In high school I had a teacher, Ted Munter, who taught me to ask the question: What is “art”? As I expressed interest in literature and becoming a writer, Ted exposed me to authors of contemporary fiction whose prose attempted something beyond the simple story. At the time, their intentions were beyond me. My exposure to these writers, and to Ted’s advice to “write about what it means to be 18” whenever I hit writer’s block, put into my head a notion that I maintain today: I should create art by contextualizing my experiences.
During my sophomore year at Columbia, I stayed in contact with Ted as he organized a website to which various college students submitted comics. For about half a year, these comics documented what life was like for students across the country as I and other graduates from the same high school submitted short cartoons. The subjects ranged from homework woes to campus life, and though the cartoons felt trivial, the small collection of student comics that grew each week embodied Ted’s advice to write “what it means to be you.”
The website withered away some time in February as we all fought to keep up with submissions while juggling schoolwork. But Ted’s project forced me—a transfer student struggling at a new school with a debilitating culture of stress—to consider who I was and who I was becoming. As a sophomore, I felt lost compared to my younger self who, when applying to high schools years before, had known quite clearly who he was and who he wanted to become: In one essay, I envisioned my future self as a cash-strapped writer and editor for the New Yorker, delivering pizzas for V&T on the side.
My young, naïve, and romanticized view of living in New York was a product of my dream to attend Columbia—a dream I had had since I was 12. I had walked down College Walk, experiencing the sense of wonder and awe at the imposing façade of Low Library and the near enshrinement of Butler Library (boy, was I wrong on that one)—feelings that I’m sure made it into more than half the Common App essays for this year’s incoming freshman class.
Before I started at Columbia, I had applied as a high school senior only to be waitlisted. Instead of coming to Columbia, I attended the George Washington University for a year. It took a year of growth and luck to transfer here, to an institution I had always believed embodied the quintessential college education. Yet, with one concrete goal accomplished, I was still a drifting history major without even a thematic, periodic, or geographical focus. The pressure of ambition, accomplishment and preprofessionalism started to suppress the intellectual curiosity and wonder that had always so marvelously gripped me whenever I walked onto campus. Columbia became a vague collection of weeks holed up in Butler 209 to slave away at readings and essays without the slightest clue about their purpose for some future goal in life.
As Ted’s website lapsed, I began writing comics for Spectator. These comics became an outlet for my frustrations and confusion, a way of describing what it meant to be 20, what it meant to be a college student, and what it meant to be at Columbia, because I sure as hell didn’t know any of these things when, as a sophomore repeating orientation for the second year in a row, I was thrown into the thick of things here in Morningside Heights.
Speaking with Alma Mater and putting campus quirks and financial woes into single-panel comics are my means of self-reflection. At some time in the future, these comics will allow me to look back on who I was, to answer new questions: What were the problems I faced from age 20 to 22? What was I concerned about? What were the ideas, the philosophies, the works of art, and the literature that were shaping me? Who did I set out to be? And most importantly: Did I succeed?
As for now, as someone who feels wholly lost in the hyperactive pace of a preprofessional culture I cannot relate to, these cartoons are a way of rooting myself to Columbia. This is my way of leaving an artifact of my time here, of contributing to Columbia’s student discourse and its history, whether through tongue-in-cheek pokes at Columbia’s culture, or through serious considerations of who I am and who I want to become. My cartoons may be rough and unpolished, but they’re my way of making “art.”