Written by Mary Marsh
Edited by Gavrielle Jacobovitz, Julian Shen-Berro
Illustration by Avigail Borah
Graphics by Isabel Wong
Nathan Farrell arrived at Columbia with a vivid picture of what his life would look like. Like many Columbia students, Farrell, now a sophomore in Columbia College, had been heavily involved in extracurriculars in high school—he founded and led an a cappella group (“The Passing Notes”), played saxophone, was a member of student government, and was a peer leadership mentor, all while maintaining his spot in the top 1 percent of the class. But still, Farrell felt like his life would only truly begin when he got to college, where he saw himself “hopping around in all of [his] passions.”
Impressed by the diversity and caliber of the a cappella group Notes and Keys at a performance during NSOP, Farrell decided that he wanted to join. “In all ways, I thought it would be an ideal sort of community to have,” he tells me over coffee in Butler Cafe. Farrell is a natural performer—he tells me that he likes being “adventurous and gutsy.” He says that music is what grounds him.
So Farrell auditioned for Notes and Keys. But he was rejected from the group, and he wasn’t the only one—Notes and Keys is notoriously selective. In this past audition cycle, according to its communications director, Arman Azad, Notes and Keys accepted just seven of the 121 applicants. That’s an acceptance rate of just above 5.8 percent—right around the admissions rate for Columbia itself. And admission numbers like these aren’t particularly unique for clubs at Columbia.
Columbia has no residential colleges, a minor Greek life presence (about 20 percent), and few physical community spaces—so how do we make sense of the 25,000 people who pass through our campus each day? How do we find each other? To many students, it seems, student groups fill in the gaps in our social fabric.
Many first-years just starting at Columbia hope college will be a time for growth, maybe even reinvention. The Pantone 290 Columbia brochures advertise 500+ student organizations. Under the summer sun of NSOP’s club fair, we scour the rows of tables, eager to find the group where we can distinguish ourselves from the masses of other first-years circling College Walk, to find “our people,” the ones we’ve been waiting for. The older students behind these tables promise that their organizations could be a home. Just sign up for our listserv, they might say, and all this could be yours.
But beyond their honeyed words, students face a much harsher reality: multistage application processes, panels of bored and weary interviewers, and auditions even before the end of course registration. A reality of “no prior experience necessary” meaning just the opposite, of clubs looking just like the industries they feed into, and of structural barriers to participation in Columbia’s most central social infrastructure. In a CCSC survey conducted in 2017, 62.7 percent of surveyed students said they had been rejected from extracurriculars.
While students at Columbia often look to the administration to fix campus issues, student groups are one area where the administration has little authority. These groups are almost exclusively organized and managed by students—a student executive board governs day-to-day functions of the club, funding is distributed through student-run activities boards, and mismanagement and internal conflict are largely adjudicated by peers. Administrators play an exclusively advisory role, except in cases of gender-based misconduct. Really, we’re left to ourselves.
Despite a hefty student activities fee that all undergraduates must pay, many student groups can be inaccessible to students, especially to those facing other barriers to inclusion in the campus community, such as General Studies, transfer, and historically underrepresented students. This reality exacerbates the sense of isolation that accompanies an already decentralized community, and although efforts have historically been made to change this culture of exclusivity, many have reached an impasse. Still, student group leaders, club members, and student council representatives continue to work towards solutions involving outreach, admissions, and representation within groups on campus to make our communities more welcoming to all.
A Collection of Small Communities
As a first-year, Aunoy Poddar applied to a host of clubs, including the executive board of Columbia Neuroscience Society and COӦP, the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program. He was rejected from all of them. So Poddar immersed himself in his classes and scientific research, but something still felt like it was missing. “I was by no means not a social person; I had friends,” he tells me, “but what happened was, there [were] a bunch of formals, events, bondings, that people had to go to to be a part of their communities, and if you’re not doing anything, you feel very left out and you feel very isolated.”
Poddar seriously considered transferring, and he eventually decided to try to graduate in three years. But he was nagged by the feeling that he would regret not getting involved, so in his sophomore spring, he cast his net again. This time, he was accepted onto the executive boards of Columbia Science Review and Club Zamana, a South Asian cultural group. “From there, a lot of things happened, because I started being a part of things, a part of a community. People cared about me, and a lot of that really gave me a base to do everything else,” he says.
