Thursday, June 23, 2011

Really? That Long?

No way has it only been a day.

It feels like I've been here a week, easy, if not more.

And a rather hectic week at that.

Even this morning seems very far away. Groggily tearing myself out of my (very comfortable) hotel bed at quarter to six in the morning to try and figure out how to work the shower was not the greatest start to my first morning in New York, but hey. A stop-off at Starbuck's was all I really needed to properly wake up, with a muffin tucked away in my bag for a late breakfast on the train.

The train rides today were an adventure in themselves. We were planning on taking Amtrak into Philadelphia to tour the University of Pennsylvania and visit Independence Hall, but fate would have it a different way. Sitting in the waiting area, we all seven suddenly heard the blaring of the P.A. system announcing that there had been some sort of power outage, and that all trains were delayed. Because of that, we missed the info session at UPenn but were able to meet up with a tour and wandered about campus for a while. UPenn has an utterly gorgeous campus, and very enthusiastic students.

For lunch we met up with a director of a community house for pan-Asian American students at the University, a Dr. June Chu, and two of her students, as well as an admissions officer, David Toomer. Amidst delicious food we discussed the applications and admissions processes at Penn, with Dr. Chu adding occasional insight to Mr. Toomer's very helpful explanations as the two students who had arrived with them, Margaret and Joanna, explained what it was like to live and study at the University.

After lunch, Mrs. L took us to see Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, although we made a bit of an accidental detour through City Hall first. The area around the Hall was very interesting, steeped as it was in history. Perhaps more interesting was the tour of Independence Hall itself, although I must admit the story told by our tour guide was definitely the “fit for kids” version and simplified much of the issues present at the time, making out the Americans as the underdogs fighting for representation under the oppressive English thumb, when in fact the former-colonists were not the blameless freedom fighters we were told to glorify in elementary school. Perhaps our class on the law of the Constitution will delve deeper into that time, but personally I'm hoping the discussions are more set in the modern scope, meaning current issues are debated instead of old ones. 

I'm a little bummed we didn't get to see the Liberty Bell, but we had to make it to the train station to head back to New York. In another strange twist, the very same power outage occurred before our train could leave the station, and we were delayed for more than an hour. A New York native sitting next to me on the second train was adamant that this always happened in intense weather, be it the freezing cold or, in this case, the sweltering heat. Our delay prompted Mrs. L to change our reservation at Bar Americain to 9 PM instead of 8:15, where we had a lovely dinner with two seniors at Penn, Charlie and Jennie, who were more than happy to answer all our questions about life as an upperclassmen and about what they planned to do after they graduated, as well as about how Penn had helped them reach this point.

Well, frankly, I am exhausted and need my sleep, as we have a 6 AM start tomorrow morning for our visit to Bard and Vassar.

Dear Old Penn

We met in the lobby of the Empire Hotel at 6:45 AM to catch our train ride to Philadelphia. After grabbing breakfast at the Starbucks around the corner, we took the subway to New York’s Penn Station and arrived on time for our departure. Unlucky for us (and the hundreds of other passengers riding the trains today) the power lines were having difficulties throughout the day. We ended up leaving the station 40 minutes late. The train ride was about an hour and a half long and we arrived in Philadelphia at 10:30 AM, unfortunately missing the admissions talk at the University of Pennsylvania but just in time for a tour of the campus.
The New York Penn Train Station.
Passengers waiting for the (delayed) times of departure.
The University of Pennsylvania is spectacular. The campus is beautifully integrated into the city of Philadelphia while still maintaining a defined campus. The buildings are beautifully designed and our tour guide was wonderfully energetic and enthusiastic about his school.

The vast number of extra-curricular activities offered at Penn were mentioned many times today by every student, alum and tour guide we saw today mentioned. They stressed the fact that there are so many activities and groups that everyone can find something they enjoy. But on the rare occasion that Penn does not have a group for a certain activity a student is interested in, the school will allow the student to start their own activity as long as there are at least six members. An example of a student group that began this way is the Penn tree climbing club.

