Julia Stiles: What I Really Learned in College


In 2001, the actress appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, hosted Saturday Night Live, and finished her first year at Columbia

When the weekend rolled around, the other freshmen in my dorm looked to me for a plan. Having grown up downtown, I became their default tour guide/social director. I hadn’t expected to continue school in New York, thinking I was supposed to have that so-called “normal college experience,” or that the umbilical cord would never be cut if my parents were still a subway ride away. Shortly after orientation, though, it became clear that New York is not a finite city, and I had only scratched the surface in my nineteen years of living there.

Instead of being insulated in a hallowed quad, we were gestating in this kinetic and shifting organism. We could go to the Met, MoMA, and the Frick to see in person paintings we had been studying. To blow off steam, we would venture to Don Hill’s for Eighties night or Winnie’s in Chinatown for karaoke. The diversity of our student body mirrored the city itself, and we would sometimes stay up until three in the morning to argue over Middle East peace. These were not always abstract, esoteric discussions, either, as September 11 struck nearby early in my sophomore year. I discovered that it is not the norm for a city to never sleep, for so many languages to be spoken freely, for people of so many divergent backgrounds to coexist in this space regardless of if they like it. Through the fresh eyes of my peers, I discovered that these things are what make New York great. Most of all, the city gave me perspective outside the university and my time there. I was able to be immersed in my studies, always confronted with a reminder of life beyond those four years. (Or, in my case, five.)