Columbia is not, of course, the only school with exclusive student groups. Many of us have heard about Harvard’s final clubs, Yale’s secret societies, and Princeton’s eating clubs—institutions with a long history of prestige cultivated through exclusion. At many elite universities today, student groups of all kinds seem to have become impenetrable fortresses. At Harvard, the process of applying to student groups has its own special name, “comping,” a term whose origins are unknown but whose use is ubiquitous. In an interview with the Yale Herald, Yale senior Linus Lu observed, “The problem at an institution like Yale is that people want to find a way to feel elite among the elite.” At Columbia, it’s not completely unusual to have a renowned actor, a world chess champion, or a published author in your class, making you doubt your comparatively paltry qualifications.
But at other schools, there are other opportunities for community that don’t require an application. Yale, Harvard, and Princeton all have residential colleges, where students live, eat, and study with a smaller, tight-knit group of students over the course of several years. Although each first-year dorm at Columbia has its own identity, the communities within them become scattered after the first year. Columbia’s lack of physical space and proximity to the larger NYC community are also barriers to a unified Columbia, so involvement in student groups emerges as a primary source of community, many students and club leaders say. While rejection can be difficult to deal with for anyone, Farrell says the hardest part of his rejection was the reinforced sense of remoteness: “I didn’t have a lot of places on campus to really say that I had a community.”
In 2018, about a year after Poddar applied for clubs for the second time, he found himself thinking a lot about this dynamic of Columbia’s community: “[W]e are small niche groups of people, small communities,” Poddar says, “There’s no real stratification in a hierarchical sense. It’s all spread out.”
Student organizations, Poddar says, have a “unique combination of people who have similar interests, space—which is premium here—and money. There’s no other real way to have all those three things come together like in other places.”
Like Poddar, Emily Zhang, a Columbia College sophomore, felt isolated during her first year. She came in expecting something more like the college experience of movies: going to parties, becoming close with her suitemates, staying up and talking until 4 a.m. It’s different at Columbia, she says. The sources of community that worked for some people weren’t clicking for her. “When you’re [in] a big lecture, you don’t, like, make a billion friends,” she recounts. And living in a John Jay single at the very end of the hallway, she didn’t get to know many people in her dorm. She tried joining some clubs, but they seemed to focus more on “logistic-based” tasks like talking about finances than on community building.
She tried everything, she says. “I even became a tour guide, because when I hated the place, I was like, I want to be a tour guide to try to help myself appreciate it more.”
Meanwhile, her friends at other schools seemed to her to be thriving in their new environments. After months of looking inward to pinpoint a diagnosis, Zhang finally turned outward: “I was like, I am making no friends … what’s wrong with me? And then I was like, what’s wrong with this place?” She applied to transfer to another school and was accepted. She went back and forth until the day of the deadline. In the end, she decided to stay.
This year, she says, has been better so far, in part because she’s become more comfortable with being by herself. But, she also joined new groups, including theater and astronomy clubs. Zhang became a part of CU Players last spring and says that it has given her a sense of purpose. “It was so nice to have these familiar faces every day … And to just be with them not doing an academic thing … it was so refreshing from the rest of college,” she says.
Arman Azad has experienced a similar closeness in Notes and Keys, explaining that music groups “are these really, really tight-knit families, almost.” Jacob Kaplan, a member of Third Wheel Improv, the Kingsmen, and a writer for this year’s Varsity Show, says he’s found his closest friend groups through his extracurricular activities. Ricardo Jaramillo, a senior in Columbia College and the president of the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia says, “Some of my best friends from day one on this campus have been in Roosevelt and have been there for me when the going got tough.”
In a 2012 Spectator op-ed, James Yoon criticized “micro-communities,” where students self-segregate into “monolithic groups” of people like them in order to reaffirm their own importance. He argued that these groups can weaken a larger sense of community. In his 2013 op-ed “The Problem of Community,” Henry Willson challenges the subversion of micro-communities, writing that although not all students assimilate into clubs easily, the student body should encourage the growth of micro-communities “rather than to placate such students with a weaker substitute,” a more general community founded on attachment to the school.
