Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thoroughly Entrenched

“Hey, look, its dropped down into the 70s; starting to get cold. And wow, there's a low of 62 tomorrow!”

Almost those exact words ran through my head when I popped open my laptop and glanced at the little weather-widget on the screen for New York City. Whereas a forecast of anything above 70° would have warranted a grumble back home, I barely batted my eyes at a high of an even 90° for Friday. I really am getting used to this place!

Even walking up and down Broadway by the campus (Milani and I made a detour during the midday break to send off packages and swing by a coffee shop on our way back from the post office), I realize I'm more and more comfortable with the bustle here, even if it is relatively subdued here in Morningside Heights. Our trip down to SoHo yesterday was to a very lively area of the city, and I didn't find myself overwhelmed by the honking cars or people rushing by me; in fact, I was rushing by other people!

As the time between visiting the colleges and reaching Columbia is increasing, I find myself mentally holding each school up to one another and comparing their respective strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the neighborhood around Columbia is starting to really feel like home even after a few days, and I'm beginning to really love New York, but as prestigious as their campus appears from walking around, the inside of their dorm buildings (hallways, laundry rooms, suites, bathrooms, and bedrooms all included) are absolutely drab and lifeless and appear to have been built with no thought for anything but the exterior. In steep contrast to that, Vassar College's dorms were nothing special from the outside but boasted spacious and well-decorated parlors and lounges inside for each student to access, but the location of the school itself is not within the bustling city that so appeals to me. Yale's campus is, like Columbia's, very impressive, and the immense resources Yale has ensures that an education there is one-of-a-kind and gives anyone a leg-up on the competition, but the school itself did not give me that feeling of welcome I felt visiting the University of Pennsylvania. When asked why he chose to attend Yale, our tour guide in New Haven answered promptly, “Because I got in,” and there was definitely a (probably completely justified) sentiment from every Yale person we talked with that if a student was lucky enough to be accepted they were very privileged, in the sense that a great favor has been bestowed upon. The UPenn alums and students I spoke with placed a greater emphasis on the “fit” they had seen between themselves as individuals and a University that would support them as individuals, and the general feeling was more of a “Come join us because we want you!” approach instead of a “Come join us if we feel you're good enough” mentality, both of which are entirely valid. Perhaps labeling the schools as similar and equally good places to apply to because of their affiliation through the Ivy League is not the right answer, as I felt that each school we visited had incredibly different things to offer every student; it was not a one-Ivy-fits-all experience. A student in love with Columbia would be unhappy at Yale but might be comfortable at UPenn and vice versa, simply because of the kind of personalities each school attracts.

But I should talk more about class today! The morning class was spent going over the opinions we had read last night. For those who don't know, a Supreme Court opinion is essentially the verdict at the end of Supreme Court cases and is written by one of the justices on the majority side; other justices in the majority side can write a concurring opinion, meaning they agree with the outcome of the trial but not the legal reasoning behind it, and justices in the minority side (the side that looses, essentially) can write a dissenting opinion explaining their own legal reasoning and how they reached the opposite decision from the majority group. Both opinions had to do with clashes and disputes over the power of the Executive Branch and just what is the scope of and limitations on the President's enumerated (aka listed in the Constitution) powers. As I'm reading and dissecting tonight's homework, I'm finding that the cases seem to be dealing with issues between state and federal authority, so perhaps that will be the highlight of tomorrow's lecture.

Our afternoon session today was phenomenal. I was a bit bummed when our second instructor said that the afternoon class was going to be in more of a small lecture format as we learned about how a bill becomes a law (a lengthy and arduous process that School House Rock explains very well but certainly leaves some complicated things out) as well as the set up of the federal courts. But as we started getting more and more into how we, as scholars of law (in training, at least), interpret the Constitution, a rather impromptu debate rose up in class about the validity of the Second Amendment. It was rather a novelty actually, as an Irene vs Irene debate; there's another Irene in class who seems to have views that are completely opposite from mine, which definitely will make for interesting conversation! As I mentioned before, I've changed a bit in my views, and since this class has started I view the Constitution in a very originalist and textualist sense, meaning that the actual words in the document should be the primary (if not only) source of consideration when deciding whether or not an act or law is unconstitutional. I and a few other took the position that the 2nd Amendment, while perhaps not morally right depending on your personally views, does allow people to own guns, whereas Irene and the rest of the group felt that the historic value behind the amendment (keeping the government from preventing revolt and dissent among its citizens) no longer held to same value pertaining to guns and that public safety and the common good should be the highest law. It was quite the discussion, one that I doubt a group of high schoolers could resolve in a few days when its already been debated for years and years with apparently no significant strides for either side.

