My last class of college—a discussion section in a tiny corner room in Hamilton—was on Thursday afternoon. As I walked back toward Woodbridge after a conversation about immigration status and child custody, I had a realization: Columbia had taught me everything it would ever teach me.
Suddenly I was filled with regret. I could have been a better student. I should have done more of my reading, started my papers earlier, and refused to check my e-mail in lecture classes. Why didn’t I write a thesis, study abroad, or attend the office hours of the history professors whose classes I liked so much? I know I learned a lot in college, but I could have learned more.
But my regret lasted only moments. It’s true that I could have made more of my academic experience, but I couldn’t have done that without giving up the experience that defined my time at college: working on Spectator. The lessons I learned at Spectator are, of course, different from the ones I learned in the classroom, but they’re just as important to me.
So what did I learn? As a copy editor, I learned that the em dash is a wonderful and addictive punctuation mark (I’ve already used two in this column, and I’m sure there will be others). As the deputy A&E editor, I learned that my tastes are decidedly uncool, and I’m just fine with that. As managing editor, I learned that Spectator is an imperfect organization, and no one knows that better than the people working fervently to improve it. I also learned that there’s no shortage of people ready to point out our errors through polite (or not-so-polite) e-mails. I came to value that criticism—without it, Spectator could never fix its mistakes and move forward.
Spectator helped me understand Columbia, and my experiences at Spec only made me more appreciative of the opportunities I've had here. This University—like most universities—is a flawed institution. I could write pages and pages about those flaws, and in a way, I already have—I helped craft two semesters’ worth of staff editorials, criticizing the University for big problems (chronic bureaucracy, the lack of proper student advising, etc.) and small problems (the removal of trays from John Jay, spotty wireless on campus, etc.) alike.
Yet, for four years, I also volunteered to give campus tours and talk about how great Columbia is. In my tours, I’d gush about the Core, the reading rooms in Butler, the brilliant students who attend Columbia, and the fabulous city just outside the gates. The irony wasn’t lost on me—in the evenings I criticized Columbia, and in the mornings I raved about it. But I never said anything on my tours that wasn’t true—lots of things (and people, for that matter) that I love are flawed, and yet I love them anyway. Spectator taught me that criticizing Columbia and being thrilled to attend Columbia are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I realize now that most students who complain about Columbia wouldn’t bother if they didn’t like the place to begin with—they want to improve their University, even if they disagree on how to do that.
Spec also taught me scores of small pieces of wisdom—things that might not mean much to other people, but which I’ll remember forever. Contrary to what a friend and former editor once told me, I’ve learned that it’s okay to cry in the office—it’s happened three times, and each one made me appreciate the talented journalists/good friends who were there to cheer me up. I’ve learned that former Barnard President Judith Shapiro’s poodle tries to eat food off the table during interviews. That occasionally they power-wash the windows of 2875 Broadway’s elevator vestibule at 5 a.m. That sometimes, it’s just better to go to sleep than to read those last 30 pages. That the view of St. John the Divine from 112th Street and Broadway is especially beautiful when the sun is rising behind the cathedral.
I’ve learned that, despite what some people claim, there is a sense of community at Columbia. I’ve found that community on South Lawn in the spring, on the Steps during Obama’s inauguration, in the audience at Orchesis performances, in Butler before finals, at basketball games, and at Deluxe on Sunday mornings. And I’ve also found it in the Spectator office, at 4 a.m., when misplaced commas or misspelled words are suddenly hilarious.
Spectator is not unique in its ability to shape and to dominate someone’s Columbia experience—most student groups have the same effect. Friends of mine who devoted their time to the Varsity Show, the dance team, community service, or their academic coursework have been shaped by those activities in equally important ways. I’ve learned that the people who most enjoyed their four years here are generally also the ones who got the least sleep—whatever they did, they gave it everything they had.
I could have chosen to be a better student. Instead, I attended a Spectator information session on a whim during Orientation. Spectator was my Columbia experience, and, as I’ve learned, it was a great way to spend four years.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. She was an associate copy editor on the 130th Associate Board, the deputy A&E editor on the 131st Deputy Board, and the managing editor of the 132nd Managing Board.