Jessica Lovelace-Chandler’s column in Friday’s Spectator (“Creating a GS queer community,” Oct. 12) made me think deeply about my time at Columbia as a General Studies student and a member of Columbia’s LGBT community. While she made many valid points about the challenges in fostering community for LGBT students in general and in particular for nontraditional LGBT students, her observations of the current campus situation stand in stark contrast to my own experiences in the not-too-distant past when GS students served as important leaders in the LGBT community.
While I was at Columbia, GS held NSOP activities for its incoming students and I was involved with this program as an orientation leader each time it was held up until I graduated. I always gave my orientees the same advice, which was to find one thing about Columbia that they liked, or didn’t like, and spend their entire time making it grow, or changing it. Then, after they graduated, they could leave knowing that they were a part of something that was special to them.
As recently as four years ago, GS student leadership in the overall undergraduate community at Columbia flourished. While students from GS also held many positions of student leadership outside of groups traditionally associated with heavy GS involvement like GSSC, MilVets, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Hillel, the now-defunct Hamilton Society, and Columbia Ballet Cooperative, they were also on the executive boards of the Student Governing Board, they were principal actors on the Varsity Show, they were (and still are) presidents of their Greek organizations (even though they were not allowed to live in them). The distinction with which these students provided service and leadership to the Columbia community earned them several awards and honors, and they always made an impressive showing at the King’s Crown Leadership Awards, awards that at the time traditionally went to students from CC or the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
In addition to their commitments to these organizations, GS students were especially involved in the LGBT community, with the encouragement of their openly gay “Queen Dean,” Peter Awn. GS students led many LGBT groups at Columbia, specifically in Columbia Queer Alliance, Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, Gayava, and Queer Awareness Month. They helped reinvigorate then-defunct but historically significant First Friday dances (the first LGBT dances of their kind), and they secured Columbia’s first LGBT adviser. GS students in Gayava spearheaded an historic campaign that resulted in the Jewish Theological Seminary beginning to accept openly gay rabbinical students. GS students were active in the fight for and against the Navy ROTC at Columbia—some had more at stake than others. Ultimately, the members of the GS LGBT community found many things they liked and didn’t like, and they changed them.
To be certain, inter-school relations between students at the different schools had always been somewhat strained while I was a student and I suspect that a variant of this continues as an undercurrent, but lately, students have witnessed a resurgence in cooperation and understanding that would have been unheard of years ago. One example is the multiple and spontaneous campaigns started in response to the GS Class Day issues last spring. Student leaders from CC, SEAS and Barnard created a petition, “Standing Together with the School of General Studies,” and one student created a Facebook group, “Four Schools, One Community: Standing in Solidarity with GS.” These efforts eventually led to an alternate ceremony for families who were not able to attend the new date for GS Class Day, a ceremony that was sponsored in part by the CC, SEAS, and Barnard student councils.
Just as I told my countless orientees, I continue to encourage GS students to expand their horizons and represent the full breadth of what makes the GS student body so great. In addition to exploring the idea of a GS group for LGBT students, Jessica Lovelace-Chandler should secure her place at the table within existing LGBT groups and join the GS students that I have met who are already there. GS students must not simply lament the lack of their peers’ involvement in the Columbia community. They must act on their own and provide an example.
It would be a tragedy if admitted GS students, after having overcome many obstacles to obtain admission into Columbia, were to shy away from leadership in undergraduate student life in areas where they perceive that they aren’t well-represented already. My motto still stands: Find one thing about Columbia, and change it.
The author graduated from the School of General Studies in 2009 with a bachelor of arts in anthropology. He was the 2008-2009 vice president of the Columbia Queer Alliance and was a member of the spring 2009 Spectator editorial board. He is a founder of Advocates for the Arts Initiative.
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