard and Rody behind the egg grill and Tamiko and Fran at the bagel bar during John Jay brunch. Every day they greeted me with a smile, checked in about my sports team (Go D-Backs!), and told me that I would do great on all of my exams. Really, they learned who I was, gave me the support I needed, and mastered my “usual.”

Please treat the dining hall staff with the utmost respect, courtesy, and kindness. They completely deserve it.

Sincerely yours,

The Breakfast Club

One thing to do before graduating:

For you: Get a Beer Baptism at Mel’s. If you’re Jewish call it your Beer Mitzvah and walk away like a champ.

For me: Use all 500 of my remaining coffee house punch cards. I have 3 left at Blue Java, 2 at the Diana, 2 at Joes, 1 at Oren’s, and 1 at Double Dutch. Challenge Accepted.

Start your day off with hot coffee, finish it off with cold beer.

Any regrets?

Being convinced for even a second I was less worthy because I am in a Joint Program administered by GS instead of one of the traditional undergraduate colleges.


Image via Ben Gersten