The exclusivity of clubs on this campus—and even more broadly, the campus’s reputation for being solitary—is difficult to tackle, because a lot of the factors that contribute to our looming sense of isolation are also, to many, some of the university’s greatest strengths. Just think of the Quora and College Confidential threads you might have read in high school—where Columbia students are characterized along the lines of “depressed city-dwellers who lack school spirit and occupy their habitats in different parts of NYC.”
The fact that traditional sources of school spirit like sports teams are not a focus of our community may in fact draw prospective students. “What people really do rally behind here are things like Spec or a student theater or student government or whichever student group that they have here, because those are the things our students are most passionate about,” Columbia College junior David Ehmcke tells me. Ehmcke, for example, is the editor in chief of the Columbia Review, the University’s literary magazine, and is on the board of the CU Players, one of the oldest theater troupes on campus.
According to Poddar, this focused attention is why attempts at an “all-encompassing entire community-wide group” have failed—students’ identities on campus are tied to their interests, which tend to coincide with the “micro-communities” they belong to. “We don’t have residence colleges or eating clubs; we don’t have all those things that arbitrarily classify us into certain groups,” Poddar emphasizes, “And we develop our communities that way. We’re free to do whatever we want.”
But the autonomy of student groups is not without cost, Poddar is careful to note: “It also means that you have this responsibility to find ways to make your groups more inclusive, to find people who aren’t being involved, and help them get involved.”
The responsibility of setting the tone for clubs and organizations on campus often falls on student government—and this isn’t new. As far back as 1957, student government was using its power to address what it described as “the pervasive and chronic apathy of the Columbia community.”
Tony Lee, who became president of Columbia’s largest governing board, the Activities Board at Columbia, in 2013, speaks to me over the phone from Cambridge, where he is now a student at Harvard Law. He says he saw clubs as the heartbeat of Columbia’s social life and wanted to make their management smoother. Lee’s philosophy was to give clubs more autonomy, because they would know better than ABC how to run their own organization.
When I ask about student governing boards’ responsibility toward reducing club exclusivity, Lee seems surprised. He says that when he was at Columbia, the bigger concern was that clubs weren’t doing well enough. During his two years as president, several groups nearly lost recognition after being inactive in the previous years. “Part of me is sort of glad in the sense that this seems to be a better problem to have,” Lee tells me, pleased to hear that previously struggling groups are now thriving to the point that they have to turn people away.
This problem of exclusivity could be mistaken for an underclassman problem. Once we find our place on campus, that is, maybe we stop caring about how exclusivity affects others. It’s the age-old revolving door: Eventually, quickly, we graduate, and then who’s left to care for who comes next? Take a cappella for example—it’s clear, from admissions rates alone, that a cappella is very competitive, so you’d think that there would be a movement to form more groups on campus. But Jonathan Kapilian, the director of the A cappella Board at Columbia, which oversees auditions for all of the a cappella groups on campus, tells me that the number of a cappella groups has remained pretty stable over the last few years. From within one’s own community, it’s easy to think that an equilibrium of sorts has formed: that maybe the most interested students eventually make their way into the clubs they want to be in, and the other students will find something else.
With over 500 student groups on campus, after all, shouldn’t there be a place for everyone?
Didn't Get the Invite
Ehmcke isn’t so sure. He spent his first year at the University of Iowa, a massive university with an undergraduate student population of 24,503 spread out over Iowa City. Ehmcke felt “bored,” he says, as though students weren’t engaged in learning or the community. The opportunities presented by extracurriculars were a large factor in Ehmcke’s decision to come to Columbia. Because of the University of Iowa’s size, he tells me, “there’s less of an urgency to get involved on campus or less of an accessibility to even do that.” At Columbia, he hoped to have the opportunity to be around other students who were passionate about the same things as him.
But Columbia was “a rude awakening.” Yes, the engaged students he was looking for were here—but there was a distance between him and those students. Unlike many of the first-years, his feeling of separation wasn’t due to rejection: “I just didn’t go out for anything, because I felt very alienated by the campus at large.”
