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How I approach university

As I’m progressing through my second to last year at NYU, I wanted to record how I’m thinking about my time here. This is not at all the only valid way to approach undergrad, but it’s my way.

This is my life right now. While I’m in college, I’m all-in. I put the majority of my energy into my schoolwork every week: producing great work is my top priority, life balance (social life/physical health/mental health/relationships) is my second priority. In my first three years, I’ve watched myself become a stronger writer & communicator, learn an enormous amount about the world, start finding myself as an artist(‽) through my work. These are what I came here to do, and I try to set myself up well to put everything into continuing pushing myself.

I only take classes I’m interested in. At a large university, there are a million class options. If you’re stuck in a major taking classes you don’t get value from, I’d figure out how to transfer majors or universities ASAP. This time is precious, and I knew going in I wouldn’t attend undergrad later in life or do another degree afterward. Signing up for one extra class at the beginning of the semester, or having a list of backup classes ready to switch into are great techniques to lower the switching costs if a class feels like a bad fit from the start. Give classes a chance, but value your time, energy, & money. Taking classes I care about makes participating in them easy, too.

I’m only in it for myself. I don’t pay attention to grades, awards, restrictions on classes, etc. There are worlds unto themselves inside universities that to me, don’t mean much once you’re outside them. (This is why I’m not in student government.) As I’m only inside briefly, I try to engage in classes, work, & experiences that I’ll be glad I did a decade outside school. If systems don’t serve me, I see who I can talk to to change them. For example, one of my classes this semester requires being a sophomore & in another school—I’m neither but I wanted to take it, so I started attending it & talked to administrators, and the rule disappeared.

In art school, you take everything you produce with you. Physically, you have to take home & store your creations, so making large objects is inconvenient. But the skills you learn & portfolio pieces you produce you take with you. I’ve focused on expanding my creative toolbox, learning new domains like microelectronics I wouldn’t have touched, over honing a specific skill while here.

I try to be proud of everything I produce. I’m taking four full years of my life for this, spending a lot of energy & money on it, and want to be proud of my results. I try to do all the readings, write posts with researched ideas I believe in, and bring my best self to classes. (Unfortunately, my best self is tired & going through it this midterms week.)

I open source my schoolwork. I publish everything sizeable I produce for my classes on my public edu blog. This has a few effects:

  • Encouraging quality: I don’t want something I can’t defend the quality of forever on my portfolio. I take extra time to polish work purely because it’s going to be public. Having the wider audience—that work isn’t exclusively going into the void of a Brightspace submission or a printout for a professor—encourages quality.
  • Keeping an archive for myself: I jump back to old projects to find code, links, components, theses, and concepts I explored in the past. Even if my files were super organized on my computer, I wouldn’t find those materials as quickly or look as frequently if they weren’t as navigable as they are on my website.
  • Keeping an archive for my portfolio: While the volume of posts on edu is too high for people to care about trawling through, I can curate links to pieces and they have a home on the internet automatically.
  • Shareability: I send the majority of projects I make to someone in my life who influenced their creation. It’s satisfying after publishing anything to share & talk about. It’s also useful for gathering feedback if I’m continuing to revise a piece to have a sharing built into my workflow.
  • Process documentation: While I’m working on a project, keeping logs of each step & daily progress keeps me accountable, lets me re-read how I solved problems in the past, and opens the garage door for others to see how my works come together.
This past week, I made/published…

While documenting our big projects is encouraged in my program, I don’t know why more students don’t make their schoolwork public. While it’s more work with every project, the benefits have compounded wonderfully for me.

Take advantage of what only undergrad offers. NYU has an incredible study abroad program, so I spent last fall in Berlin. Moving countries as an adult for a few months is daunting & a bigger deal visa-wise, and everyone I know who studied abroad was grateful they had. My time in Berlin expanded my world, led me to make different work, affirmed my identities, and was super, super fun. Back on campus, my program has an amazing makerspace, equipment we can use, funding for projects. I’m never doing enough to take advantage of those resources, but it’s part of what we’re paying for.

There are a few, significant facts that influence my approach:

  • I’m not worried about getting hired upon graduation. Since I’ve been employed before & throughout my time in college, I don’t have that force looming large, which is a privilege.
  • I’m paying a fortune. NYU is ~$90k a year. I receive significant financial aid that allows me to attend, but it still costs a ton. (While I pay my own rent/food/art supplies/etc, I would not be able to & would not make the decision to attend this university if my family couldn’t help financially.) I don’t expect to see any financial returns in terms of salary working in tech for having this degree, or at the least, this degree versus a cheaper one. Beyond the time commitment of spending my young years here, this is a huge reason I want to be fully in or fully out—I could buy a house in my hometown with the money I spent on this education, so I hope to get something of greater value here.
  • The degree I get doesn’t matter much in my field, and I was born a U.S. citizen. Many of my friends coming from other countries need the visas various degrees offer, and that changes the optimal fields and approach.
  • I’m in art school, in a degree (Interactive Media Arts) I love. This program is the only one I wanted to go to, and the only program I applied to. (Here was my application.) Other programs are less flexible & offer less agency to students, so YMMV.