Eyeing Spectator’s famous quote board with bits of wisdom infused with stress, wit and insomnia as a wide-eyed first-year, I had one thought: “Will this be my new hang-out place? Will these be my new friends?” Everything from the grunge-glam swag-filled Arts & Entertainment office with its questionable-hygiene red couch to grease-covered pizza boxes from V&T screamed real journalist, real sleep-deprived college student, and lifetime memories and connections formed in this office. I knew that it was a special place beyond the daily newspaper it put out.
Yes, I loved writing, but one of my main motivations behind joining Spectator—like many first-years—was making friends with similar interests. I attended my first meeting for the Food section excitedly armed with two pitches on co-ops and the early stages of the NYC cupcake craze. Afterwards, I spent the next two weeks desperately trying to get in touch with the Crumbs corporate headquarters and stalking random yuppies and hippies at various Brooklyn co-ops, stressing over my ledes and glowing when I finally saw my first byline buried in the weekday issue of the Daily Spectator. All that work, but still, no friends. Like many eager journalistically-inclined first-years, I learned that joining Spectator on a casual level rarely earns you more social success than small talk with a few familiar faces at brief writer meetings.
Now, I live at the Eye, subsist off of free V&Ts pizza and Red Bull, and deal with a never-ending stream of crises and cop-outs via Gchat during classes. I spend my Saturday nights drunkenly bouncing pitch ideas off my fellow editors. What I learned while climbing the ranks of Spectator is that the nature of a publication is this: You can’t make friends without getting into the upper ranks of editorship, at which point you will only be friends with other editors. For fear of scaring away our new list of recruits: Do not join Spectator just to make friends. It is not an economic decision. Writing is, by definition, an individual activity, while theater, in contrast, is inherently interpersonal. For theater kids, the sheer number of hours spent on stage rehearsing with fellow actors can create lifetime bonds in a matter of days. And with every play comes a whole new crop of potential friends and sexual conquests. So how does the nature of a student’s extracurricular interest come into play when making friends at various student groups? We talked to a few prominent campus clubs and got some off-the-cuff takes on their social and hook-up scenes.
The Spectator situation seems to hold true to a lesser degree for other campus publications. Because writing is solitary and editing can primarily be done via email, contributors have a harder time entering the social scene of journalistic publications. According to Editor in Chief Jon Hill, CC ’11, the Blue and White editorial team grows especially close during their monthly but intensive layout sessions. At least one marriage has resulted from long nights in the B&W office, and many of the main editors count fellow B&W-ers as their main social group—however, Hill explains that for new writers “sometimes it takes a little to get past the business relationship of writing something for the first time, having it edited, submitting it.” Co-EIC of the monthly comedy newspaper the Fed Aarti Iyer, CC ’11, describes a similar experience with occasional contributors, but this is a part of the newspaper’s appeal. “The people that write for us like that they can put as much time into it as they want to,” Iyer says. Because it is a low-intensity publication, the Fed does not constitute a primary social group, even for upper-level editors. But Iyer is trying to change that: “I really like community,” she says.
Columbia’s newest crop of law school-bound students know that they need more than a poli sci degree to impress admissions offices, but how’s a pinstripe-happy first-year to know which model political club will also get him laid? Political scientists have needs beyond an online subscription to the Economist, after all. The sheer amount of CIRCA (Columbia International Relations Council and Association) swag spotted on campus is no coincidence: Columbia’s Model UN program—which not only competes nationally against other collegiate teams, but organizes and hosts the prestigious CMUNCE (Columbia Model United Nations Conference & Exposition, pronounced C-monkey) conference for high school MUN—is an extracurricular powerhouse among clubs. As for the traveling team, how do nights bunking together in Columbia-funded hotel rooms affect MUNers? “CIRCAcest is a little bit of a problem,” says Head Delegate Chuck Roberts, CC ’12—and not just within the Columbia MUN team. International diplomacy takes on a looser definition when the conference is over and the suits are off. Apparently, the infamous “Brock” from McGill has made the rounds with female MUNers from American colleges, including “too many” Columbia girls, says Roberts. “I’m like their father—I have to chaperone them,” he says. Rhonda Shafei, CC ’12, and secretary general of CMUNCE chimes in, “He’s more like a grandfather figure.”
