Travelogue: Dr. Heather McCowen Tours Columbia College Chicago, March 2022
On a cold March morning in 2022, I decided I needed to be neighborly and visit Columbia College Chicago. I have been living amongst the many creative college students at Columbia as we are both located in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago. I’ve heard their late-night Manifest Festival Concerts, seen their artwork in storefronts in the Loop, and noticed their parents trying not to get towed during move-in/move-out day at the dorms. The funny thing about living near a college is that you think you know ALLLLLL the things. You would be wrong.
Columbia is right in the heart of the South Loop neighborhood. It is within walking distance of the Art Institute, Soldier Field, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, and the Lake. It is a neighborhood with many families and restaurants; it is very walkable and a lovely place. I’ve lived here for ten years and still have much to learn about Columbia.
Living downtown, I know I will walk a bunch, so the tour was a nice jaunt around the lakefront campus. And by campus, I mean an extensive collection of buildings throughout the south loop. Columbia bought up real estate when it was cheap and built new buildings when the interest rates were down. They own an eclectic mix of modern and renovated buildings all over the neighborhood. There is a vibrancy and youthfulness to the sidewalks as you rush and get takeout on a busy weeknight. It also means that the elevators in some buildings just go to some of the floors, and you have to walk to the other side of the building to finish going up it.
When you tour Columbia, you need to choose an adventure. They have four tours based on your academic interests, though all tours cover the dorms and student buildings common to all majors. You can select from A) Audio, Communications, and Writing, B) Media Arts, C) Performing Arts or D) Visual Arts and Business.
I took the tour for Visual Arts and Business. We started by answering questions at the welcome center to get the tour guide oriented to the visitor. My tour guide, Lesley, a senior animation major from Chicago, had never lived on campus. COVID, combined with saving money, meant she commuted every day on the train. She was a delightful tour guide.
We started by walking by the library entrance and the book store entrance, but we didn’t go in due to Covid restrictions. These two entrances are on Michigan Ave and face Grant Park, Chicago’s front yard.
We then walked down to the new Student Center built in the last couple of years. It’s a really impressive building. It’s super modern and has many spaces for students, with a food court and long family-style wood tables on the first floor. It takes regular money (not meal plans) though it is not open to the public. You have to have a Columbia ID to access most of the building.
The fifth floor is an event space. The fourth floor is a recreational space where student organizations gather and school-sponsored social events are held. Even at a “less than traditional” school like Columbia, they still like to have a school dance or two. Going down to the second floor, they have a whole maker lab open to the entire student body. Full of sewing machines, laser cutters, laser printers, 3d printers, fabric, and any project you want to make. This space is open all the time. They have workshops for students if you’re going to learn how to sew. It’s the school-wide craft room, and students are encouraged to tinker.
Next, we went and saw one of the dorm rooms. There are four residential buildings for Columbia; 3 are apartment-style (separate bedrooms with a shared living space), and one is a more traditional dorm. They’re beautiful and modern and stunning. All residential buildings have common areas, study areas, and gym spaces. They also had outdoor spaces above street level so students could be safely outside in the city and still be within the college building. 2 of the buildings have rooms with laundry facilities IN THE ROOM.
Ok, I’m going just to say it. LAUNDRY IN THE ROOM? WHAT IN THOR’S HAMMER IS THIS? Back in MY day, we had to trudge to the basement with our laundry bags, and we turned our whites pink in a communal space. Yes, there are college rooms with washers and dryers—what a time to be alive. Of course, we saw a showroom dorm, but I was assured that laundry was a common feature in rooms. The communal spaces were easy to navigate, with lots of room and space for students to study and gather. It was new and beautiful and inviting. Security was present everywhere in all of the buildings, but not in a way that made you feel tense; in a way that just made you feel they were looking out for you.
We then visited the building where most of the visual arts classes are held and visited the computer lab, the fabrication lab, the open studio, and all of these resources and hands-on labs/spaces for students. The takeaway is that students immerse themselves in their major and learn by doing; it’s a very hands-on kind of school. And the tour guide told me that this was the case across the board: the music students are performing and recording; the dancers choreographing and dancing, and the visual artists are making art from day one. Speaking of Visual Art, if you’ve been to an “immersive” art experience, they have a new major, Immersive Media, that trains the next generation in immersive experiences. Great for Film/Graphic Design/Computer Visual effects students. Another popular major is Fashion Studies. I have long recommended Columbia for fashion studies in Chicago; their alumni have ‘made it’ both in the public eye (Project Runway Seasons 12, 13, 18, and All-Stars) and with the major fashion houses.
One final word about Career Opportunities: They have internship opportunities and job opportunities available through the Handshake App that they use pretty extensively. They also have classes in networking and personal branding, and marketing yourself. My tour guide chose the school because it is full of creatives in whatever way that manifests itself for the student. So even if the student is doing something that’s not necessarily on the creating side, they know how to create and how to be around creatives. They understand how creatives function in this world, so Columbia is an excellent find for those looking for a big city college with a decidedly creative emphasis. They also have many liberal arts majors so that you can study English or Environmental and Sustainability Studies in this creative atmosphere. This is the place to be for the creative student.
This kind of school is excellent for creative students who want to be surrounded by creatives and want to have their art form influenced by the vitality of other art forms. Also, it’s very easy to make friends across the disciplines. They’re not siloed. There are many different ways to start clubs and both create and connect with a community of artists. I even ran into a former student when I was there.
Columbia College Chicago has a variety of tour options and visit days available on their website and robust virtual options if you can’t get to Chicago as soon as you would like. Both airports have trains to the city, so if you are a little adventurous with public transportation, you can get downtown easily and experience Columbia and downtown on foot.
On a final note: Columbia College Chicago offers generous merit scholarships. Welcome to Chicago!
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