A Penn tradition I found to be very amusing was the story of the toast Zamboni. It begins many, many years ago when the legal drinking age was 18 and the Penn stadium allowed liquor inside the gates. At every home football game, after the 3rd quarter, Penn students would sing their school fight song, and during the line, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn,” they would raise their champagne glasses in a toast to their school. However, after the new drinking regulations were put in place, this tradition was discontinued. Fortunately, a few years later, some Penn students decided that instead of toasting champagne, they would throw toast onto the actual field. This caught on pretty fast but the massive amounts of toast being thrown on the field soon began delaying the beginning of the 4th quarter because it took so long to clear the toast from the field, thus resulting in multiple overtime penalties for the Penn team. This problem was solved when, for their senior project, a few Penn Engineering students created a Zamboni-like machine that would collect all the toast off the field in a timely manner. Thus the creation of the toast Zamboni.

The Penn campus:

Following our tour, we had the honor of having lunch with Penn admissions officer David Toomer, Director of Pan-Asian Outreach June Chu and Penn students/alums Margaret and Joanna. To further our cultural enrichment, we toured Independence Hall in Philadelphia. We were on a tight schedule so we went directly back to the train station only to find out our train had been delayed. Consequently, our dinner at the Bar Americain restaurant was postponed an hour.

Charlie and Jenny, two rising Penn seniors, were a wealth of information. They spoke candidly and enthusiastically about Penn, college admissions and their college and high school experiences. Charlie emphasized the importance of getting the admissions officer to know a lot about a student through their essay, because it is harder to reject a person than a number. Jenny recommended contacting current Penn students, such as herself, to get a good sense of what school is like at UPenn – which will ultimately help with the “Why Penn?” question on the application.

Overall, I learned a lot about the University of Pennsylvania and got some great tips I will certainly implement during my college applications process.

Best Job I've Heard Of

Today our cohort woke up bright and early to head to Philadelphia to visit UPENN. For me, this was especially exciting because in addition to touring a renowned university, it would be my first trip on the subway. After getting our tickets from a machine strikingly similar to the ticket machines at BART stations, I noticed one major difference between BART and the New York Subway System. Like other aspects of New York City culture, the subway was much faster than BART in terms of pace. The doors open and close much faster, which helps explain the more aggressive nature that we were given a taste of on our way from JFK to our hotel. Upon arriving at Penn Station, we found that all Amtrak trains were delayed indefinitely due to a power outage. After 45 minutes of waiting and watching a video on the security at Amtrak stations, we finally boarded our train.

After a rather uneventful train ride, we arrived at our destination, Philadelphia. Due to our delay, we missed the informational session, the part of the visit I was looking forward to the most. However, also due to the delay, we had time to walk slowly through Philadelphia and look at Drexel's campus. I thought the Drexel campus was neat and interesting, but when we arrived at the UPENN campus, I was blown away. Each building appeared almost castle-like and gave off a Hogwarts feel. One reason why I really like UPENN and want to apply there is that as we walked around, I felt as if the atmosphere was relaxed, even though the curriculum is rigorous, the four college system, and the size. I think that I would enjoy the undergraduate size because it's large enough that I wouldn't know everyone in my class, but as I walk around I'm sure that I would find someone that I know. Unfortunately we had to cut our tour a little short in order to make our lunch with two students and two outreach officers.

Our lunch was extremely beneficial because the students offered insight about what it is like to attend UPENN. Moreover, the two outreach officers told us that they were looking first and foremost for students who pushed themselves to take the most difficult curriculum offered at his/her high school and maintained high grades. This was a surprise for me because I had always thought that the SAT scores are what admission officers weighed the most.