The day Ehmcke arrived on campus for the Transfer and Combined Plan Student Orientation Program, the first-years had already been there for a day. “It’s kind of like the party already happened. We didn’t get the invite,” he tells me. A Hamilton meme began circulating that transfer students were the Peggy—the third wheel of the Schuyler sister trio—of NSOP. He was placed in a Hartley suite with almost exclusively other transfers. Walking down College Walk at the club fair surrounded by hundreds of other students, Ehmcke felt invisible.
Wan Yii Lee, a senior in GS, told The Eye in 2017 that clubs look for younger students in order to have balanced proportions of students from each class. And for many transfer students, their first-semester social experiences are in part limited to other transfers; living in transfer-only suites, participating in their own NSOP. Word-of-mouth information on clubs is not as easy to come by.
But Ehmcke recognizes that his initial perception of clubs was perhaps skewed—now that he is in club leadership, he says, he doesn’t think of these clubs as purposefully closed off. But if transfer students feel like “communities don’t want their voice” because messaging isn’t angled toward them, this perception only perpetuates more insularity.
Selectivity is unavoidable, Ehmcke tells me—this is a competitive campus: “What is a cyclical problem is groups of students that are systemically underrepresented.” Students have spoken out in the past about the ways that Columbia’s community is fractured along lines like race, class, school, and previous experiences. These divisions between students on campus at large are replicated in our student groups.
For students in the School of General Studies, divisions between them and students of other undergraduate schools—an isolation that has been an perennial issue—are pronounced in extracurricular life. “A lot of GS students want to be a part of the broader Columbia community outside of GS. But there’s not many opportunities for that,” GS junior Giana Lozano, the Equity and Inclusion Chair of General Studies Student Council, tells me. “And clubs are kind of like one of the main resources for GS students to be more involved.”
Students in dual enrollment programs like JTS and Sciences Po “are able to very seamlessly integrate into the community,” says GS senior Raisa Flor, the president of GSSC. But for other GS students, clubs sometimes aren’t an option because, according to Lozano, “the life of a GS student is different from the life of a CC or a SEAS or a Barnard student.”
Meetings happen late at night, when students who commute have already left campus. While there are students who commute in all four schools, 72 percent of GS students do not live in college housing. And when I attend a GSSC general body meeting in February, a group of young children plays quietly in the corner while the room around them bustles with groups of students—their parents—discussing academics, financial aid, and student resources. “A student group who is fully inclusive of GS students would be [one] that would be comfortable with allowing a student parent to bring in one of their kids to a meeting,” Flor says.
Beyond these logistical challenges, the age difference between GS students and other undergraduates can make it difficult to bridge relations between the two—because as Lozano puts it, “what does a 27-year-old have in common with an 18-year-old?” The fellowship that student groups promote is more difficult to develop when differences between members are emphasized by an age barrier.
Of course, the experiences of GS students in clubs are not monolithic. For General Studies sophomore Zechariah Conner, the rugby club has been a strong source of community. “They’re super accepting. It’s like I really found my home,” Conner says.
Lozano is a member of Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, or CORE, where she works on a team with people from several undergraduate schools. “As soon as you enter that room,” she tells me, “the whole stereotypes and stigmas of each school kind of fades away, and everyone just is a CORE member. We're not a Barnard student anymore. We're not a GS student anymore. It just kind of blends,” Lozano says.
But the structures to make this a reality for more GS students are not quite in place. One of the biggest barriers to GS participation is outreach—not only to communicate the presence of these clubs, but to let GS students know that their presence and contribution to clubs is valued.
Those flyers that advertise various groups on campus under a SEAS, CC, or Barnard student’s door—which probably sit unattended to on a desk for weeks? GS students don’t get those. They often don’t live in dorms with posters up. “I don't even have access to [East Campus], so I'm not going through the dorm buildings and finding these flyers and learning about this group … I know the rugby team exists because they put flyers everywhere,” General Studies junior Eric Lunzer tells me.
And going online doesn’t always help much either. Lunzer had a previous career as a chef and wanted to join the Culinary Society when he started at Columbia. But their Facebook wasn’t updated, and an email to their account bounced. Eventually, he contacted an alumnus, who told him the group had been derecognized in 2016.