Mock Trialers, on the other hand, go to conferences for once reason: to win. “We don’t like other teams. We don’t do that [hook up with other team members]. That’s like fraternizing with the enemy,” says Brandon Lewis, CC ’13, and vice president of external affairs. The team members form familial bonds. “You live together, you work together, you travel together, we spend a lot of time together, so I think it’s a beautiful little family thing we form,” Lewis says. However, no Mockcest to date. Mock Trial’s motto, which they take very seriously, is “trust”: “It’s about trusting each other, trusting the team, and trusting the process,” says Lewis. And their motto has apparently been working out for them. “We’re the most successful competitive activity on Columbia’s campus. We took fourth in the nation last year, and it’s always our goal to be first,” Lewis says. Hear that, conquests of Brock?
Meanwhile, Debate and Model Congress may be minor-league players in the political clubs arena, but they still have their draws. Model Congress hosts an annual high school conference and meets to create model congress scenarios; however, they do not attend intercollegiate conferences because most colleges don’t have model congress teams, according to George Haines, CC ’12. And Congress-cest? Again, not quite CIRCA-status. “The level is actually probably pretty low... knowing us,” admits Haines. But what MC lacks in romantic intimacy, they make up for in intimate discussion. “Last year we held a congress-like discussion on the Columbia-Barnard relationship,” says Haines. On the benefits of joining a smaller club: “It’s a lot more intimate—people say what they think.” Even after a recent surge in membership, Debate is still on the smaller and less serious side of campus political clubs. “We’re kind of like The Breakfast Club,” says Ilana Rice, BC ’13. The club boasts members who are involved in Greek life and theater, and a few intense debaters who have been at it since high school.
Roberts electronically responds to Mock Trial’s claims to conference conservatism: “Well, to be quite frank, the profession of opposing counsel does not have the best reputation for truthfulness. I know first-hand of a number of foreign affairs embarked upon by members of the Mock Trial establishment. We diplomats know how to get what we want, and the lawyers, we know, will go to any length to construct their defense and manipulate the facts. MUN folks, I willingly confess, frequently engage in relations—international, foreign, and otherwise.” Case closed?
While the average Columbian boasts a casual Velvet Underground poster to show he’s in with the “old alternative” or maybe a classy picture of Pink Floyd albums on nude female backs, some live, breathe, and, yes, perform music. To start off, a cappella groups, a college rite-of-passage for many, wherein students will form lifelong kinship bonds, are actually quite exclusive. Prominent co-ed group the Clefhangers accepts three or four new members out of around 120 who try out every semester, according to Asad Syrkett-Muhammad, CC ’11. For being such an exclusive group, the Clefhangers air on the side of casual hang-outers, true to their name. And Clefcest? “Not of late,” says Syrkett-Muhammad.
In contrast, just forget to pronounce the last letter of the Columbia University Marching Band’s acronym CUMB to get a feel for the group’s sense of humor. An eclectic group of musicians and MISCies (members who don’t play formal instruments, but instead fill miscellaneous roles in the performance), CUMB members happily admit “the club is basically a social scene,” centered around two suites in Claremont and East Campus. And the band members’ bonds last after college in many cases—two former CUMB members recently tied the knot.
Postcrypt and Bacchanal require neither instrumental aptitude nor pitch, just a very college-appropriate obsession with folksy tunes and enough organizational skills to fill a stage. While Postcrypt Coffeehouse works on filling the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel every Saturday night with the latest soulful, long-haired acts, Bacchanal aims at bigger targets, booking the likes of Wiz Khalifa and Vampire Weekend for one epic student-life blowout. Postcrypt—which, according to Galen Boone, BC ‘13, is actually a major stop on the Northeastern folk underground—is happy with their low-key social scene. “It’s great when we get the board together because it always evolves into a late-night, early-morning folk circle, six guitars, laughter, love, and a lot of Dylan covers,” Boone describes. The nature of Bacchanal is high pressure, high payoff. Though the group doesn’t hang out a lot until the concert approaches, before that point, finding a theme can be an insta-bond activity. Let’s face it, we all knew something was up with “Chewbacchanal,” and it turns out we were right—it started as an inside joke theme from the previous semester that became an actual theme, says Cleo McGovern, BC ’12. And if getting to name the biggest campus student event of the year after a Wookie isn’t enough, Bacchanal members get backstage passes to all shows so they can rub shoulders with the stars.
And lastly, there’s WKCR and the students behind the radio channel. A tight-knit, radiophilic group of sleep-deprived students who know more about new music than you ever will and ever will want to, WKCR-ers bond over late nights in the studio, discussing vintage vinyl and their impressive list of musical guests. But don’t think they neglect other areas of fine culture: “As a group, we’re really into fine cheeses. Our advisor, known as HBA (health and beauty aid) is really into fine cheeses. This one kind has volcanic ash in it,” says Ellen Walkington, BC ’12 and publicity director of WKCR.
