Given the recent string of student deaths at Columbia, I, along with other shocked students, can't help but wonder if it is not our school itself that has fallen ill. This academic year, six students have died, and it is not yet February. As Dean Valentini's notification emails have gradually gotten more surreal, we have all grown more numb.
Time goes by fast at our school, and as I enter the second semester of my junior year, I look fondly on Columbia and the time I've had here. Yet times like these remind me of the underlying feeling that something is missing.
In the spring of my sophomore year, I had a typical semester for some Columbia students: I took five classes—none of which I could take pass/fail because they were all either in my major or in the Core Curriculum—directed a short play, acted in another production, and was the head of a student group. About halfway through the semester, I cracked from the constant stress, and after spring break, I withdrew from a course.
I thought I had learned my lesson. Last semester—fall of junior year—I cut back significantly on my workload. I didn't audition for any shows, and took four classes.
By November, I had little homework, and found myself, perhaps for the first time in my college career, with ample free time. I asked my friends to go out into the city with me: to go see a movie, or to skip homework for a comedy show downtown. But it turned out all of my friends were just as busy as I'd been the previous semester, and I found myself spending a lot of time alone.
"In 30 years," I'd ask my friends, "what will you remember: sitting in Butler on a Saturday afternoon, or getting lost in the North Woods of Central Park?"
Sure, they'd say, but everyone else is in Butler.
While each student has different experiences in college and different thresholds for workload and stress, I'm sure most, if not all, Columbia students have felt overwhelmed by their obligations at some point in college. We must each work to support each other on a human level, and take care of ourselves instead of fueling competition and stress. But Columbians can only do so much to change our University while it remains steeped in a culture of un-fun.
There is no doubt the War on Fun contributes to Columbia's often-stiff student life. As Columbia's traditions wane by the year, administrators find new excuses to interfere with undergraduate life. With Columbia's impenetrable bureaucracy in full force, it is rarely worth the effort to try to meet with a dean or administrator in person.
Although the administration always has excuses for its new policies, these justifications often prove hollow when looking at our peer institutions. At Yale, Reading Week is an actual week, and it includes ample time for student group performances and college-sponsored events, while ours is merely two days of stress and frantic meme-posting. At Brown, there is Spring Weekend, a multiday festival of concerts, while Columbia's Bacchanal is threatened and minimized each year. And at Princeton, the marching band barged into the library this year, free from an administrative muzzle.
Last semester, during finals, the Facebook group "columbia buy sell memes" served as a fun diversion for the student body. But it was jarring to see how many of the most popular memes were about stress and negativity.
Columbia students may take more classes than are required to graduate, and we might compete with each other more than students at other top universities do, but there is no doubt the state of student life perpetuates itself, beginning at the top. To make progress, administrators must open their doors to students—not just the ones in student government—and understand the symbolic meaning of something like Butler 209.
It is easy to blame our school's New York address for its failing spirit, but every time we are given the opportunity to leave, Columbia students are quick to stay on campus. The traditions we do have draw hundreds of students. The Tree Lighting Ceremony was packed this year, as usual. Just last semester, after the marching band was denied entrance to 209 for Orgo Night, students packed the entrance to Butler in frigid weather to support the band. And every fall and spring, Columbians encircle South Field, saddened by the red flags that keep us from lying under the sun.
Not only must the administration protect our existing traditions, it should consider adding new ones. One spring day, when I was a junior in high school, the school's principal unexpectedly announced that the next day would be Hopper Day—my school mascot was a grasshopper—and all classes would be cancelled, replaced with a barbecue and moon bounce. I initially thought Hopper Day was a bit juvenile, but in the years since, I've come to appreciate it.
Columbia needs a Hopper Day, or something like it. Students and administrators must work together to change our campus culture, bring fun back to Columbia, and make sure memes do not become our only school tradition.
The author is a junior in Columbia College studying history and religion. He is a former deputy news editor for Spectator and the co-head of Third Wheel Improv.
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