Ask anyone on campus about Columbia’s sense of community, and you’ll probably hear that it’s not so strong. Some bemoan our lackluster sense of school spirit, others the general vibe of unfriendliness. Columbia’s stress culture will certainly come up, as will the crippling sense of isolation that so many students here face. These unfortunate aspects of our community culture are not disconnected. In fact, they have similar causes and need similar solutions.
To understand the community problem at Columbia, one need first look to the physical infrastructure, the relative unimportance of community events and traditions, and our means for student engagement and support.
Our campus buildings and spaces seriously limit the capacity for community building. Lerner Hall, the building meant to anchor student life, contains more administrative offices than I can name, and most other rooms in the building are reservation-only. And sadly, the rest of campus does not make up for what Lerner lacks. Far too many rooms in our libraries demand silence, leaving undergraduate students with few spaces for collaborative study. Not even the dining halls provide low-stress places to hang out, with overwhelming crowds at most times of the day that drive students to leave Ferris and John Jay as soon as they’ve finished eating.
It would seem natural to look toward our residence halls for warmer and more inviting spaces. Indeed, our dorms do have lounges, but even those are often cramped, reserved by outside organizations, and hidden behind automatically closing doors that make them less open to everybody. While many of these challenges are the cost of doing business in space-poor environments like New York, some reflect architectural and administrative decisions that should have been made differently.
But we are not trapped by past mistakes. The impending vacancy of Uris Hall offers an opportunity to create more student-centered spaces on the Morningside campus and remove offices from spaces that should have fewer of them. But the spaces themselves are also just vehicles; we need to consider the interactions that take place in them.
The state of on-campus events and traditions is another testament to the wider problem. Most athletic contests and Residential Life programs suffer from notoriously low attendance. And while Bacchanal is fun and popular, I have to question how much it does for the community, because it doesn’t necessarily bring new people together. The Varsity Show does best, it seems, since even though it does not always forge new relationships, it does garner high attendance and reinforce our identity as Columbians. We need more events that foster that sense of solidarity and more students to go to them.
To make some of these changes a reality, we must recognize the crucial role that administrators play. In recent years, Dean Cristen Kromm has rightly pushed for more staff members in Undergraduate Student Life, which means that more residence halls and student organizations are now advised by full-time personnel. However, I rarely encounter students who have close relationships to USL staff. Not only do we as students have so much to learn from these fellow community members, we will also need them as partners to make the kinds of changes to Columbia’s community that need to be made.
As I consider what stellar administrative and support structures would look like at Columbia, I think to the residential college system at Yale, wherein all undergraduate students are grouped randomly into one of 14 communities. For their four years, all students in each of these respective communities live in the same residence hall, which is distinguished by its own architecture, dining hall, and social events. The faculty members who oversee the colleges eat in the dining halls with the students, host sometimes nightly study breaks in their homes, and interact with students in the classroom, since they also double as professors. The colleges even compete with one another in campuswide Olympics!
But as helpful as it is to look to other schools for inspiration, we also need solutions that reflect the unique characteristics of our community. It is crucial that buildings like Lerner include more and larger spaces for unstructured student interaction. We also need to rethink the layout of spaces in residence halls; open-concept lounges would make a world of difference. Student leaders like residence advisers, orientation leaders, and COÖP leaders should be rallying their peers to attend campus events as alternatives to other ways of spending the evening. We should also do our best to take up administrators on their offers to spend time with students. Those opportunities will only become more common if we show that we want them. Lastly, administrators may want to consider the creation of a homework-free, community-based Core requirement that would provide weekly or monthly interaction of the type that Under1Roof facilitates during NSOP.
Some progress has already been made. Indeed, I find hope in the Campus Assessment that Dean Valentini and others organized in response to the tragedies that shook our campus last year. But while many of the Assessment’s findings speak to the challenges I have outlined here, reductions in the credit limit have been one of the few clear changes so far.
As a community, let’s make sure that our progress does not end there. Let’s reimagine our campus spaces, build new support structures, and foster relationships wherever we can, if for no other reason than that we owe it to our neighbors.
The author is a junior in Columbia College studying classics and concentrating in history. He is a resident adviser in John Jay.
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