Comedy and Theater Clubs
Joining a Columbia comedy group promises many social benefits: most notably, the ability to speak fluently in food puns. Chowdah, a sketch-comedy group that performs semi-regularly throughout the semester, likes to theme their shows based on the nearest holiday. Last year’s Valentine’s Day spectacular featured a video segment wherein two members in dog costumes found love—and sex—in the park. Somehow, it made sense. “The Spec interviewed me when I got into Chowdah, and [the interviewer] said I wasn’t funny. Now look at me,” says co-president Nicholas Sanz-Gould, CC ’11. Members say that hooking up with members of other comedy groups at festivals is not unheard of, and that at Chowdah parties, “everyone gets drunk and sings ‘American Pie.’” They also like to eat fluffernutters.
Auditions for improv group Fruit Paunch are intense, but once you’re in, you get invited to the sickest parties. “That’s the point of this group,” says member Sarah Dooley, BC ’11. At a recent show at Harvard, Dooley played an interior decorator who covers the walls of her clients with the skins of little children. At that same show, members of improv groups from Columbia, Brown and Wesleyan somehow ended up in a hotel room together, forced to interact socially. They didn’t know what to do, so they started toasting to things. “To robots!” Soon, they started toasting to a member of a Harvard group. “To Graham!” And then, to his death. “When improv kids get drunk, they make cults and kill people,” says Adam May, CC ’11. “We’ll kill your family.”
It seems appropriate that the Varsity Show, which has been making fun of Columbia since the 19th century, is one of the oldest and most exclusive student-written theatrical productions on campus. Even more appropriate is its cast—a group of fiercely talented and, according to 2010 cast member Hillary Kritt, BC ’12, “crazy people who don’t want to have any free time.” Though these crazies sound like—and even play—your typical, overworked Columbia students, they’re anything but. Juggling classes with intense rehearsals that end well past every bedtime, life in the Varsity Show often blurs the line between art and reality. This confusion brings the cast closer together. How close? “If I told you,” says Kritt, “I’d have to kill you.” Here’s hoping the V-Show and Fruit Paunch never end up in the same hotel room.
Green and Outdoors Clubs
While many clubs at Columbia boast of “being like a family,” the one that cooks together and lives together probably resembles one the most, at least from the outside. GreenBorough, Columbia’s sustainable living special interest house on 114th Street, hosts a few extra-dedicated students each semester who’ve made a commitment to short showers, eating local, and the other tasks required to cut one’s carbon footprint. But does the pressure to minimize environmental impact drive out any greencest? Not exactly. “You know we’re not going to get pregnant, because we all know the biggest environmental impact you can have is having a baby,” says Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti, CC ’12 on green hot love.
A bit further down on the commitment scale, the Hiking Club takes Columbians out of the city for $5 per hike after the $15 joining fee. But those who just wish for the thrill of wearing headlamps don’t even have to leave Morningside: “Last semester we had a hiking-themed party, everyone wore headlamps and hiking boots,” says Robert Lachance, SEAS ’12. Backpacks, too, are on the hiking-gear fetish list. “My backpack is called Escape. That’s its name. Sometimes I give my backpacks names,” Lachance says. Two former members recently married, showing the persuasive power of a few trees to disarm a New Yorker’s senses and fall in love (with the trees, of course).
Anyone walking towards College Walk from Pupin Hall (that means you, physicists!) has seen the two small patches of land that face each other and are filled with the summer’s kale, chard, and sunflowers. The Garden Club, an offshoot of the Food Sustainability Project, is responsible for the care of the garden. Planting food on campus is a surprisingly bureaucratic process, involving more effort than a few hours of elbow grease each spring and harvest. So the members of FSP are tough. “We had to visit New York City Housing Authority headquarters and meet with head commissioner and give a two-hour presentation to build five little garden heads,” says Theo Di Castri, CC ’12. But their success in snipping through red tape has finally allowed them to do potlucks, Thanksgiving meals with locals and students, and play in dirt with worms, as was their goal: “We use their poop to grow things,” Mara Kravitz, GS ’12, says. “It’s dirty. We give the worms our leftover food. They’re called worm castings—really rich, especially in nitrogen.”