After our wonderful lunch, we headed off to do some sightseeing in the historic section of Philadelphia. As we rushed to Independence Hall, we were mislead by the locals who told us that Independence Hall was located on 15th street when it is really located on 5th street. After much confusion, we finally arrived at Independence Hall where we took a tour and got to see the very location were our founding fathers signed the two most important documents in our history: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

We then hurried off to the train station to catch our train back in time for dinner only to find that for the second time today there was a power outage. This time we were allowed to board the train where we waited for the green light to go. I found the delay to be a good thing because as we waited to leave I struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to me who was in a hurry to catch a flight to India from Newark for business. A decade ago, he helped develop a software application to help employees get the most of their medical benefits. His software was so efficient that the company he worked for was bought by a larger company, which was bought by an even larger company. Due to the massive amount of new customers, Gary said that there is no way that he can keep up with the workload, so the company decided to outsource a part of the workload to India. Because of this, Gary volunteered to go to India and train these new workers while doing a fraction of the work he did in Baltimore. He said that the trip is very enjoyable because he gets to fly first class, stay at a Marriott, and travel the world...all for free. In addition, his company gives him $60 a day to spend, but Gary claims that everything is so cheap in India that it's really unnecessary to spend more that $20 a day. So all in all, he makes money out of the two-month trip.

As Gary prepared to come back to the States, he found out that the next employee to come over and train the new workers had a family emergency and could no longer make the trip. Because he had no obligations at home, Gary volunteered to come back to India, but only after he was allowed two weeks at home with his grandsons. Due to the two week time period, the only visa that his company was able to grab him was a business visa, which makes it against the law for Gary to do any of the work he did here in the U.S.A. Moreover, he signed up for Continental Airlines frequent flyer miles, and a similar program for the Marriott Hotel. By the end of his second two-month stay in India, Gary says he plans to use his miles and free stays at the Marriott to "party" in Amsterdam.

I truly wish that I had his job because as far as I'm concerned it is the best job I've heard of.

UPENN: "Work Hard, Play Hard."

We started off our first full day by boarding a train to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 6:45 AM, which was not easy because of our late day yesterday and jet lag. I realized that there is of course the obvious New York City, but there is also a whole other city underneath it. I call this the subway city. People are right when they say that everyone takes the subway. There was not a time when we boarded the trains that the train was not congested. The subway waits for no one. I actually prefer the subway over the BART at home. It's hard not to compare NYC to the Bay Area, but the NYC transportation system is so much smarter that that of the Bay Area. You get cards to swipe instead of wasting time inserting the card and waiting for it to give it back. You don't have to use the card to get out of the station either. Everything in New York is 10 or more times faster than on the West Coast. It's not like "oh, I missed the train! Maybe I'll catch the next one..." If you don't catch that train, you are pretty much done, especially when you have time restraints. If you don't move you will get left behind.

"All trains 'DELAYED'"
We took the Subway to the Amtrak station where we planned to take a train to Philadelphia. We rushed over only to find out that all trains had been delayed "indefinitely" because of power outages. I thought we would be stuck there forever. We spent 45 minutes waiting for the problem to clear up and were finally able to board the train and depart. I would like to tell you about my experience on my first train ride, but I fell victim to an hour and 15 minutes of sleep out of the hour and 30 minute trip...

We arrived in Philadelphia, but because of the delays we were unable to attend the informational session at UPENN. Instead we took the tour around campus. The campus is absolutely gorgeous and not what I expected in the middle of the city. I could get what I want in a school at UPENN: the convenience of being in a city with a university feel. I mean that it has grass and is spread out rather than a whole bunch of buildings around a city. UPENN offers an engineering program that interested me. It allows you internships with local companies and the opportunity to create your own ideas and build them as projects for classes. The architecture was beautiful. As I walked through the campus, I could picture myself at UPENN, attending classes, doing research, participation in the social life that it offers. What I liked the most about UPENN was its friendly atmosphere. All of the students want to help you and they actually like to help other people.

