In the four years since I showed up at the Spectator office during freshman orientation, I’ve crossed the Great 125th and 96th Street divides, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Chinese Wall. On each of these journeys, Spec has stayed in my metaphoric back pocket, in the form of an inquisitive lens and a notebook should breaking news (like the new 16 Handles at W. 99th St.), or the urge to write, arise.
My freshman year as a city news reporter is memorable, not only because of my first Spec Dinner, but also because President Obama was elected. On inauguration day, I was sent to the watch the party outside the Clinton Foundation office on W. 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. My assignment was to compile “person on the street” interviews to contribute to a larger piece about reactions to the inauguration throughout the paper’s coverage area. Seas of people gathered in front a jumbotron that frigid Tuesday morning to celebrate the election of the first black president. Shirts, hats, banners, and noisemakers flooded the air and the sidewalks.
I assumed a mutual excitement about Obama would unite the Harlem crowd and myself in my quest for good quotes and their opportunity for published self-expression. However, when I mustered up the courage to finally approach a woman with two children, my “Hi, I’m from the Columbia Daily Spectator,” was interrupted by “I don’t want to talk to anyone from Columbia” before I could even ask her about Obama. My freshman year came at a particularly contentious point during the Manhattanville controversy, and this exchange was representative of how many people north of campus felt about Columbia’s encroaching presence in their neighborhood. Reporting for Spectator allowed me to understand issues like Manhattanville from all perspectives by interacting directly with the people affected by my university’s decisions. Beyond my love of writing and interviewing, this lesson in empathy cultivated a passion for working within the West Harlem facet of the paper’s coverage area, particularly on education policy.
After writing my way up to the positions of associate news editor (a.k.a. Expert All-Night-Puller), local schools beat chief, and senior staff writer, I packed my bags and lived out my Francophile dream of moving to Paris. A semester abroad meant a hiatus from the office conveniently located next to Pinkberry, but it also meant the opportunity to seek inspiration for my writing outside of familiar places and people. My straight-newsy style was replaced by a travel blog—an experimental medium for me—and that led me to apply to be a columnist again upon returning from the City of Lights.
And so although my first three years on Spec had involved long subway rides and transatlantic flights, those treks were simply preparation for traversing the Chinese Wall—that infamous barrier between the news and opinion sections of a newspaper. Once I started writing a column, first called “Class Notes,” and now, “Urban Dictionary,” my task became finding the facts and formulating coherent opinions. My biggest challenge has been taking issues that deeply move me—public schools, Occupy Wall Street, foreign language studies, Mad Men—and making Columbia readers care, too.
Since my assignment at the inauguration watch party in January 2009, I have believed that anything that goes on in Morningside Heights, the Upper West Side, or West Harlem is inherently “Columbia-relevant” because students do not exist in isolation of the other people who live, work, and study here. But I know that, as students, we often have the luxury of becoming so wrapped up in Plato and Said and finding an empty seat in the library that we don’t immediately feel the urge to interact with our broader surroundings.
In my job interviews, I convey what Spec has taught me about utilizing teamwork, working under tight deadlines, and telling a coherent story. But, less tangibly, it has taught me how to empathize, how to ask difficult questions, and how as a journalist, I influence the political process by enabling readers to view an issue from diverse viewpoints.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and French and Francophone studies. She was a news beat chief and associate news editor for the 133rd volume, and an opinion columnist for the 134th, 135th, and 136th volumes.