During the first few weekends of September, inebriated ingénues and drunk dudes can be seen skipping in and out of East Campus, as the rollicking good times of orientation engage in an admirable fight against weighty academic expectations on the horizon. For those fleeting nights of celebration, EC is a palace of untold riches: plentiful beers, low-cut dresses, overpowering cologne, over-strong cocktails, house music, and students testing the stain resistance of every surface in sight. It would be easy to assume that for the hundreds of first-years who make their way to EC—yelling and whooping like primitive warriors, fighting for the right to party—would be the primary motivation for the march over to the EC hinterland. Yet I suspected there was a deeper explanation, and perhaps the best confirmation of my hunch was the proclamation of one particularly excited first-year, who while sauntering out of the building, explained to his friends that he “totally ‘did’ EC.” He was beaming with pride. But what was he so proud about? What does it mean to “do” EC and why does it matter that he did it?
This year, living in EC and pushing through the mob to swipe my ID on weekend nights have reminded me of the mythic stature of the building for the newest members of the Columbia community. At risk of trivializing the great legacy of immigration to the United States, and at risk of inflating the egos of the ingénues themselves, I would like to suggest that EC is the Ellis Island of the Columbia experience. Huddled masses of first-years in an alien land make their way to the brick behemoth, having heard the promise of a better life—in this case, a life of libertine antics and the freedom to “find oneself” in the relative anonymity of a dark lounge with sticky floors and booming music. They traverse campus, itself a wide sea, passing our own Lady Liberty—Alma Mater with her arms outstretched. Soon, the bright lights of EC loom and the first-years enter the immigration zone. They must prove their identity, sign the register, and pass a gateway—where a couple of Public Safety guards try to keep order, in circumstances they openly described one night as “chaos personified.”
EC also has a kind of sorting function not unlike that of Ellis Island. When first-years arrive, they are isolated, and need a way to find their natural peer groups. In much the same way that Italians from regions as different as Venice and Naples bonded as compatriots on the transoceanic journey before settling together in amalgamated neighborhoods like Little Italy, first-years need a common destination and experience through which to find their ilks. The bros need to suss out their fellow bros at the party. They look for clues. Who is throwing back Natty Ice with flair? Who has a penchant for nasty, brutish, and short syllables? The artists need to find their fellows: those who take particular pleasure in a Swedish slow jazz track that comes up on shuffle. The international kids gravitate to their fellow cosmopolitans, with their particular manner of dress and insistence on the double kiss. This is not to say that clichés dominate the social cohesion that occurs within EC’s hallowed walls, but there are certain patterns that can be observed.
For first-years, feeling at home at Columbia is about finding themselves as the principal actors in these ritualistic behaviors. Doing EC becomes a way to find entry through the “golden door” of the University—a rite of passage that is, a little ironically, not without some “storied pomp.” And while Emma Lazarus, author of the poem “The New Colossus,” probably didn’t expect that her words could be applied to the experience of Columbia undergraduates in 2013, there is something fitting about how they resonate. That same pride displayed by the first-years—a pride wrapped up in the whole experience of coming to Columbia and finding oneself in a overwhelming, confusing, but totally exciting environment—is also wrapped up in the lore of Ellis Island. As for EC, for most nights, it is just a dormitory. But sometimes EC is a thing first-years “do”—and as upperclassmen, all we can do is put up with the hassle, look on with bemusement, and think back to the good old days when everything was new and waiting to be explored.
Esfandyr Batmanghelidj is a Columbia College junior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. He contributes regularly to The Canon.
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