Club leadership is a crucial signifier of the club’s inclusivity and a step towards awareness of unique student needs. “It's really hard to find a GS student being in a student group's leadership. And I think that leads up to less GS students joining the group,” Flor tells me. “So for me, it's really like the moment that student groups have more GS leadership, then they're actually gonna have a say on the changes and the flexibility that we need to potentially add to the active recruitment of our student population.”
But beyond the mirroring of the already existing divisions on Columbia’s campus, clubs often reflect entrenched societal divisions as well, something that student group organizers are working to change.
For first-generation and low-income students, balancing the necessity of having a job with the commitment that clubs require can be difficult. Magdalen Kwarteng of the Barnard FGLI Board tells me that she’s questioned whether to share her employment commitment with clubs for fear of not getting in. And once students are in the club, hidden costs can add up: bus tickets to a competition for an academic club, new outfits for a dance group’s next performance, or late-night snacks after a long club meeting.
Azad, who also serves as co-coordinator of the health education organization Peer Health Exchange, said that he and the other coordinators have tried to be cognizant of these hidden costs. For example, they raise funds to pay for the subway fares to the schools they serve, “to make sure that people can get to their classes without having to pay for it.” Similarly, the dance group Orchesis has raised money to cover all costs of participation—costumes, meals, even snacks during rehearsal.
But beyond these tangible barriers, discomfort created by class differences has left some FGLI students feeling distanced from clubs—and the students in them—on campus. CC first-year Yasna Vismale felt this distance in even her first interviews for finance clubs on campus. “Not only did I struggle with comprehending the vocabulary associated with finance,” she writes in a Spec op-ed, “I also did not understand the structure or unspoken rules of how to be interviewed by the groups themselves.”
Michelle Yan, a junior in Columbia College and member of Lion Fund, begins our conversation by explaining the difference between exclusivity and accessibility. “We are very selective in the members that we choose. But we are selective based on intellectual merit and demonstrated interest.” Recalling claims of inaccessibility for low-income students, she says, “That is not how we want to be exclusive.”
Lion Fund, one of Columbia’s student-run investment funds, is known for its selectivity, accepting only 15 out of 220 applicants this year, according to Michael Bulkin, a junior at Columbia College and Lion Fund’s former director of investor relations. But concerns have been raised about lack of diversity within the group, particularly its gender disparity. Bulkin attributes this disparity to the applicant pool, but notes there’s room for improvement.
This is not limited to Lion Fund, Yan tells me, but rather is representative of the finance industry as a whole. She recognizes how this lack of representation can be discouraging to applicants. “[The other members] have been very supportive, but it can sometimes feel alienating not to see like a potential mentor or someone that looks like me,” she tells me.
So, in the last application cycle, Yan and other members of Lion Fund have made an effort to reach out to women, particularly women of color, to encourage them to apply. Lion Fund held a diversity recruiting panel in the fall, and some of the attendees from the event have met with members of the club to discuss their candidacy. As the first student investment fund on campus, Lion Fund was a pioneer, and Yan thinks they could continue as “pioneers of equal representation and then bring in this new generation of diverse leaders in the industry.”
Application Development Initiative, a group centered around computer science, another traditionally majority white and male-dominated field, is also taking steps to make their organization, and the industry as a whole, more accessible. “In the past, there hasn’t been a lot of representation of underrepresented people in the club,” SEAS junior and ADI committee member Melanie Sawyer tells me. She highlights reaching out to people of color and students from high schools where computer science wasn’t offered. Over the past few years, they’ve tried to improve representation of these two groups in the club by holding events promoting diversity in computer science, like mixers and lunches with professors, and by focusing their efforts around education and community rather than more technical projects—which can be prohibitive to those who haven’t had previous experience in coding.
But issues of accessibility extend far beyond pre-professional organizations. “Student theater on this campus is an incredibly white space,” Asya Sagnak, a Barnard senior and the director of King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe’s spring show tells me. It’s an institutional thing, she says. “That's difficult because even if you put posters out there, there are people who think they're not going to be able to have access to a thing that everybody should be able to have access to.”
