Last spring, while campaigning for student council, I went to River Hall for the first time. It was a weekday evening, but on a floor of 22 singles, only four or five residents opened their doors to me. I knocked on more than 2,000 doors in Columbia dorms that semester, and what I found was a great divide—a schism down the middle of our student body that creates two separate Columbias.
Students in quieter dorms—usually buildings with more singles, such as Schapiro, Broadway, River, and Wien—tended to be less interested in having a conversation with me than those I met in dorms like Carman, McBain, and East Campus.
This contrast is something I have experienced throughout my own adventures with Columbia housing, which has made me think more about the problem and how we can fix it. My freshman year, I lived in Carman and loved it. I relished how outgoing students were, and how, by the end of the year, I grew to know or at least recognize many of my fellow residents. I wanted to live in McBain my sophomore year to repeat the Carman experience, but my roommate and I drew a bad lottery number, so we lived in Schapiro. Nearly all of my friends lived in McBain, where they routinely stopped into each others’ rooms to hang out with old and new friends. Meanwhile, no one in Schapiro made much of an effort to get to know me—and I didn’t reach out to many of them, either. The floor was usually silent and had a faint septic smell that reminded me of an emergency room. Miserable with my living situation, I tried to stay away from my room for everything except sleep.
After three years here, I often get the feeling that I know many people on campus simply because there are familiar faces wherever I turn. But the reality is that I know relatively few of my classmates. At Columbia, we tend to do a poor job interacting with those who don’t run in our social circles.
Perhaps our hesitance to branch out stems from a particular brand of collegiate loneliness: isolation. This feeling can stem from many things—school stress, moving away from family, having to make new best friends. Even before my student council campaign, I’d known that there are Columbia students who are profoundly unhappy. College is many students’ first time away from home, and being thrust into the middle of New York City amplifies the jolt of having to establish oneself in a new place.
For some people, living alone provides an oasis, a place to escape to when Columbia becomes overwhelming. However, the beginning of college is inherently lonely, and living in a single adds to the time students spend by themselves. At Barnard, most first-year students live in doubles or triples, while at Columbia, many new students live in singles in John Jay or Furnald. Perhaps it would be better if Columbia first-years, too, did not live alone.
Although many students here suffer from the inherent solitude of living in New York, there are small steps both students and administrators can take to foster community at Columbia. Loneliness within the Columbia student body is more than just a problem of not meeting our classmates or signing up for extracurriculars; it is about caring for one another.
If we want to build a sense of community, a good first step might be to get to know a wider cross-section of our school. Those students who are more naturally outgoing should reach out to students outside of their social circles, and all of us should try meeting new people—even after freshman year. Too many of us make our friends during our first two semesters and then ignore the new people we meet in our CC class. It’s up to us to push ourselves to reach out to people we meet in a genuine way. In dorms, RAs can help out with this in the short term by encouraging students to prop their doors open and spend more time in their floor lounges.
Another remedy is architectural. The design of some of the newer dorms contributes to loneliness and makes it harder to create a vibrant community. In many residence halls, students shut their doors when they’re inside rather than prop them open so that their friends can pop in, and in some buildings—like Woodbridge—there are no building-wide common spaces. Dorms like Broadway and Schapiro—the two newest buildings that house Columbia students—are laid out in a horseshoe or circular shape, which means students can easily go to and from their rooms without passing a floor lounge or communal space. When Columbia builds new residence halls, they should have one hallway with large study rooms and lounges on the end, laid out similarly to Carman.
These relatively small changes could help make residence halls feel more like a community. In turn, they could make Columbia feel more like a home.
Visiting lots of Columbia dorms brought me closer to my fellow students. Although I lost the election, I learned a lot from my peers, and especially from those people too many of us just don’t see very often. Whether we live in a more social dorm or a less communal one, whether we love the energy of this place or find it just way too lonely, all of us have something to gain by visiting residence halls we may have barely even heard of, and by starting to understand the needs of those we might not see on a Thursday night at Mel’s.
Aaron Fisher is a Columbia College senior studying history and religion. He is a former news deputy for Spectator. He could never figure out why one of the elevators in Schapiro doesn’t go to the basement. If you know the answer or work for Columbia Housing, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch of the Day runs alternate Tuesdays.
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