Getting Schooled | Pittsburgh City Paper

Getting Schooled

So your parents have dropped you off at campus -- now what? Teachers and administrators will school you on book-learning, but what about the important things: What restaurants to take your parents to? How to avoid cash-flow pitfalls, or meet people outside of class? What's cool to do off-campus?

City Paper polled current college students and recent graduates -- even some of those grad students who seem to effortlessly know everything -- to see what hard-won advice they could offer incoming students. And where appropriate, we snuck in our own two cents. These suggestions are by no means definitive. After all, you're here to learn, and half the fun will be discovering new places and opportunities on your own.

Much of this advice is also useful for upper-classmen, drop-outs and just plain folks-around-town.



Mike Rhodes: "The Big Idea bookstore in Bloomfield (504 Millvale Ave., I can chill out with weird used books, and get my philosophy on." The shelves here have books from lefty rabble-rousers and Big Thinkers, local punk and anarcho-zines, and whatever literature some kindred spirit felt like donating -- definitely not another chain bookstore. Also, in Bloomfield is Paul's CDs (4526 Liberty Ave.), a tiny music store with a great rep and lively used-CD rack.

While it's got its share of students, our panel also vouched for Squirrel Hill. Students are mixed with families and "real people," and the shops and cafes provide plenty to do, see and eat. The Butler Street corridor, in Lawrenceville, got thumbs up, too, for its eateries and boutiques. May we recommend brunch at Coca Café (3811 Butler St.), or a chocolate croissant at Le Gourmandine Bakery (4605 Butler St.); some bowling at Arsenal Lanes (44th and Butler streets); or browsing shops for kicky clothes, eco-friendly gifts and handmade soap?

Downtown is an easy getaway. Nila Devanath says, "Check out some of the art shows," like the monthly Gallery Crawl sponsored by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust ( She also goes Downtown for rallies and political events, and to visit City Council, a sure-fire place not to run into many students.

Get away from college animals and relax among the real thing: Andrea Bullard's getaway is Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium (, in Highland Park. "It's kids, families and exotic animals," she explains. "It's relaxing and childlike, so I forget the pressures of school." And it's right on several bus lines from Downtown, Oakland and Shadyside.



University of Pittsburgh: Not surprisingly, the Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning get plenty of votes. These classrooms are designed to represent a number of cultures. (Kelsey Shea notes, "The Austrian room is like a formal dining room with a chandelier.") But don't overlook the Cathedral itself: There's a view from the top, and the lower floors never fail to leave an impression. Is it a castle? A dungeon? Hogwarts?

Carnegie Mellon: Jonathan Borofsky's "Walking to the Sky" sculpture, at the lawn on Forbes Avenue.

Getting Schooled
Blue-light special: The Lourdes Grotto at Duquesne

Duquesne: The new Power Center on Forbes Avenue has a great gym, as well as several retail and dining options. Matt Noonan cites the on-campus chapel ("nice for people who like old churches") and the Lourdes Grotto, overlooking the Allegheny County Jail, on the river side of campus: "At night, it's got purple lighting."

Chatham: The campus itself is a secluded green oasis in the city, full of trees, flowers and sylvan nooks. Take a stroll.

And clean your dorm room.



You can't beat the city's museums for when folks come to visit: They make you look smart, and provide lots of stuff to talk about that isn't about you, your hair, your grades and whether you're coming home for the holidays. The Carnegie Museum in Oakland (4400 Forbes Ave.) is a double-header of art and natural history, with something for everyone (dinosaurs!).

The North Side's Carnegie Science Center ( is a good fit, if you've got younger siblings in tow. The Andy Warhol Museum (, also on the North Side, is reasonably sized, and a visit can be combined with a walk along the riverfront to look at the skyline and the stadiums. Of course, "skyline" means taking the Incline up to Mount Washington to really look at the view (

For baseball fans, PNC Park is a lovely old-style park; tickets are always available, and the Pirates may be playing a team worth seeing. Parents who want to shop should be escorted to some of the city's retail neighborhoods such as Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, the South Side or the Strip District.

Mona Abdel-Halim recommends Phipps Conservatory, in Oakland's Schenley Park, "with its multitude of botanical species and a breathtaking Dale Chihuly blown-glass sculpture at its entrance. It's the perfect near-campus place to take the parents."

As for places to avoid, the consensus was strong: Don't show your folks the greasy spoons where you really eat. If the dining hall is grim, perhaps that's best left unseen as well. Foster the illusion that you're eating only sensible portions of leafy greens and whole grains. And what would you possibly know about nightclubs? Show-off trips to the South Side and the Strip District are strictly day-time.



Within Oakland, Mike Rhodes suggests Ali Baba or Star of India, both on South Craig Street, near Forbes. "They're more upscale than the usual student-focused restaurants."

