Three months ago, I wrote a column about what being a General Studies student living with hidden trauma is like. The act of writing was a reorientation of what I had been thinking and feeling since I came to Columbia: That I was an outsider in this place I call home. I concluded that “hidden figures” are better understood or more accepted by others when details of their harrowing or even cruel lives are made known.
But relying on the past to build an understanding between students leaves the exploration of multiple possible viewpoints behind and fails to explain why students who haven’t experienced trauma can also feel like outsiders. To bridge the gap between traditional and nontraditional students, it’s necessary to understand how GS, Columbia College, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science are kept separate.
Over a long 263-year history, Columbia has acquired the shape of its traditional students. For them to want to admit students who have the contours of academic success seems like an ordinary enough aspiration, but the very desire to cultivate an exclusive environment restricts the space to only those for whom it was intended and implies that it is not accessible to everyone. Of course, admittance to the Ivy League has always been selective, but for maintaining the idea of who belongs here, GS poses a unique problem.
Unlike students in CC and SEAS, students in GS have dubious origins that explode those boundaries of what being an undergrad means. We don’t fit the mold—we’re an unexpected arrival—and we work to extend ourselves into the fringe of inhabitable space. Many GS students are comfortable with the way things are, but for those of us who came to Columbia thinking that our acceptance was the end to a long history of divergence, we were mistaken.
Being nontraditional is a pretend state that is both redemptive and implicitly demoted. GS’s attention to my life story was cathartic and gave me hope that this was a place where the assumed value of traditional qualifications were thrown into question, which turned out to be true, but only within the one school.
Outside of GS, my story is not exactly devalued by traditional students, but it is eclipsed by the shared experience of what binds them together. As a result, I try to fulfill the expectation of what being a Columbia student means by minimizing the signs of difference.
But after all the emotional indirection, the idea of sharing my story feels less like closing the gap and more like a display of my aloneness. On the one hand, I feel a real sense of belonging in being visible; but on the other, I feel extreme pain in having to be so radically self-exposed. I don’t fault Columbia for trying to bring us into the fold. But by reminding us that no academic contradiction exists between schools—as though this were the antidote to demoralization—GS seems oblivious to its own exclusion. It’s all the more frustrating because being self-exposed is by no means the only way we experience separation, but we’re carried in that direction because GS remains structurally distinct.
Of the four undergraduate schools, GS has the least amount of resources. Financial aid is distributed by a system of merit-based scholarships in which the average award for incoming students is between $8,000 to $10,000 for first-years, while in CC and SEAS the average award is about $52K. This is the economic appeal of separation between our schools that provides Columbia with the privilege to maintain its design for traditional students. The display of logic behind merit-based aid also crystallizes another difference between students: To afford this education, you need to continuously prove yourself worthy of it.
The emphasis on merit-based awards carries us down a path of skepticism for how we’ll do here—something that our undergraduate counterparts may never experience. Students who are low-income or people of color in CC and SEAS who feel disconnected from Columbia are still expected to inherit and reproduce the character of the University. Their admission is an invitation to acquire the likeness of Columbia, while ours is an invitation to pass through that environment. Our outspokenness about the inequalities begins to feel like ingratitude, and our talk of school differences begins to feel like we’re holding onto something that doesn’t exist.
The lesson that emerges from our penumbral silence is that survival in GS is a matter of taking the long view and enduring. It requires us to make frequent adjustments to our expectations of Columbia and to own the experience with panache and rueful honesty. It entails laughing at how Columbia has a $10 billion endowment, but GS is so poor that its students do not enjoy the same free access to the New York Times that CC and SEAS students do. Laughter is therapeutic because it helps palliate the pain that boundaries can engender, something most GS students are familiar with.
When I think about my role as a nontraditional student, I think about how the question of my being here unnerves me and becomes too personal. It’s a byproduct of our system of separates, of the ambient disillusionment of a school that perceives itself to be different but can’t imagine the consequences. It’s a system that has all but guaranteed the GS experience will be lived amid plenty and familiar solitude. To renew and restore the shape of Columbia requires students to make connections with one another, impelled by a sense of unity’s waning importance. Friendship then becomes an act of advocacy, a call not to lose faith in the power to dissolve our separateness.
Joel Davis is an ancient studies major in the School of General Studies, author, activist, and Nobel Prize nominee. He lives off campus with his dog Bark Ruffalo and his roommate Ashley. Follow him on Instagram at @supercoolkid212. Spotlit runs alternate Fridays.
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