This article is part of a special issue looking back at the 2011-12 academic year. Read the rest of the issue here.
An unprecedented number of grassroots student projects examined wellness this year in the wake of a Columbia College student’s suicide and growing concerns about stress culture in the Ivy League.
This past semester, groups like the Student Wellness Project, Active Minds, the Student Forum, and the Student Space Initiative made community-building on campus a priority and received broad support from administrators and students.
Columbia is “a place where people come and nobody holds your hand,” Wilfred Chan, CC ’13 and SWP co-chair, said. “I think as a freshman there’s a feeling of being lost and confused, and if we can have upperclassmen provide a helping hand, then that can change.”
Led by the Columbia Neuroscience Society, a coalition of student groups ran the first-ever Mental Health Awareness Week on Columbia’s campus, and SWP hosted a week of “random acts of kindness” in April, which attracted a total involvement of more than 1,000 students, according to the group’s website.
Campus interest in mental health grew after Tina Bu, CC ’13, committed suicide on Oct. 23. Sarah Ngu, CC ’12, wrote an article in Spectator’s weekly magazine, The Eye, about her relationship with Bu, a close friend. The article generated a lot of attention from students and alumni.
“How do you interpret mixed signals?” Ngu asked. “What do you do when a friend seeks help and then pulls back and seems happier? It was as if there was a fire going on in the house, and Tina had opened the windows but kept the door locked. We were left watching from the outside.”
In the months that followed Bu’s death, many students acknowledged the challenges of belonging and feeling well in a decentralized university and big city.
“There’s always the joke that Columbia doesn’t have a sense of community, but we want to change that. We want to show people that people do care about them and support them,” Zak Plautz Posewitz, CC ’15 and SWP vice president of external affairs, said.
Part of that conversation has involved efforts to create more communal space for students on campus.
In February, a group of students formed the Student Space Initiative to discuss plans to reconfigure Lerner’s Broadway Room and piano lounge to create a more comfortable hangout space for undergraduates. The group also hopes to use space in buildings that will be vacated when graduate schools relocate to the Manhattanville campus.
In keeping with students’ increased focus on community-building, the Center for Student Advising introduced a peer advising program, which it will pilot this fall. Eight peer advisers will be available Monday through Thursday for students to ask questions ranging from Core classes and campus resources to extracurricular activities and how to take advantage of the city.
“Having these types of open discussions are an important step forward in fostering better awareness of overall student well-being,” Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger said in an email.
Read the rest of the special issue here.