Sitting cross-legged on towels and setting up picnic-like spreads, students came out in droves to watch the live broadcast of the ServiceNation event from Low Library's steps.
At a school where not many attend sports events or can recite the words of the fight song, the packed Low Plaza was a rare show of Columbia spirit. Public Safety estimated 7,500 students flooded the center of campus to see and hear presidential candidates Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), CC '83. The jam-packed area was perhaps the most prominent illustration of the upcoming election's significance.
"The turnout speaks to the character of the Columbia student being really passionate about politics, about service," said Sarah Besnoff, BC '09 and Student Government Association president. "This was sort of a perfect event to have at Columbia, and the student turnout certainly speaks to that."
Radost Stanimirova, BC '12, said she felt more inspired by Columbia's unity than what the candidates had to say. "This was the first time I felt I was part of the community," she said.
To tie in with the theme of public service, the student governments of the four undergraduate schools collaborated with a number of student groups to line up a series of pre-event tabling and speakers. The line-up included Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, a national service program that recruits top-tier college graduates for struggling schools. It also included Barnard Provost Elizabeth Boylan and General Studies Student Council President Brody Berg.
A handful of students dressed in black held up banners with messages: "Peace is the best service" and "War is terrorism."
One of the protesters, Olivia Rosane, BC '09, said the group wanted to "call attention to the fact that there is a war going on."
"I would be almost relinquishing my duties as a democratic citizen if I did not express my opposition to the war," she said. Rosane added that the students wanted to make a point that the event was still political even if the candidates agreed to halt attacks for the day.
The live broadcast on the JumboTron began with a shaky start. The sound did not work until after University President Lee Bollinger concluded his opening remarks and when Governor David Paterson, CC '77, was several minutes into his introduction. The screen flashed on and off, drawing boos and cheers with each blip.
"I thought it was pretty unacceptable that the screen kept going in and out," Isabel Teitler, CC '09, said.
The broadcast stabilized, for the most part, once McCain began his conversation with the moderators.
During the question and answer sessions with the senators, students' strong sway toward Obama was evident. Many gave him a standing ovation when he walked onto the stage and hoots could be heard when he referred to his alma mater.
James Weng, SEAS '12, said the forum was made more meaningful because of the Columbia link, even given Obama's well-known reticence to discuss his time at the University.
"If he [Obama] doesn't feel that connection to here, that's ok," Weng said. "But we can still feel a great sense of pride ... to think that our college is being represented in this election."
Even with the theme of national service, political undertones were clear, Teachers College student Chris Foster said. "I believe they brought a lot more of their political platform into it," he said. "More than I expected."
Toward the end of the forum, students began gathering at the fencing along College Walk. Senior Public Affairs Officer Tanya Domi said employees set up fencing because they thought Obama was going to speak to the crowd. But an announcement on the loudspeaker soon after the end of the forum told the pack of students that both senators had already left.
But across an audience of Obama buttons and textbook-filled backpacks, a mix of people from Columbia's numerous schools and social groups expressed excitement for having prime seats for a national event.
"It's not like Barack Obama and John McCain can hear you clap, but you're really near it and you can feel like you're a part of it." Courtney Loftin, CC '11, said. "You can look and think, damn, they're right in there."
Laura Schreiber, Mary Kohlmann, and Lien Hoang contributed to this story.