For the Students for Environmental and Economic Justice (or SEEJ), emailing their listserv is not just a necessary evil, but rather an excuse to exercise their poetic talents. “At the beginning of last year, I was supposed to send out a reminder and I wrote it out in haikus because I was bored and trying to procrastinate, and then for the next one I made it rhyme, and we stuck with it,” describes Zak Accuardi, SEAS ’11. SEEJ is completely non-hierarchical, so all new members enter with just as much say as seasoned members. “That’s [consensus is] really a way to make sure that everybody has a voice and everybody can be included. ... It’s a really welcoming atmosphere where people can get involved right away.”
Ethnic and Cultural Clubs
Two stereotypes about cultural clubs can pervade a typical Columbian’s mindset—that they’re just for food, and that they’re just for hooking up. In reality, many also aim to counter stereotypes—but then again, who is ever really opposed to food and hooking up? It’s common knowledge among Asian-American group frequenters that the Taiwanese American Student Association has the best food on campus, but president Richard Huang, CC ’12, says: we’re “hopefully using the culinary aspect of our culture to attract people so we can educate them.” Contrary to many perceptions, TASA is in no way a political organization—rather, their main purpose is to educate and spread Taiwanese culture.
The Chicano Caucus, Columbia’s Chicano student organization, has a little more of a political slant to its agenda. “We have a lot of arguments about how to define our political stance on things versus cultural,” says Abel Salgado, co-chair and CC ’12. “It’s a friendly mix of both.” He said they do place a lot of emphasis on discussions about political issues facing the Mexican-American community and community involvement in New York City. But for most students, Chicano Caucus is a place to reconnect with the household culture many of them grew up with from time to time at monthly potluck Masas. “They [students] come to get their fix of Mexican culture, food, talking about experiences with parents, ‘Oh, my Mom says this Spanish word this way, my Mom makes tortillas this way,’” says Salgado.
Columbia’s small Japanese student population doesn’t stop the Columbia Japan Society from spreading Japanese culture to the student body via cultural, academic, and culinary means. The 18-person board—an eclectic group of Japanophiles, several of whom are not actually Japanese—say they’re like a family. The club centers around hosting Matsuri, a Japanese street festival with stores, performances, and food on Low Steps. Similarly, the members of Turath, the Arabic students’ organization, are dedicated to spreading Arab culture and helping each other out in tough language classes. They frequently collaborate with a similar group at School of International and Public Affairs to spread Arab culture through picnics and free film screenings.
Just because some clubs in the far reaches of the Columbia social system don’t fit neatly into any category, doesn’t mean they don’t foster a sense of belonging among their members. When it comes to the Columbia University Science Fiction Society, space, in every sense of the word, is the force that binds this “catch-all geek” group together. With weekly meetings and more than 3,000 volumes (including a copy of Hamlet in Klingon) that make up the largest library of science fiction in the tri-state area, members launch into themed discussions that quickly transform Lerner club space into outer space. After meeting, the president, vice president, treasurer, and one other member all return home to the “geek suite,” which represents “the highest concentration of sci-fi/fantasy madness in Barnard or Columbia,” says vice president Suzanne Walker, BC ’12.
While the Sci-Fi club does function as a hub for anime fans, the Columbia University Anime Club, with whom it sometimes collaborates, is the true mother ship of manga and anime on campus. Open to anyone interested in anime and Japanese culture, the club hosts weekly anime screenings in Lerner; but, if you stick around after the show, you’ll realize it’s not over. “In practice,” says Rebecca Choudhury, CC ’11, twirling her Pikachu-shaped umbrella, “After we get kicked out of Lerner we go to someone’s suite and hang out.” Off-campus, members plan field trips to anime conventions, New York Japan Society events, and have been known to trek through sleet and snow to St. Mark’s in the name of a good ramen meal.
If you think the Anime kids are a mobile bunch, you should check out the Knickerbocker Club, Columbia’s motor sports warehouse. Twenty hours a week (which can turn into 60 as competition nears), members build race cars in the basement of Mudd, relying not only on their motor skills, but on the computer system they also build from scratch.
The Linguistics Society is an anomaly among the Columbia club scene, primarily because it functions less as a club and more as an unofficial academic department. Because Columbia doesn’t offer a major in linguistics, students who are passionate about the subject view the society, which meets for weekly dinners at Columbia Cottage, as a welcome alternative. Many members end up designing their own major, and almost all of them have studied, according to co-president Kayla Wieche, BC ’11, “a ton of languages.” And the personalized spirit of the society goes beyond the core members: Club events—which include lectures and panels on related topics—are open to all, and usually end with everyone dividing into intense group discussions.
Reporting was contributed by Amanda Cormier.
An earlier version of this article referred to SEEJ as the "Society for Environmental and Economic Justice." We apologize for the error.