Amber Phillips takes a different tack: "I like to take my out-of-town relatives to things that are unique to Pittsburgh, like Pamela's Diner (3703 Forbes Ave.), even though they're not necessarily pricey. And they like to go to places that they've seen on PBS, or on the Food Network. My sisters want to go to Primanti Brothers (3803 Forbes Ave.) because they had seen it on TV."

But ideally, the combination of wheels and somebody else's wallet should land you in another part of the city. Here's a handful that our panel recommended:

* Legume Bistro, 1113 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square. Mona Abdel-Halim says: "The menu changes daily per locally sourced and seasonal ingredients. Make reservations, because its small tables fill up fast."

* Silk Elephant, a Thai restaurant in Squirrel Hill (1712 Murray Ave.).

* Fat Heads, 1805 E. Carson St., on the South Side. "It's nice to get a gourmet cheeseburger instead of a dining-hall cheeseburger," says Jasmine Davis.

* Kaya, 2000 Smallman St., in the Strip District. Andrea Bullard explains: "Amazing Caribbean food, fun atmosphere and plenty of veggie options, fun atmosphere. But dad can still get a cocktail and a steak."

* Abay, an Ethiopian restaurant in East Liberty (130 S. Highland Ave.). Ben Paul: "It's fun to eat with your hands."

* Bangkok Balcony (5846 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill) -- a Thai restaurant with a view over the main street.

* Downtown and North Shore options: Capital Grille, 301 Fifth Ave., Downtown; Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, 247 North Shore Drive; and Six Penn Kitchen, 146 Sixth St., Downtown.

* City Paper recommends these perennial favorites: Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, high atop Mount Washington, for seafood and a view (1411 Grandview Ave.). Wood-fired pizza and handcrafted beer, served in an old church? Visitors dig the family-friendly Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville (3525 Liberty Ave.). Up the street in Bloomfield, the hamburgers are worth the wait at Tessaro's, a Pittsburgh institution (4601 Liberty Ave.).



Getting Schooled
Theres no shushing at the Quiet Storm: Elise Hawthorne hits the books.

Not surprisingly, coffee shops are popular places to hit the books, including: Quiet Storm, in Friendship (5430 Penn Ave.) (Mona Abdel-Halim notes that it's "a great vegetarian restaurant and large enough to always have a table available"); Coffee Tree Roasters, 5524 Walnut St., in Shadyside; the Oakland Panera, at 3800 Forbes Ave. ("good for studying in groups"); and for a quieter Oakland coffee shop, Crazy Mocha on sOakland Avenue. Ayan Kishore suggests students do the rounds of coffeehouses to discover a good match for their studying style. In warm weather, get coffee to go and head for Schenley Park or another of the city's many green spaces (

For more rigorous study, try these no-nonsense locations:

Jasmine Davis: "The basement stacks of the Main [Carnegie] Library in Oakland ( It's really quiet and they have these cool window seats. There's not a lot of desk space, but if you have to do a lot of reading, it's a great place to go."

Nila Devanath: "I like to go to different campus buildings that are not the library. At Pitt's Alumni Hall, there's a study space with tables, chairs and lamps."



Hopefully, you're transitioning easily from your life of luxury as a dependent child into the more-stressful making-do-on-your-own years. Still, it's easy to make mistakes with your finances. Some can be grave, such as running up credit-card debts. Others are more minor, perhaps committed out of laziness.

Nearly every respondent on the panel gave this warning: Take-out food and dining out will rapidly deplete your finances. And watch out for late-night snacks. Matt Noonan counsels: "You're eating out of boredom and not out of hunger. $10 here, $15 there -- and at the end of the month, you've spent $50."

And watch the liquids: Jasmine Davis can't believe how many of her classmates truck in flats of bottled water. "Not only is it super-wasteful," she says, "but you can save a ton of money if you just get a Brita pitcher."

If you do get a credit card, Nila Devanath recommends setting up an auto-payment system online. "A lot of times, students forget or get busy and don't pay. Set it to minimum payment, and at least avoid the consequences of missing a payment."

But college is a great time to learn to budget. Unless you get bought out by Google five years from now, you'll spend the rest of your life managing a limited amount of money toward an unlimited number of expenses. Use a spreadsheet -- or, even handier, a free smart-phone app that you can access on the go -- to track all your expenses. See where your cash gets frittered away (how much on pizza?!). Wouldn't you rather save that money for a spring-break trip?



Most colleges have both work-study programs and on-campus resources to help students earn extra cash. Beyond that, is a new Pittsburgh-based organization that helps students work off loans by contributing to community projects.

* Nila Devanath says, don't be afraid to apply for jobs outside of the student zone; one friend did very well with a part-time job at a real-estate company, for instance.

