It was a hot and rainy May day in New York City, and the subway platform was full of people. The lack of air circulation underground created a sticky mugginess that made everyone around me seem irritable.
It was my first day of class, and I had to get to a college in Manhattan at 10:45 a.m. At 10:40 a.m., I found myself in Queens. I quickly learned that just because the N and Q trains are both yellow, they definitely do not go to the same place.
This was my first experience with the New York City Study Away program offered by the Klein College of Media and Communication. It’s taught by Scott Gratson, the director of the communication studies department, and it consists of two courses about the communities and organizations of the city. Class was held every Saturday for eight weeks, and I commuted from New Jersey, taking the train into Penn Station each morning.
On that day with no cell service and absolutely no chance of using Google Maps, the only solution for my dilemma was to ask one of the miserable sticky people around me for directions.
The lady I asked turned out to be much friendlier than I anticipated, and I soon found myself on the air-conditioned car of a train headed back to Manhattan. I thought back to the moment I realized I was on the entirely wrong island, and I found beauty in my panic. There was something wonderful about not knowing where I was. I felt alone, but in a good way. I made a mistake on my own, fixed it and learned something from the experience. I felt a unique sense of independence.
Throughout the course, Gratson’s enthusiasm and love for New York City was contagious, and his knowledge about the metropolis seemed endless. Each Saturday involved a different adventure to somewhere within the five boroughs.
We’d reach a destination, discuss its history and the ways in which it has shaped the city — and vice versa. Then we’d move onto the next destination. I was able to see so many remarkable scenes: the vibrant flowers of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the historical photographs displayed at the Museum of the City of New York and the flashy costumes performers wore in the annual Mermaid Parade on Coney Island.
Most Saturdays meant meeting the rest of my classmates in a specific location, and Gratson left us to our own devices most of the time.
A large part of the class involved going to certain locations on our own time, observing spaces and later completing a write-up of our field work.
I enjoyed going off on my own and stumbling upon beautiful, little pieces of the city: nestled cobblestone alleyways in the East Village, a mind-blowing iced chai at Irving Farm Coffee Roasters and buskers with captivating talent echoing beneath Bethesda Terrace.
The Queens mixup was definitely not my last time getting lost in the labyrinth of the NYC transit system, but from that point on I did my best to correctly navigate the subway. I began to see my failures as an adventure; every week brought something new.
Some Saturdays were nearly 12 hours long, and I walked block after block in the sweltering city heat. To be completely honest, when I’d board my train home, I would dread coming back in a week. But by the time next Saturday came around, I was ready to get lost and sweaty all over again.