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This article is part two in a two-part series about community at Columbia. Read part one of the series here.

Administrators and student leaders hope to take action to address what many students see as a lack of community on Columbia's campus—but there are still many opinions on what those actions should be.

Columbia College Dean James Valentini, who has told Spectator he doesn't understand the source of this problem, has said he would like to see specific recommendations for how to build a more communal environment at Columbia.

University Senator Jared Odessky, CC '15, said that the senate's Quality of Life survey could act as the feedback mechanism Valentini is looking for. This year's Columbia College Student Council has not taken major action toward building community so far, but CCSC President Daphne Chen, CC '14, said she would potentially be interested in creating the kind of report Valentini has requested.

"We're open to floating the idea out and seeing if students come up with anything. We have a sort of intuition about how the community works here because we're students here," she said. A report "would be good background for a dean or an administrator to have."

The question is how to implement student suggestions on the administrative side. This discussion tends to surround space, student groups, and school spirit.

A question of space

The "lack of space" is a complaint commonly heard around campus—whether it's for club meetings, study groups, or just friends hanging out. With lounge areas scattered across campus, student leaders say there's no single place to congregate.

"If we cannot increase the space we have, maybe using the space better," is the best alternative, said Siddhant Bhatt, SEAS '14, and president of the Engineering Student Council.

Chen said that recent CCSC initiatives, like adding study spaces in Lerner and restoring undergraduate access to Watson Library, will give students more places to gather. The changes to Lerner in particular, she said, will make the student center "a fun and healthy study hall" during finals, with coffee carts, a ping-pong table, and more group study space.

"It's so hard to have one place to be students together. A lot of community can be found just by creating spaces to mingle. We see Lerner as a place that hasn't been doing that so far," Chen said. "It should be a place that says ‘stay a while'—where you should be able to see your art on the stairwells, paint on the cinderblock, run into people you wouldn't meet normally."

Bhatt said groups should use communal spaces like Low Plaza, and that South Lawn—where red flags flutter for far too much of the year—should be open more often. He suggested setting up a sound system on Low so the plaza could also be used as a live music venue. This year was the first year the Homecoming pep rally was brought out of Dodge and onto Low Plaza.

Odessky noted that lack of meeting space can negatively impact a sense of community even within residence halls.

"I live on a quiet floor in Broadway, and the lack of a real lounge—which you have the luxury of at other more spacious schools—is completely what drives the quietness of the floor, not the personalities of the residents," he said.

However, Odessky added that it is up to students to make sure space is better managed in future.

"The opening up of Manhattanville provides an opportunity for undergrads to articulate our space needs, so that when new buildings open up we can take advantage of that space," he said.


With few common spaces to congregate, students say they often find a sense of belonging in "micro-communities"­—of friend groups, student clubs, or other campus organizations.

Dan Ocampo, CC '17, said the existence of smaller groups doesn't stop him from feeling part of a larger campus community.

"Micro-communities are an inevitability," he said. "If I felt like I was sitting here without a sense of belonging to the same thing [the larger community], I wouldn't like it, but that's not the case."

Seffi Kogen, GS/JTS '14 and president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, said he thinks smaller groups can act as bridges to larger communities.

"The number of undergrads we have is too big for anyone to handle on their own. The natural way to tap in to such a large social network is to find an entry point. I don't see it as a negative partitioning. I see it a necessity to make your world smaller," he said.

"Forming a community will always be through shared interests," he said. "Whether that be racial, cultural, religious, intellectual we do all of those in Hillel."

Odessky agreed that smaller communities can be beneficial, but he thinks the University needs to make an effort to unite in a larger sense.

"I think micro-communities exist. The issue is I don't think they exist for everyone, and that's a big, big thing. If you happen to join a club that has a tight-knit community in itself, that's fantastic and we should be encouraging that," Odessky said. "At the same time, not everyone gets that right away, so we need to have a support network when that doesn't exist—one that needs to be facilitated by community policies from the top."

Students have long suggested that the New Student Orientation Program could be more effective in building community among first-years, a point that was reiterated in last semester's Student Wellness Project report.

"I remember feeling overwhelmed during NSOP," Michael Alvarez, CC '17, said. "When I got here, I felt cliques had been formed, and I felt bad for kids that didn't have that."


At many universities, school spirit fuels community-building, but some say that's not the case at Columbia. Amanda Tipton, SEAS '14, who is from Texas, said the lack of enthusiasm around sports is an issue.

"We don't have a big football thing. I think that takes away from our spirit and our community," she said.

On the other hand, some students feel that spirit is just one factor that can contribute to community.

"There's a subtle difference between community and spirit, the whole 'rah rah' thing," Chen said. "When I personally think about community, I think of it as feeling a sense of belonging even amongst strangers or even in a crowd. I don't think CCSC will ever be able to create community, but what we can do is facilitate the events and the discussions around which community ends up forming."

Kogen agreed with Chen, saying he sees Columbia's spirit manifest itself in ways other than attendance at football games and pep rallies. He noted, however, that many Columbia traditions that involve spirit or community are responses to stress, including Primal Scream, Orgo Night, Midnight Breakfast, and the Butler Plaza pillow fight.

"Those are ways to deal with lots of stress and negative energy. How can we find an opportunity for the community to come together in a positive way, to bask in each other's warmth?" he asked.

To this end, CCSC is unveiling a new spirit campaign within the next few weeks called "I Am Light Blue."

"We're thinking about it from the angle that there is community at Columbia, and it might not look like it does at other schools with massive crowds at football games, but you find it in the nooks and crannies, in unusual places," Chen said.

The program aims to "bring together student groups that would never otherwise interact" and profile "students, faculty, and administrators who break stereotype" through a video series, Chen said. "And then, of course, lots of T-shirt giveaways."

Tipton, wearing an Engineering Week shirt, said she thinks a spirit campaign is a good idea.

"It helps to feel more like part of your class, being together in one spot with your friends outside class," she said, adding that she expects the 150th anniversary of the School of Engineering and Applied Science to be an occasion for more such events.

For some, Columbia students' lack of traditional spirit can foster its own type of community.

"I feel a lot of the communal bond is collective cynicism and hating on Columbia," Ian Trueger, CC '16, said.

Ocampo, who is from the United Kingdom, said he is glad Columbia doesn't have the same type of sports-centric social life that many American schools do.

"English people tend to be quite cynical. I was cynical about frat culture. When I see Instagram pictures of Homecoming at UVA, to me, I don't get it. It's not something I'm attracted to," he said.

Alvarez said Columbia's lack of community does not concern him much.

"When I was applying to colleges, I felt community was a buzzword that was thrown around," he said. "I think a lack of community here is a positive thing—to me, it's independence. It's fine if you go home for Homecoming."

Still others suggest the problem lies in Columbia's urban location.

"Other schools make a community by being isolated together, but ours is integrated into Morningside Heights, Upper Manhattan, and New York," Ocampo said. "It's nicer to have a sense of community that isn't so exclusive."

This article is part two in a two-part series about community at Columbia. Read part one of the series here.  |  @ColumbiaSpec

Columbia Community James Valentini Columbia College Student Council Hillel Engineering Student Council
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