We are once again at a specific marker in the academic year where we get to consider the kind of community to which we would like to belong, individually and collectively. Room selection and student leader elections bring conversations (and often debates) that can strengthen and unify, or weaken and divide. Oddly enough, community is an individual experience as much as it is a collective one. Paradoxically, it is individualized when you think about the personal impact of your decisions and yet communal in the ways you choose to act on your decisions.
Consider your living situation. Do you want a single, a suite, or a townhouse? How do you want to interact in that particular setting? During the room selection process, each person has an opportunity to define for himself the kind of individuals they want to be around, be inspired by, create with, laugh with, cry with, or just be with—in the most comfortable sense. It is a choice. Find personal fulfillment in your surroundings by deciding on the kind of environment you want to create for yourself and then act to create it, regardless of which building you may eventually end up in. Consider it your own personal special interest community and don’t lose sight of your own capacity to create your experience.
Conversely, electing your student leaders is an opportune time to consider those who most support your notion of a collective community. It is a time to find who you believe can most encourage discovery, expand on existing strengths and resources, and work to enhance your collegiate experience with others who may hold similar or even differing opinions. Once elected, hold your student leaders accountable, but do so in ways that allow you to engage in substantive conversations. It is far too easy to belittle and disparage individuals, particularly in anonymous postings, and there is a tremendous cost to doing so, both to individuals and to the community. (The recent vitriol around Obama speaking at Barnard College is a perfect example.)
I encourage you think about your role in shaping your Columbia experience. The coming weeks will continue to provide you with numerous opportunities to do so. Whether you have been selected for the first phase of the Gmail migration, the Brownstone Selection Review Committee, or have been contacted to complete a survey about services from the Financial Aid Office or from the Student Affairs Central Business Office inquiring about your student organization’s experience with financial transactions, share your thoughts freely but do so respectfully. Don’t buy into the “we vs. them” paradigm because many administrators and student leaders alike welcome the opportunity to engage in conversations about the areas important to you. I encourage you to take them up on every opportunity to do so.
The author is the dean of community development and multicultural affairs.