Sagnak and the board hope to dismantle this long-standing stigma by making ‘a role for everyone’ one of the spring show’s primary selling points. Ehmcke, who is on the board of the theater group CU Players, adds that “if your group is invested in being inclusive, you need to be invested in the kind of voices that you want to see in your community.” Ehmcke notes that before you can have diverse leadership, you must have a diverse pool from which to draw leaders.
But the same strategies that make clubs more accessible for underrepresented students expand the application pool, meaning that more students will be rejected. Ehmcke acknowledges that outreach may influence admissions rates—extending outreach seems counterproductive when clubs already turn so many away. Third Wheel has seen this result as well, Kaplan tells me: Third Wheel’s expansive outreach has contributed to the group’s selectivity.
But as club leaders weigh these factors, some have found that the stakes of inaccessibility are just too high. Sawyer says that there have been accusations from past applicants of engaging in “affirmative action” because several of the limited spots in the committee have gone to minority students. Sawyer denies the claim that students were admitted based on identity, but says that ADI will continue to strive for a diverse membership—that they “would rather promote inclusivity in the club and have people who aren't into that not be in the club.”
But this dilemma assumes that students must vie for a fixed number of spots, that applicants’ numbers may grow, but admitted students’ can’t. The solution to this seems simple: Make clubs more inclusive by letting more students in. But, as some students and club leaders say, it really isn’t.
A Tight-Knit Community
When Cohen arrived on Columbia’s campus in the fall, she did “the freshman thing” and applied to a bunch of student groups. She thought she was being realistic about her chances—it wasn’t as though she expected to get into every club. Although she was a dancer, she didn’t apply to Columbia Ballet Collaborative. “They're all, like, professional ballet dancers,” she tells me in the lounge of Barnard’s Reid Hall. But despite her own pre-screening, the next week, she got a slew of rejection letters, “one after the other.” What stung the most, though, was her rejection from the Asian American Alliance. It seemed ironic to her: “The goal is to make people feel like they have a community and they feel included.” And as an adoptee with a complicated relationship to her Asian identity, the rejection brought up old insecurities.
A couple months later, Cohen published an op-ed in Spectator about her experience. In it, she writes about the consequences of rejection from identity-based clubs—students who already feel marginalized as a result of their identity may “also feel ostracized from the community that claims to celebrate them.”
One day, shortly after the article was published, Cohen received a message from the former president of the Asian American Alliance. Cohen tells me that their conversation added a new angle to her view of clubs. It shed light on some of the challenges club leaders face in making their groups more inclusive, some of which seem manageable, and others of which are ingrained in the nature of clubs themselves.
For groups that have specific requirements for the space they use, finding physical space to meet can be difficult. Onyx has had to resort to using the reflections from glass windows at night as makeshift mirrors because no practice rooms with real mirrors were available, Semira Brown, a Columbia College junior and Onyx’s president, tells me.
The larger the organization, the harder it can be to find the proper space. Many of the studio spaces on campus are too small for a large rehearsal group, says Gianna Raimo, a Barnard sophomore and the executive chair of Orchesis, so they must negotiate with other dance groups for time in the studio or resort to odd rehearsal hours.
But many student group leaders tell me they’ve been able to overcome limited physical space: The biggest challenge to inclusivity, according to these leaders, might just be in the nature of the activity itself. A cappella by its very arrangement calls for a small group—maybe a dozen college students standing in one spotlight, maybe in matching outfits, their voices melding to form one cohesive harmony.
Improv groups face a similar problem. Third Wheel, which was originally formed by students rejected by other improv groups as a more inclusive alternative, has a group of eight to ten members, depending on the year. That means that of an estimated 70 people who audition each year, Third Wheel can only take three to four new members.
Other logistical challenges also limit club sizes. Azad tells me that there are logistical limits to the group’s activities, which involve teaching health workshops to high school students. “There is a limited number of classrooms that the organization has been able to partner with, so there's only a certain number of actual classrooms that we can go and teach in,” Azad says.
Blanket inclusivity doesn’t come without a cost—it can be difficult to make a community of 200 people feel cohesive. Each Orchesis show involves between 140 and 180 dancers, split up between 13 to 15 pieces. The broader community building mostly happens outside of rehearsals at a few social events. At Onyx, however, community can emerge organically from their small size. This tight-knit nature is so foundational to Onyx that there is a maximum size enshrined in the club’s constitution.