"Admissions offices at UPENN"

"School of Engineering"

"The Quad: where most freshmen dorm"

"Benjamin 'Benny' Franklin, founder of UPENN"
We attended lunch with June Chu, David Toomer, an alumnus Joanna, and a current student Margaret. They talked to us about the admissions process, basically what UPENN admissions officers look for when they review our applications. As long as we take advantage of the opportunities given to us by our schools, there should be no problem in being admitted. Testing scores do not matter as much as grades and the personal essays. Joanna and Margaret told us about student life, like housing and activities around campus. They were a huge help in showing us how students actually lived while at school.

Independence Hall was our side track in Philly. We took a tour of the hall, which is basically two rooms. It's amazing to me how something made so long ago can still have an effect on the future. History is very interesting to me, and the whole experience of being in the same room as some of the greatest Americans our country has ever had was amazing. Our tour had to get cut short in order to make our train to head back to NYC. I wish we would have had time to visit the Liberty Bell and be able to walk around and see other surrounding areas of Independence Hall.

                 "The room where it all took place..."
"The presider over the Continental Congress: Gen. Washington."
Our train was delayed again because of power outages! AGAIN! This time we waited an hour and the train even left some passengers behind who had stepped out to get food or use the restroom. While on the train, Beilul, Eric, and I discussed the colleges we will be visiting and how we each felt about UPENN. We came to the conclusion that it is a great university, even if it may not offer specifically what we are looking for. It is a school worth applying to.

We returned back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner at Bar Americain with two current students, Jenny and Charley. Jenny attends the Wharton School and is currently working at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Charley attends the School of Arts and Sciences and is working at JP Morgan. They both were super friendly and answered questions we hadn't thought of ourselves. They told us that the most important part of the application was the "Why UPENN?" question. They also gave us tips on college classes and getting in touch with professors as well as all of the free food we can get. What stuck out to me was that they came from different places and seemed like they had been friends for longer that just 3 years. The ability to create friendships at a university such as UPENN really stuck out to me. For the social life that I am looking for, it might be the place for me.
"Dinner at Bar Americain"
Beilul and I both agree that in the city that never sleeps, we don't get much sleep. We usually wake up at around 6 AM and don't get into bed until at least 1 or 2 AM because of our busy schedules. However, I know that it will be worth it, because just my first day on the East Coast has already had a huge impact on my college decisions. After meeting with students, alums, and admissions officers, I realized that maybe this time next year, I could be walking through the quad at the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate.

My Brotherly Love for the Brotherly City

At least, I'm a morning person. Waking up at 5:45 is a feat in itself, and I am incredibly grateful I can handle it better than most. This is important in realization of the arduous, yet culturally rich, travel days, endured today and for the next few days. It was an experience—one to expand before Sunday given our future plans.

From subway, to Amtrak, to sidewalk, we traveled statewide and walked for miles, ultimately landing in Philadelphia where we got an angled view of Drexel University and an in-depth tour of the University of Pennsylvania. Given Amtrak power shortages, our initial departure time was delayed, so our cohort missed the informational session entirely, but we made up for that at lunch and dinner—more on that later.

U. Penn. is stunning! It really is beautiful, and I find it additionally awesome that in finds such beauty within an incorporated urban setting. The campus itself gave more of a Hogwarts feel, obviously playing to my inner nerd, so I was drawn in instantaneously.

What really sells U. Penn. is its incredible opportunity and accessibility. Some of the most exciting features of the university were unique to U. Penn., such as Blackboard, a college website loaded with audio/video uploads of lectures, contact information of staff and students alike, and other miscellaneous crutches to prop up students in aid to their future success at the university. The library sharing program was also notable: U. Penn. shares its library collection with the rest of the Ivy League schools and other neighboring universities and colleges. Information is at the tip of your fingers, and to be more specific, the better, because U. Penn. can support and encourage such pursuits given its outstanding system.

Perhaps what caught me most off guard was the tone of the university. For an Ivy League school, I didn't get the feel I was expecting. Contrary, I gathered a more laid back, relaxed atmosphere, and I liked that. I really liked that.