Before I head off to bed (study group with Eric meets in the morning and I need to be awake for that), I'd just like to express my thanks to the school board for having the vision to create a program like this, that can send six students (and more) 3,000 miles for almost a month to take a class and experience life in a real Ivy school; and also thanks are due to the sponsors of this program, without who's support the school board's vision could have been achieved and turned from an idea to reality. On that note, good night!

How Should One Interpret The Constitution?

Today was the third day of class, and I fell as if I am beginning to get into the flow of things. While the Constitutional Law course may be less rigorous than the Presidential Powers course, the Constitutional Law course is by no means a joke. Unlike many students I have talked to, our instructors require that we do homework daily which is to read Supreme Court majority opinions, concurring opinions, and dissenting opinions, analyze how the justices came to a decision, and weigh in whether or not we agree with them. Ultimately, the homework is what makes the class interesting because the instructors don't need to use time during the morning session for us to read the opinion. Instead we briefly discuss the historical period of the case and dive into a discussion about what influenced the verdict.

One of the most intresting discussions we have had in class regards one of the most fundamental aspects of being a Supreme Court justice: how to interpret the Constitution. Yesterday in the afternoon, we watched a movie about a question and answer session with justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer. Scalia labeled himself as an originalist, one who determines whether a matter such as the death penalty is constitutional based on explicit definition in the Constitution. If the definition isn't clearly written, the associate justice Scalia determines if the matter is Constitutional or not based on the time period in which the Constitution was first written. Let's take the death penalty for example. The eighth amendment states that a citizen cannot be subject to "cruel and unusual punishment". But because the term "cruel and unusual" is really vague, Scalia would argue that capitol punishment is constitutional because in the 18th century, punishment of a citizen younger than 18 by hanging wasn't considered cruel or unusual. However, associate justice Breyer, a developmentalist, believes that one should interpret the vague areas of the Constitution, such as the eighth amendment by asking, "In America today, is it considered cruel and unusual to punish a minor for a crime by death?" His answer would be no, and thus he believes that applying capitol punishment to a citizen who is a minor is unconstitutional.

I believe that justices should interpret the Constitution from the devolopmentalist approach in comparison to the originalist approach. Today's society and values are much different than the values of the people from the 18th century. Because of this, it is my belief that a justice should weigh the social and economic situation before making a decision. When Breyer brought up this arguement, Scalia countered that the Constitution should be interpreted in it's original context because if the people wish it to be interpreted with a modern context, they should amend the constitution. While this may be valid, is it really plausible to pass amendments over and over to keep up with changing society? No. That is why I do not agree with justice Scalia's approach.

This is just one example of the discussions we have in class I am honored to be a part of. Had it not been for the gracious support from the Ivy League Connection's sponsors I would have never been exposed to anything remotely intellectually stimulating as the Constitutional Law course. For that, I am eternally grateful

Finding My Niche

Day Three. Not nearly as exhausting as Day Two.

I didn't change much, to be fair. I'm kind of developing a standard, collegiate agenda for my days at Columbia. I find myself eating at the standard dining hall hours (closer to opening than closing), spending at least two additional hours after second session in the library for my research paper, spending at least one hour in the gym and traveling from destination to destination, and spending an additional two hours doing assigned homework for my class. It's a lot to handle, especially considering the majority of my agenda occurs after 4:00 P.M., when the afternoon session is dismissed.

I believe what contributed to my overall exertion of energy yesterday was the initial execution of such a rigorous plan. It's day three in the classroom, but it's day two of my daily routine, and I'm finding my niche.

I'm pretty sure that the American Presidential Powers: At Home and Abroad course is one of the most difficult, rigorous courses available in the high school summer program, and that's mostly due to the comparison of classes and the opinion of my floor-mates. Three of them, in fact, do not receive any homework throughout their stay at Columbia this Summer. A class in computer programming provides that luxury. Many have homework, but also have a rather flexible schedule, fluid enough to mold against the grains of their own schedule, yet buoyant enough to allow them to float above the water.

