College can be a lonely time. What with parties, classes, extracurriculars, and social drama, college often disorients more students than it comforts. However, few students feel comfortable admitting their own loneliness to themselves, let alone to anyone else.This sense of alienation seems greater among Columbia students than among students at peer institutions. Is it due to Columbia's location on the most crowded island in the world? Or is it merely the stressful environment of a highly competitive Ivy League institution?
According to Andrew Chung, CC '07, many people apply to Columbia expecting to achieve the independence commonly associated with New York. "At Columbia, you have the options of who you want to hang out with, the places you want go to, and really the kind of person you want to be," Chung said. "The flipside of that independence is that sometimes you might find yourself standing by yourself."
The roots of the problem lie in the University's most basic structures, most notably the housing system.
Whereas Columbia offers housing based on randomly generated numbers, other Ivies have instituted undergraduate housing programs that aim to foster community. At Princeton, all first- and second-years are assigned to one of five "residential colleges" with their own respective deans, advisers, dining halls, and libraries. Yale's residential college system keeps students in the same college from sophomore to senior year. Harvard's "house system" has a similar mission of preserving connections between students throughout their four years.
Columbia College Student Council Sophomore Class President Wayne Ting, CC '06, agreed that Columbia's housing system accounts for much of the loneliness experienced by Columbia students. He said that while the University succeeds at fostering community among first-years thanks largely to the proximity of first-year dorms, that sense of community disappears in later years.
"The sophomore slump arises because of the lack of community," Ting said. "[Friends] are not seeing each other regularly. ... Columbia hasn't done enough." Ting proposed the idea of sophomore clusters--grouping a few sophomore dorms close together to maintain the tighter-knit atmosphere of first-year dorms.
Ting also cited the shortcomings of Alfred Lerner Hall, Columbia's student center, as contributing to the lack of community. He said that currently most students use Lerner Hall only as a mail center, unlike the student centers at other universities where students actually hang out together.
In addition to its facilities, Columbia's location may make it a more alienating place than peer institutions. Chung referred to friends at Dartmouth who claim that their experience on a rural campus is that of a close-knit academic community. Chung contrasts that with the decentralized nature of Columbia and its urban environment.
In recognition of the school's potentially alienating atmosphere, Columbia has a series of programs and departments devoted to addressing student concerns. In January, Counseling and Psychological Services, based in the eighth floor of Lerner Hall, added a third satellite counseling office in East Campus. This office, along with two others in Carman and Wallach Halls, are intended for walk-in and off-hour counseling, helping students avoid the complications of arranging an appointment at the main office.
Student use of CPS has risen in the past decade--a trend that perhaps reflects the increase in suicide among young people ages 15 to 25 in the U.S. population. Similarly, a Kansas State University study completed in 2001 reported that colleges across the country have seen the amount of depressed students double and the number of students who have thought about suicide triple since the study began in 1989.
Alice!, Columbia's health education program, provides students with information concerning everything from time management to drug abuse in the form of information cards. The program's Go Ask Alice! Web site receives nearly 1,500 questions submitted weekly and handpicks questions to answer, according to the site.
Some students doubt the effectiveness of these programs. Mikasha Edwards-White, CC '07, said that although CPS does help, the service is unable to help each individual effectively due to the large population it serves.
"I think they think in such general terms that they don't see the individual student anymore, they just see the classic Columbia student," Edwards-White said. "They don't recognize the differences. I have friends who use [CPS], and others who don't, but honestly they find it better to talk to me."
Other universities have instituted similar mental health programs in hopes of alleviating students' feelings of alienation. However, students with apparently lesser psychological problems often have trouble finding help. Munia Jabbar, Harvard '06, called Harvard's psychological help programs "terrible." "They only do something when someone commits suicide," she said.
Indeed, students with issues that are less immediately dangerous, such as loneliness, sometimes have trouble finding on-campus outlets. Columbia's Nightline program has started to address a range of student concerns while allowing them to maintain anonymity. "Whatever you want to talk about, we will listen and provide non-judgmental support [and help you explore your options]," according to the Web site. Part of Nightline's purpose is to shirk stigma in seeking help and to refer those who need it to CPS.
Columbia is not lagging behind in providing counseling and psychological services compared to other campuses, nor is it leading the way. Few schools provide ideal services, but the loneliness epidemic at Columbia--a problem that by its very nature shuns the spotlight--demands special attention. In the debate over psychological needs at academic institutions, it is important to remember that some of the most urgent problems lie below the surface of student life.