During our lunch and dinner we were able to connect and communicate with current U. Penn. staff and students, an opportunity proved infinitely useful given our absence at the information session. Virtually all questions I could muster were answered, and by the end of the meals, I left with a strong initiative to apply to U. Penn. during my approaching senior year. I was impressed with the school, and I could definitely see myself snuggling myself into it.

We also had the choice to visit Independence Hall, where our country's founding fathers met for the signing (and arguing) of the U.S. Constitution. There, in Olde Town, we brushed up on our history hunting. I found it to be very foreshadowing of Monday, our first day of class at Columbia University.

The trip had its fair amount of hiccups, however. I'd venture to say we were pretty unlucky, actually. On the way home from Philadelphia, after boarding our Amtrak, we were informed of another power shortage. But, this time, the entire Eastern seaboard collapsed in power. Amtrak and Septa (the local, public transportation system) were suspended until further notice from Philly to Manhattan. It's kind of cool to have been through it, though. It's definitely memorable. I did enjoy the newfound time to chat with my neighbor on the train. Paul and I had a pretty intense discussion about Georgetown, accounting, and daughters.

The most disappointing fact of the day, though, was the lack of Philly cheese steak. Our lunch restaurant didn't serve them, and I was extremely sad. I was simultaneously in total glee at the BBQ Brisket Reuben I had, however—absolutely delicious!

Each day that passes adds to my anxiousness to explore New York City. It's kind of a tease residing in Manhattan but exploring elsewhere, but it is definitely worth it, because I'll have plenty of time to explore New York in the weeks to come. I'm grateful to branch out while I have the chance. I love that I can reflect on my experience thus far and come to the realization that it is just the beginning. I have a lot more to do, and a lot more time to do it. I'm more excited than I was prior to departure from S.F.O., which is quite peculiar, yet enticing.

It's been a long and dimensional day, and I am more than ready to get some rest, wake up, and do it all over again.

Departure Under the Sun

It was Wednesday morning and one by one they pulled up to El Cerrito High School looking like they desperately needed more sleep.  Milani was even carrying her pillow know full well she’d be using it as soon as she got on the plan taking her and her fellow Columbians to New York City.

Maybe it was the sadistic side of me but I reminded them that they were the only set of ILCers who had a departure while the sun was up.  They were told to arrive by 7:30 for an 8:30 departure to the airport.  All of our other contingents had a 3:15 date with ECHS.

Sleepy as the may have been they all arrived plenty early (I was so proud of them all) so we could hand out the loaner items they needed and weigh their luggage.

We had a celebrity in our midst this morning.  Even though the airlines allow a check-on bag to weigh 50 pounds we advise our ILCers to try to limit themselves to 42 pounds to leave room for souvenirs and books that they might pick up while back East.  We usually buy them a sweatshirt and that can easily weight 2 pounds right there.  Add a book or two—which the Presidential Powers students will have plenty of—and you can easily see the need for some wiggle room in the luggage.

About that celebrity: Eric Wang.  Eric is the new record holder for the person whose luggage weighed the least.  Last year Stephanie Chan’s bag weighed in at 23 pounds but Eric’s weighed in at 22.8.  Yes, Eric may be slight of build so his clothes actually weigh less than my 3XLT shirts/jackets/sweats, but still—the bag itself had to weigh at least 5 pounds.  All I can suggest is that he may be wearing the same outfit every day and washing them every night.

Prolonged hugs and teary eyes were the order of the day from both the parents and the youngsters.  They all bravely boarded the airport shuttle and off they went with plenty of time to spare—especially considering that their plane was more than a half hour late in taking off.  My job is to get them on the shuttle and whatever happens to them after that is out of my hands and someone else’s responsibility.  When they shed those tears when they departed, not a single tear was shed because they were going to miss me so as long as nothing really bad happens to them then I’m not going to fret too much when their plane is late.  As my father used to tell me when things like this happened: “it builds character, son.”