As with any self-respecting modern student, I spent a shocking amount of my last four years at Columbia procrastinating. And while YouTube is indeed infinite, there is a limit to the number of times one can watch sleepy kittens riding a Roomba—that limit is different for everyone, but it is a Rubicon we all must cross at some wee hour of the morning in Butler. In my case at least, crossing that kitten meridian always meant a confrontation with the dreaded question lurking in the back of most collegiate minds: Why am I in the library at 4 a.m., staring vacantly at a wall? What is the purpose, the real meat and value of my college education, especially when so much of it seems an exercise in parsing Google searches? Now that I find myself spat out on the other side of graduation, I think I’ve got an answer for myself.
College is a place for struggle, discomfort, and failure. I do not mean that as a gloom and doom premonition. Despite all appearances towards the fact, scholasticism did not develop as a means of breaking the backbone of idealism and vigor among the youthful. Indeed, it is possible for one to pass through four years of undergraduate education swiftly and painlessly. Doing so may be a mistake. The degree at the end of the rainbow counts for something, but if it is all one gains from college, then one has gained a powerful tool in life but largely wasted the medium through which it came.
The best colleges are set up like obstacle courses: almost gleefully, busily treacherous, yet ultimately controlled. They offer many new students a novel independence. They offer all of us a tempting and crushing degree of choice. And Columbia especially is full with competitive and eager folk. Like kids in a candy store, there’s a good chance that one will bite off more than one can chew, and feel so acutely.
But in college, one has access to a privileged shield that helps to mitigate the painful consequences of strife and failure. One can recover from a bad grade, a failed event, an ill-chosen major, without jeopardizing his/her future, although it often feels otherwise. So blunted, the strange space occupied within risk and failure, the uncomfortable and difficult, can help to break us down, interrogate us about ourselves and our motives, and teach us how to process and act upon that insight. But pain is pain, and life lessons are a weak, insulting solace to one in the thick of college life. Not only is it easy to fail in college, but also it’s easy to feel inadequate, alien, and adrift. Especially at Columbia, where every student knows the mantras that surely still spread through NSOP and Facebook groups—we have no cohesive community, we are hyper competitive, the bureaucracy is cold and opaque, etc.—it’s easy to feel crushed and isolated.
Externally, Columbia can make it easy to fail, but internally how can we assure that such failure has value rather than ushering in undue torment?
Here’s a beautiful thing about Columbia: Many of us come to the school, just as we come to New York, with an image of what it should be. And inevitably that notion will be destroyed. At first that seems like a part of the problem, an alienating disappointment that makes it all the harder to embrace internal struggle and upheaval. But it’s a vital part of the solution.
Columbia and New York are cramped and dirty and painful, but also wondrously large places. Within their uncoordinated and diverse masses, there are an almost infinite series of tightly knit and supportive communities—zones not entirely isolated from each other. However one defines or seeks it, there is affinity and aid for all. I suspect that these ideas are intuitive to all of us. But I have the comfort of distance, hindsight, and armchair analysis now and so get to pompously lay them out like axioms. Still, I believe there is value in saying these things from time to time, even if it seems repetitive. Concision be damned, reaffirmation and solidarity is a powerful thing, so here are a few reaffirmations of value to freshmen and returning students alike: Embrace failure and discomfort—we get so few chances to hold them dear and learn from them. Find a safe space and nurture it—prioritizing friends and community and all those things we so often sacrifice in the name of academia can actually be our most powerful tools in fostering academia. They provide vital space and distance. And above all else, remember you are not alone. This is a place of struggle, and everyone around you knows that in some way. And so knowing, if ever called upon to do so, there’s not one of your peers who wouldn’t come to your aid.
The author graduated from Columbia College in 2012. He was a coordinator of the Student Wellness Project and the acting chair for the InterPublications Alliance.