It seems simple, then—can’t we just create more small groups that foster close bonds between members? But forming multiple similar groups is actually forbidden by the ABC rules for new group recognition—a new group must “not duplicate the function and/or stated purpose of any other ABC organization.” Tony Lee attributes this to limited resources—the creation of new groups means the allocations for all other groups shrink.
Kayla Streiber, a Barnard sophomore who wrote an editorial piece about being rejected from theater groups last year and was then cast in the Varsity Show in the spring, tells me this tight-knit community is present in theater as well. “Once you're in it, like, especially the theater community, I feel like you're in it ... but it's just hard to get your foot in the door.”
Though many clubs do maintain general bodies, the opportunity for contribution as a member doesn’t always feel particularly significant. Though she was rejected from the e-board, Cohen has attended some of Asian American Alliance’s events, but she says they don’t necessarily provide the connection she initially sought.
Melanie Sawyer from ADI tells me they tried having general body meetings, but that they were under-attended. The biggest challenge, she says, is engaging people to stay and keep coming “even if they don't have the title of being on committee.”
This is to say, ‘inclusivity’ is not always the answer to exclusivity; the two aren’t always mutually inclusive. So if creating an ‘inclusive’ general body isn’t enough to combat insularity, what is?
Jaramillo from Roosevelt Institute tells me that the challenge is widespread—“It's part of this whole ‘must accomplish things’ mentality that's like ‘if I'm not on board, why am I spending time with this group?’”
Student groups have tried to get around this need for validation in other ways, to mixed success. Despite the low admission rates into the group itself, Kaplan explains, Third Wheel continues to strive for inclusivity by opening up one of their four rehearsal hours per week, maintaining the small structure of the group but still allowing broad access to improv. But Kaplan acknowledges that this model doesn’t appeal to everyone. “We can’t force people to come. It has to be on them. But it's there,” he says.
After thinking about the nature of Columbia’s community, Poddar wanted to use his conclusions to help other isolated students find their place on campus. He and fellow student Austin Horn, who was also the sports editor for Spectator’s 141st Managing Board, started an initiative called CU@Home, which aims to connect students with groups that will suit their needs and interests and help them put their best foot forward during the application process.
In a 2017 op-ed, Adam Resheff, a Columbia College senior and CCSC Vice President of Finance argues, “if a group isn’t giving people the opportunity to participate on some level, however minimal, while still respecting its need to operate at its best, then students aren’t getting what they paid for, and that is where CCSC needs to draw the line.” In March 2018, Columbia College Student Council amended its constitution to increase the responsibilities of the VP of Finance. The new duties include evaluating the inclusivity of student groups and “rewarding” groups that have shown commitment to inclusion. However, this change does not affect the activities boards, who are responsible for the direct funding of student organizations. Resheff did not respond to a request for comment.
Student organizations cannot be all things to all people—some groups will by nature attract certain people more than others, especially where the group centers around a shared identity. But for many, accessibility is still a goal; and though it is too soon to say whether these fledgling efforts will be enough to make a lasting change, the effort continues.
Cohen has gotten involved with an adoption group downtown and with a casual book club at Barnard. She says that more recently, rejection from clubs “hasn't really crossed my mind on a day to day basis.” She understands the restrictions that clubs face, and is quick to recognize those restrictions in our conversation.
But even so, she still hopes that she’ll find a group that feels like home, the kind that she had imagined, the kind that her friends at other schools seem to have. “I would love to feel like I was part of something,” she tells me. “Everyone wants that tight-knit community.”
After being rejected from Notes and Keys, Farrell got involved with other musical groups on campus. But he was still interested in Notes and Keys, so he auditioned again at the beginning of sophomore year. This time he was admitted. When I ask him if, given the choice, he would be admitted to Notes and Keys right away instead of in his second semester, he is conflicted. He says that he values the organizations that he was involved with in first semester because he met a lot of student musicians that he wouldn’t have otherwise. But when thinking on his experience with Notes and Keys, he says, “having that community, it immediately just hits you.”
Enjoy leafing through our fifth issue!