I enrolled in the Barnard class of 2020 after receiving my acceptance letter in a hospital room. My health difficulties began during my senior year of high school. I went from being the class president, directing a stage adaptation of “The Breakfast Club,” exercising five times a week, and performing in the top five percent of my high school class to being unable to sit up from exhaustion, flinching at the sound of someone clapping, wearing a baseball cap in every classroom because the fluorescent lights burned, being unable to finish a meal because the smells and tastes nauseated me, and finding myself unable to sleep through the night because I had to wake up to vomit.
These mysterious problems led to multiple chronic diagnoses, but my day-to-day life still consists of managing debilitating symptoms. I took a medical leave from Barnard during what was supposed to be my first year and officially restarted classes during the fall of 2017. In August 2017, Barnard welcomed me back to the community by notifying me that there was no available housing; thus, I was forced to live off campus. Students who take medical leave from Barnard are taken off of the guaranteed housing list. Luckily, I was able to find an apartment on West 111th Street, closer to the Columbia side of campus. The seven-block walk to campus is difficult, especially on days when my symptoms are flaring. Sometimes, my body aches so much that I cannot hold a pen. I walk around as though I have flopping scuba fins on my feet due to my muscle and joint pain.
On days when my symptoms make it nearly impossible to walk, my best chance at eating a meal is slowly walking with my cane to John Jay or JJ’s Place, since they are the closest to my apartment, with an entrance at West 114th Street. Last Saturday, I woke up in the midst of a severe flare-up. My body was shaky and weak, my stomach was achy, and my head was pounding. I packed my medications, grabbed my cane, and headed up to JJ’s place—knowing that John Jay is closed on Saturdays.
When I arrived at John Jay, JJ’s entrance was closed off, so I started to follow the signs toward the alternate stairway. As I walked into the building, I was stopped by security who declared that without swipe access, I couldn’t eat at JJ’s. I showed them my Barnard ID and explained that I pay tuition, I pay for a meal plan, and I was hungry. The security guard kept saying that it was out of his hands, so I asked who I could speak to so that I could eat. He sent me to room 118 in Hartley. When I entered Hartley, a student working at the desk called Public Safety to explain the situation. By this point, my voice was shaky, and I was ready to start sobbing. I told her I have a chronic illness and I was too weak to walk another three blocks to the Barnard dining halls. She said that Public Safety would call the security desk at John Jay to let me in.
As my dizziness increased, I walked back to John Jay and told the security guards that Public Safety should be calling. One guard decided to call himself and as I listened, it sounded like they had no clue who I was. I explained to the security guard that I have several chronic conditions and if I wasn’t able to eat soon I would faint right there. My knees were shaking, and the feeling of groundlessness was increasing. Yet, I got the same response, “There’s nothing we can do.” Eventually, a Columbia student walked in and signed a friend in. I asked if he could sign me in also since I needed to eat and was too sick to go any further. He signed me in while the other guard was still talking to Public Safety about how I couldn’t go to the dining hall since I am a Barnard student. Once I was signed in, I walked to the alternate stairwell, which was a whopping 10 steps away from the front security desk.
This experience was not only invalidating as a disabled student whose needs were not taken seriously, but also as a Columbia University student, as I was treated like a trespasser on my own campus. Many Columbia students support this invalidation by claiming that Barnard students just want a “back door” to an Ivy League school or that Barnard is just an affiliated school and not a part of the University itself. When the college administration creates rash decisions such as the one to bar Barnard students from accessing JJ’s place due to unannounced construction, it perpetuates this cycle of excluding Barnard students from the community that we belong to.
I am nervous about this upcoming weekend, as my symptoms often flare after a long week of classes. What will happen this Saturday if I wake up and need to eat but am too weak to debate for the right to a meal at the closest dining hall to my apartment? As a student at Barnard College of Columbia University—especially as someone with a debilitating chronic illness—I should not be stressing about whether or not I will be permitted to eat at my own school. Since returning from medical leave, I struggle with living further away from campus, isolated in my apartment while balancing how to be a disabled adult at a competitive institution. Being treated as though I do not belong at Columbia since I am a Barnard student is not an unfamiliar feeling, but it is especially disappointing when the administration does not make an effort to remain inclusive of all undergraduate colleges—especially regarding whether or not a student can eat.
The author is a second-semester Barnard student, studying on the pre-med track.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.