* Various university medical and research studies. (Fliers will be posted around campus.) These range from an hour's work to an investment of several months, but the compensation is often generous for the effort expended.

* If you're a Pitt, CMU or Chatham student, your student ID is also a bus pass for the city's Port Authority buses. (Duquesne may institute a similar set-up soon.) No fumbling for coins, or flattening dollar bills. Just wave and go. Routes and schedules can be accessed online at or call 412-442-2000. Or fire up a Google map, type in your destination query and hit the "public transit" option. Your student ID will also get you discounts or even free admission at numerous cultural institutions, theaters and other venues.

* Ayan Kishore suggests checking campus calendars for lectures offering interesting guest speakers and topics. Most on-campus lectures are free, and open to all. Also, he adds, "Make use of the different cultural organizations on campus. They often have free events like movies and concerts."



No matter what your interest -- from saving the whales and promoting literacy to fighting cancer and starting a community garden -- there's an organization eager for help. Below are a few groups and projects that our panel suggested:

* CommuniTeach ( operates on the premise that collectively we all know everything, so you swap lessons with others by creating a profile of both what you'd like to learn and what you can teach (including everything from parallel parking to Indian cooking). Best of all, it's free.

* Get involved in local elections; register to vote and encourage others. Sign up with an on-campus political party, or check out these non-partisan voter-engagement groups: League of Young Voters (, Gertrude Stein Political Club ( and Everybody Vote ( Local issues can impact students, and your voice counts. "If all the students in Pittsburgh voted, we could turn elections," says Nila Devanath.

Getting Schooled
Pet cause: Volunteer Marie Teasdale at the Animal Rescue League

* Miss your own pet? The Animal Rescue League, in Homewood (, is a short bus ride from any campus, and always needs dog-walkers and cat-cuddlers.

* If you write for the campus newspaper, you'll meet a lot of interesting non-students.

* Advises Ayan Kishore: "Sign up on an insane number of mailing lists, such as, Pop City (, Happenings (, Venture Outdoors ( -- one list leads to another. If you like music, get on the concert mailing lists." And this very paper (and its website, lists hundreds of events happening each week.

* Amber Phillips suggests getting off your campus and visiting another. For instance, "Pitt has an active Black Action Society, and we have one at Chatham, but they do a lot of collaboration. And there are events like that at other schools that are open to everyone."

* Volunteer at large arts events, such as Sprout Fund's Hothouse (this year, Aug. 28,, or the Three Rivers Arts Festival, in June ( Throughout the year, check in with museums such as the Warhol, Mattress Factory ( and the Carnegie for volunteer opportunities.

* Matt Noonan suggests checking out any of the Carnegie libraries (, where they often have classes or workshops. "Also, waiting at the bus stop -- you meet every sort of person there."



If you were surprised to find that Pittsburgh isn't a filthy, belching pit of industrial fire, you're not alone. Ben Paul: "I had no idea it was so beautiful! Especially the three rivers -- I was like, 'Whoa! How come I've never heard of this?'"

Some other things that struck students encountering the Steel City:

* Mike Rhodes: "Now I know that Pittsburgh has its own accent. If you get out of Oakland, you can definitely hear it." If yinz get aht ...

 * "But for being such a big city, Pittsburgh has a small-town feel," explains Nila Devanath. "People are nice here, and willing to work with you. But it's a big enough city that you're not doing the same thing every day or meeting the same people. You can find new experiences, but it's not threatening."

 * For Mona Abdel-Halim, it's the city's thriving arts community that excites her -- "from the monthly gallery crawls to experimental performance art pieces like the Waffle Shop, in East Liberty. Pittsburgh's art scene is vibrant, young and growing."

* Matt Noonan likes Pittsburgh's compact size and diversity: "It felt like a good 'starter city' to me -- smaller and easy to navigate. I like the neighborhood parks: You can tackle one a month, and suddenly you understand how the whole city lays out."

* And then there's that omnipresent sports fever: "I've seen Steelers flags hanging in the windows of these teeny Lawrenceville art galleries," marvels Andrea Bullard. "You would never see that in New York."



* Mona Abdel-Halim wishes she'd brought a bike, and ended up getting one from FreeRide (, a great resource in Point Breeze that helps hook up the cash-strapped with fixer-upper wheels.

* "Time management is important. Be aware of what you're coming here for, and balance going out and staying in to study," warns Kaitlyn Lucas.

* Amber Phillips says, "It's so easy to stay on campus. Instead, take a Saturday, wake up early, get on the bus and go somewhere and explore."

* "Get involved in campus activities that relate to your major," suggests Kelsey Shea. "It's a good way to meet people and make potential career contacts."

* Nila Devanath can't stress this enough: "Opportunities are not going to come to your door. I remember my freshman year, I just sat waiting there and nothing was happening. Then, I went out and joined all these different groups."