However, at the end of my mental assessment of such comments and conclusions, I sincerely believe that I was put in the right course. I think about it more and more as I strain hour after hour, working to perfect only the rough outline of my research paper. I am learning the study, time management, and success skills to achieve in high school, college, and life in general. My preparation for the real world, though begun years back, is definitely excelling here. And, the behavior in which I have adopted in terms of academic and social responsibility is being tested. I plan to ace it.

Of course, this combination of a once-in-a-life-time experience, reality check, and time-of-my-life experience has been the genuine product of those who have donated so graciously to both the Ivy League Connection and the West Contra Costa Unified School District (W.C.C.U.S.D.). This is my thanks to you, the investor. Thank you for investing in my personal future, the future of our students, and the future of our district as a whole. I hope to return the favor if and when I can snatch success when I am presented with the opportunity.

On another note, exploring the city and "getting out" is becoming extremely difficult, however, but such is to be expected from the given schedule I practice, I suppose. I still have my weekends, and that's what counts! I definitely won't leave New York without distraction myself on Main Street and Wall Street for a while, but I definitely won't leave the university without setting myself on the proper path for prosperity and success in life.

It's all about doing your homework--your high school teachers were not lying.

The research has just begun...

Today's class was perfect. It is so much better than any high school class I have ever taken. I'm not sure if it's the class size, but being able to have our professor's full attention is something that I'm so eager to get in college.

Our morning session started off by Dr. Z. going over exactly what we needed to turn in to her and Pavel (our TA) by this Friday. She went into complete detail, stating how long things should be, what we should be thinking about while we write, and the importance of our thesis. Yesterday, I was uncertain about whether my thesis was appropriate or strong enough to carry a whole 20 page essay behind it. I emailed my professor asking for her advice on my thesis and she got back to me the next morning. She is so helpful! Definitely not what I had expected coming into the program. I thought I would be figuring out most of the things I needed to do by myself. The professor and TA really want you to ask questions and really want to help you. They check on us frequently asking if we need help or how far along we are getting with out work. I like how she has us turn something in every Friday so we can stay on track and have time management with our papers.

After discussing our requirements for Friday, we went into great detail about the Declaration of Independence. She showed us exactly what other countries looked for when deciding whether or not to accept the US as an independent nation, which can be found in the last paragraph. The fact that our country had some form of government, wanted the power to go to war and establish trade, and expected all other privileges a free country had convinced Morocco and France to recognize us as our own country. Tomorrow we are supposed to discuss the Federalist Papers we read as homework last night, which are a group of documents written to urge the country to adopt the Constitution. We might start discussing another book we are supposed to read for homework tonight called Inventing the Job of President by Fred Greenstein. The professor assigned volunteers to start a discussion on the president found in each chapter. I volunteered to start the discussion on James Madison. I'm nervous because I've never been in a discussion like class and have no idea how to start one. However, they say you get out of it what you put into it. I want to most of this experience and I plan on putting all of my effort into it, even if it means going "cold turkey".

I find the afternoon sessions in the library to be the most helpful part of my day. They allow me to focus directly on my paper and use the library's unlimited amount of resources. I finished some of my outline in that time and even stayed a little bit after to finish my thoughts. The library here is calm to do research in because there are no distractions.

It is only day three, but I feel like I've already learned so much! I've learned how to conduct research and how to use my time efficiently. Of course, everyone must have their free time to do the things they like, but this class is my priority, play can come later. I'm really enjoying my class so far. I find it weird that there are only 3 girls in my class, including myself. Maybe it's a sign? Of what I don't know.

Will, Eric, Beilul, and I plan to spend our evening in the library. Being time efficient is key. Especially since most of the RAs and students heard that the course we're taking is the hardest. It's really hard to jump out of a high school curriculum and be pushed into a college level course. Not to mention when you're supposed to crank out a 20 page paper in three weeks when the longest essay you've had to write in high school is a maximum of 5 pages.

This program is only three weeks, which seems like a short time to me. But, I'm very grateful I was offered this opportunity. I mean, how many other students can say that they already experienced a college level class. I feel that this program not only is broadening my horizons to other schools but giving me the preparation to succeed in college. I have learned to adjust to my dorm (including the traffic that used to keep me up at night), socialize with other people, and lead to become more efficient in my work. Like I said, today is only day three and I have already learned so much.