Note from Admissions: When Nabila, who is from Kuala Lumpur, told me that her first time in New York City was also her first day as a SIPA student, I was stunned. She wrote this about NYC in the fall semester. I was saving it for today, April Fools’. As someone born in New York, Nabila’s thoughts on this city made me laugh. She captures what I love about NYC with honesty.

Now that COVID-19 is impacting our city and community so hard, reading her words make me want to laugh and cry! I’m worried for my city – I think we all are – and this post lets me take a moment to appreciate the people who make up the heart of this city.

I hope this brings a little lightness to your day like it did for me, and that it lets you appreciate the people who are going out to keep everything running, as well as the people staying in to make it safer for everyone.

— Emily Tao, Admissions


Before starting school at SIPA, the only time I had been to New York was a 12-hour day trip from Washington, D.C. where I arrived way too early — so early that no tourist sites were open (pro tip: the Empire State building opens at 8am). I spent about half my time in Central Park (don’t laugh but that park is b-e-a-utiful). My knowledge of New York was based solely on television shows and movies — though I doubt that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the best benchmark of the city since it just kept getting destroyed. Looking at you Avengers!

I took the leap to come to New York because, well, it’s New York, and because SIPA is my dream school. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about SIPA and the city, so I didn’t bother joining any virtual sessions or doing any due diligence. Once I got here, I realized I was grossly unprepared to live in this city and that initial shock took some time to adjust myself to.

To help you not be me, here are five things you need to know about New York if you’ve never been here*:
*Actual New Yorkers may fight me on this 🙂 

#1 No, it’s not like Friends, Sex and the City or Gossip Girl

Sadly, your friends will most likely not be your neighbor (maybe, but really – no). If you’re lucky, they might live a 15-minute walk from you which is basically the same thing as being neighbors. Why?

Rent. People have very different budgets and that budget will take people all over the city. Life can be glamorous — hanging out in Lehman Library, sharing snacks from all over the world is glamorous — just not the way that TV does glamour. Having lunch on the steps at the Met? Definitely not. Everyone has very busy schedules and graduate students, I would argue, have 30-hour days. I have friends who juggle internships, part-time jobs, full 18-credit semesters and a thriving social life. Yes, they’re superhuman. Scheduling time to catch-up is a real thing and is really no different elsewhere, with the biggest difference being time taken thanks to public transport. Which brings me to…

#2 Everyone has a love/hate relationship with the subway

When I first got here, I hated the subway because it’s confusing and always delayed and just so unpredictable.

“Why are some stations not connected for uptown/downtown? Why are there so many people here? I need to leave this station and walk to another ‘connecting’ station? Where can I find train time info? Where is that smell coming from? The B/C is delayed AGAIN? 15 minutes later and still no train. So much for being on time…”

Do I exaggerate? I think not. Ask anyone who lives here. ANYONE. After a year in the City, I still hate the subway but I hate it a lot less. I hate a lot less to the point that maybe I actually do quite like the subway? After visiting some other cities in the U.S. (Bay Area, I’m looking at you) the subway is definitely an old, rusty, sometimes smelly, game changer, and I would rather have it than not have it at all. Pro tip though, trust an actual New Yorker over Google Maps any day because they know the best way to game the system.

#3 The Empire State Building is really not that tall

If you’ve lived or visited any major city in Asia, be prepared to be underwhelmed by the skyscrapers here. Yes, New York has a lot of tall buildings, and yes they are clustered very closely together but compared to many major cities in Asia, the buildings don’t feel exceptionally tall. For reference, here’s a condensed (and selected) list of tallest buildings (excludes the UAE…) :

Shanghai Tower: 2,073 feet
Ping An Finance Center: 1.965 feet
One World Trade Center: 1,776 feet
Taipei 101: 1,667 feet
Petronas Twin Towers: 1,483 feet
Empire State Building: 1,454 feet

That said, the New York skyline is breathtaking an unbeatable and you will very likely travel far distances to get a glimpse of it. Don’t believe me? Google ‘best places to view the NYC skyline’ and I’m sure hundreds of results will show up, one of which is this link. What makes the skyline special is just the sheer number of buildings and the surrounding rivers that somehow reflect the sun at just the perfect angle.

#4 There is a never-ending list of things to do

New York is busy. Busy in the best way that word can be used to describe anything. There is always, and I mean always, something to do here. And what’s even better is that there is something for everyone. Literally. If you have a niche interest, do a quick search and you’ll find like-minded folks.

Interested in the arts, theater and culture? Broadway, museums, art shows. Interested in festivals? There are plenty in Central Park and Brooklyn in the summer. Sports? Yep, never-ending options. Parties? Indoors and outdoors. Glamping? Try Governor’s Island.

You’ll never hear any Seeple complain that they’re bored or have too much time in this city. Even SIPA has an endless list of events – from panels and networking sessions to student organisation socials and brunch. There is no such thing as being bored. Personally, I’m a huge foodie so I often travel outside of the SIPA bubble (the trek is real), to explore and find new places to eat. My all-time favorite place though is Central Park, there really is nowhere else quite like it.

That said, this also means that New York can get very crowded, depending on where and when. This might be the only city in the world where there are endless tourists regardless of season, rain or shine, winter or summer. Pro tip: Avoid Times Square because it is truly the worst place and is tourist central. Do it once, but don’t do it again. In fact, if you plan on having visitors, wait to go with them so you only need to go once.

#5 Re-adjust your understanding of time and distance

When I first moved here, a friend from home gave me the helpful advice that 30 minutes is close after I complained that it took me 20-25 minutes on the C train to Midtown. You heard it here first. THIRTY MINUTES IS CLOSE. I thought she was mad. But now I get it. It took me a while but eventually, I understood what she meant. 30 minutes is close and totally manageable in this city because you need to travel that distance to get anywhere, to see anything and to actually explore and enjoy the city. So the next time someone says they live all the way downtown, don’t freak out. Instead, embrace the opportunity to explore a new area and plan your trip so you can go with friends or watch some Netflix on your commute. I promise, that 30+ minute trip will be worth it!

BONUS!!! #6 That grad school life in New York City

There is nowhere else you should do grad school but New York. Trust me on this. I visited other schools since I’ve been here and really, I couldn’t imagine not being in this city and what it has to offer especially as a grad student. Because New York is such a hub, we have an abundant amount of job prospects and opportunities. In the City (and beyond SIPA), there are plenty of panels, talks, coffee chats, meets up and networking sessions all year round. There are also plenty of opportunities to work part-time (could lead to that dream job! Or maybe supplement income!) and also meet people from different backgrounds. And this ranges from public to private sector opportunities because NYC has the UN but it also has Wall Street so really, NYC is as diverse as it can be. Whatever you’re looking for, this city has it all because New York is always THE stop on people’s list to visit/host an event/find opportunities. Also, there’s that saying that you should live in NYC at least once when you’re in your 20s, so you know you have to do it!

Lastly, you might get to New York and feel completely underwhelmed like me but rest assured that it only gets better from there on out. Don’t trust me, check out the 101 things to love about New York City here.

New York, I love you 3000.