Before he heads back to the West Coast, former Science Editor Alex Tang shares his wisdom on bwog.com one last time.
Name, School, Major, Hometown:
Alex Tang; Columbia College; Biological Sciences and Art History double major; Los Altos, CA
Claim to fame:
Speedwalker and speedtalker; lab rat; iced coffee aficionado (as in will drink iced coffee during a blizzard). Ex-daily editor and Bwog’s first science editor. I may have also been your intro bio TA and general chemistry tutor. My best friend and I couch-surfed in Brooklyn for the entirety of the summer after freshman year.
Where are you going?
Moving to San Francisco to be closer to family, eat some fabulous Mission burritos, and start medical school, in that order.
What are 3 things you learned at Columbia and would like to share with the Class of 2024?
I’m averse to blanket statements since the best advice is personally tailored to individuals. That being said, I hope some of you can relate with my own experiences and can find something of use:
- Find your voice and speak up. I was a very shy underclassman at Columbia – participation was often the grade that I most worried about in seminars. Over time, I improved through the ways you would expect – by thinking of discussion points before class, taking advantage of smaller group discussions, and by slowly realizing that I was as capable as any of my classmates. What I have to add is simply that you need not expect yourself to participate constantly (both in and out of the classroom); start by urging yourself to speak up about topics that matter to you, and focus primarily on the issues that you find yourself caring about. I became passionate about HIV healthcare and research during my time at Columbia, and as I involved myself in the community and learned more about the issues, I saw myself speaking up more consistently in my lab meetings and seminars on palliative care and LGBT history. Participate in the areas that matter most to you, and you’ll be surprised by the power of your contributions.
- There is no such thing as a typical Columbia experience. This school has a way of making its students feel like they need to constantly compare themselves with each other. During your time here, you may feel tempted to compare yourself against another student’s grades, summer plans, extracurriculars, what they did last Friday night, etc. Sometimes you’ll wonder why you’re not accomplishing what others are, or why you’re not having as much fun. My advice would be to remember that just as everyone has different majors, hobbies, and backgrounds, everyone has a different timeline and Columbia experience. If you compare yourself with somebody else, the comparison will be irrelevant because you will be measuring using different units. Your pace at Columbia is neither too slow nor too fast. Compare only yourself in the present with the progress you’ve made since the past.
- Mentorship is all about paying it forward. As a freshman, you should focus on learning as much as you can and getting used to college. Seek out upperclassmen in the activities/majors you’re interested in, and you’ll find that 9 times out of 10, they’ll happily speak with you about their experiences. Same with faculty – if you simply display interest in their field (by going to office hours or even cold-emailing), they will point you towards resources and opportunities that you may not have even imagined. Don’t feel guilty about asking for mentorship – in three years, when you’re a senior, you get to pay it forward by helping out the new freshmen.
- Bonus: This one’s for my STEM family (thinking especially of pre-meds and those interested in research/graduate school). The intro classes (Gen Chem, Intro Bio, etc) are large and intimidating, and likely have no resemblance to what you’ve been used to in high school. Don’t let the impersonal nature of these classes scare you from pursuing your field of interest. I promise you that if you can make it past these intimidating 1st and 2nd-year courses, you will encounter smaller course sizes, advanced topics that will interest you more, and expanded opportunities for research and letters of recommendation.
If you realize that you need academic help, email your advisor to set you up with a free peer tutor at the Center for Student Advising (CSA). This is such an underutilized resource, and I’ve seen so many students improve after using this service. For more STEM-specific advice, check out this advice column I started when I was Bwog’s Science Editor.
“Back in my day…”
Carman Hall was really grungy, Suite was painted red (not yellow), classes were held in person, and the Q didn’t go to the Upper East Side.
Favorite Columbia controversy?
Now that we’re finishing the school year online, all the best tea is on the Columbia Confessions Facebook page.
What was your favorite class at Columbia?
I’ll give three from different disciplines, to encourage you to take classes outside of your area of expertise. When I came to Columbia, I didn’t plan on majoring in art history, and all it took was one elective my freshman year to convince me to double major.
- US LGBT History with George Chauncey: Professor Chauncey delivers some of the best lectures at Columbia, seamlessly integrating textual sources, personal experiences, film, and music to describe how queer history has always been American history.
- Virology with Vincent Racaniello: If you’re a biology major, this class is a must. It integrates everything you’ve learned in biology (micro, genetics, immunology, etc). Plus, you’ll constantly be amazed by the insidious efficiency and ingenuity of viruses, and by how humans have been able to catch up through science. Taking this class during the COVID-19 pandemic was surreal.
- Mesopotamian Art and Archaeology with Zainab Bahrani: The most rigorous and rewarding art history class I’ve taken at Columbia. Learn how the oldest civilization in human history conceived of art.
Would you rather give up oral sex or cheese?
You can follow the six-feet social distancing rule while eating cheese but not with oral sex. See this advisory from the NYC Department of Health.
Whom would you like to thank?
Mom, Dad, and my younger brother for the Sunday night phone calls, for picking me up from the airport, and for giving me medical advice from across the country. My Claremont 53 suitemates (and best friends of 4 years) for being fierce and fabulous. All my friends whom I’ve taken the subway with at 2am. My BOP group. All the doctors that let me shadow them. My research mentors for not getting mad at me when I contaminated the cells. All the essential workers at Columbia – the dining, housing, and facility employees. The City of New York!
One thing to do before graduating:
Do a bunch of things before graduation! Here are some starters: Stay in NYC over the summer, if at all possible (use this opportunity to try life in a different borough). Spend a summer day at Riis Beach, the best beach in New York (take the 2 to Flatbush Ave, then the Q35 bus). Dress up and go clubbing at House of Yes in Bushwick on a Thursday night (free entry)! Consistently check out the websites for the Met, MoMA, Whitney, and Guggenheim for exhibitions that spark your interest, and then actually go visit! Go to Spicy Village (Chinatown) for the best hot noodles, and Yun Nan Flavour Garden (Sunset Park, Brooklyn) for the best cold noodles. For a class that you genuinely fall in love with, challenge yourself to do all the readings. Try something brand new for the physical education requirement (I highly recommend Ballet I). Call home – they miss you!
Nope! Columbia (and being a second-semester senior) taught me to not sweat the small stuff.
Alex Tang via Alex