Given the opportunity to live some of the New Yorker life by studying at NYU Stern business school for the spring semester on the Bocconi exchange, I set out to discover what is that makes the city so unique.
Maybe it’s that blue-gray tint that hugs the towering skyscrapers from below or the golden light that burns through glass windows and sets the skyline aglow in the night. Maybe it’s the corner everything-store deli that sits right across from the most exclusive, concealed clubhouse of the city, or the fact that both are tiny puzzle pieces in the vast tangle of boutiques, bars, pubs, clubs, restaurants, and smoke shops open and bustling at every hour of the day. Maybe it’s the iconic Empire State, or the new One World Trade Center, or the two-twin black, hollow memorials at its feet.
And yet, talking to a friend from my journalism class here at NYU, we noted how despite all the idiosyncrasies and the landmarks that make them special, many big cities are alike. Take New York and then London, Paris, Rome, but even Chicago and Milan where the two of us speaking were from, and they will have some commonality or another in buildings and infrastructure, transportation, tourism, business…
What is it then that makes every city so different, and each inherently singular? I believe that what is even more peculiar to a city than its landmarks is what the landmarks mean to its residents. More important than the transportation available is how the transportation is navigated, used, and maintained, and how the city is felt, perceived, and lived. I think all these boil down to understanding the mindset of a city’s people and their attitude toward daily life, each other, and others.
So, perhaps, to understand the true peculiarities of the Big Apple, I should tell you a bit about its citizens. Luckily, studying at NYU for my exchange has given me that very opportunity – to be immersed in the city mindset for an extensive period and get to meet and live like its inhabitants. Perhaps then, I should have told you that what also makes New York New York is the floods of people that rush by at every instant and in every weather, hailing cabs on Fifth Ave, shooting by in scooters or Ubers, or speed-walking with a coffee or sugary drink in hand – looking left or right and always hurrying across the street when the pedestrian light is red. Perhaps it’s the flip of that, the surprisingly calm and collected drivers who patiently check for jaywalkers at every corner. Or then again, perhaps it’s even the unexpected number of people that have been trying to speak to me in Italian or bring me to the best pizza place they know in the city.
Some of these are the very essence of the New Yorker identity, living life quickly but attentively, finding time to explore the many differences of its people’s cultures but sharing in a sense of purpose and objectives. I asked chat GPT what it means to be a New Yorker (other than the plain obvious). In line with many of the things I observed in my first month living here, the answer was that some of the traits widely associated with the New Yorker identity are “a fast-paced lifestyle and strong work ethic, resilience, diversity, direct communication, pride in their city, and street smarts.”
Something I certainly add to that list is the welcoming nature of taking up these values and living them yourself. The quick, frenzied lifestyle gets you captured so instantaneously that my exchange companions and I did not realize we had grown so accustomed to the incessant daily hustle and bustle until we were in the lively but quieter, less busy streets of Philadelphia. And New Yorkers themselves help you out in navigating the city’s rhythms. Most people are unexpectedly polite and kind, from the supermarket clerks packaging your groceries for you to the professors and students always willing to give a hand. Nonetheless, most people often appear distant. Something that is hugely different with what we are used to in Italy and in Bocconi is the individuality – you will see most people sitting, walking, or working on their own or at best in pairs, never nearly like us habitually hanging around in big groups. People constantly work toward objectives and are career-oriented, even in interpersonal relationships. This was one of the biggest differences and challenges of adapting to the NYU lifestyle.
Having a very tight-knit group of exchange students from Bocconi facilitated this aspect of our exchange life. My exchange mates and I had met a few times in Milan but were driven close by spending a lot of our time together, particularly in the first few lesson-free days spent trotting around the city. Meeting and participating in activities with exchange students from other countries was also valuable in easing our transition to the city. Together, for example, we went to the Nets v Heats NBA game and cheered on together, laughing at the background music and discovering the different atmosphere of American stadiums. Nonetheless, something else that allows me to dive into the New York University experience daily is attending classes where I initially did not know anyone, and relishing getting to know the people there and forming connections with them.
I appreciate the self-determination of New Yorkers and New York student-residents, making the most out of a city that truly offers countless opportunities. At NYU I embraced this aspect by trying out courses that are different from my major, talking to people from different schools or departments and with professors, because here classes are much smaller and certain professors go on coffee chats with their students to get to know them and help them explore career prospects. The city itself is the embodiment of freedom and opportunity.
I do believe getting to live the city, experience its mindset and learn from it are invaluable opportunities. Doing an exchange here has its efforts but also generates limitless prospects for personal development through a school of learning to think on your feet, become independent, and advance self-assurance. Therefore, my advice for anyone who is planning to apply for exchange to NYU is to be courageous and prepare to make this adventure a time for learning, storing up experiences and observations, creating, and interlocking thoughts with diverse people… without pressure but with hunger for exploring and embracing different lifestyles!