When I joined Spectrum in 2014, it was facing an identity crisis. The mission of humorously commenting on campus life was dwindling and almost anything went in a pitch meeting. If you don’t believe me, you will; I published stuff like this. Needless to say, it was uproarious fun, but it was also a wild time. By my sophomore fall, my editor in chief Michael, managing editor Sam, and co-deputy Rebecca started reeling me in, planting ideas about “missions” and “tone” in my head. I’ve always been into efficiency and productivity hacks so when it came to defining Spectrum’s mission, I decided to make everything about service journalism.
We went from vegetable celebs to weighing up budget options, finding free and cheap textbooks, and maximising class sampling during shopping period. In 2016, we included Barnard in our Shaft housing coverage. We revamped the “Wake Up Call” (which I used to write every day at 6 a.m. with zero copy editing, approval, or caffeine). We launched “Required Reading.” We actively leveraged Snapchat to create user-generated content and Muji pen competitions. We were growing, we were having fun, and a year on, I felt that I had finally learned the ropes. The arts and entertainment section, which I ran under Spectrum since its shut-down, was coming into its own again; Spectrum had its most successful and talented trainees that I could recall; I had three great deputies with solid associates rising through the ranks; all our content was finally edited like every other sections’ (this was a big deal—it brought the quality up to a standard at which it had never been before).
I used to think that working at Spec—especially when you started averaging over 40 hours per week of it—was like being on steroids. Not the pumped up, jock kind, but the kind they use to treat autoimmune diseases. I already had autoimmune hepatitis for three years when I matriculated to Barnard, but now am the retiring parent of Coeliac disease (the gluten one) and primary sclerosing cholangitis (the bile duct one). Corticosteroids stop your immune system from attacking your insides. They benefit you in the long-term by inducing short-term stress. See where I’m going with this? The worst part of steroids is the side effects, but what are you going to do? The pros outweigh the cons so greatly that you keep up that chalky pill intake.
While Spec isn’t going to do that kind of damage, it does ask a lot of its Speccies, and I felt a great sense of shame for not being able to keep up. I had to stop my editor in chief turkeyshoots bid after a whole summer of Caroline investing in me. Doctors discouraged me from returning in 2017, yet I returned in April as staff director, then in August as engagement director. I relapsed again and had to extricate myself from both positions, something I found humiliating, mainly because I hadn’t executed any of my plans for either role, and from the outside, I looked like a flake.
Spec pushes people. And I don’t mean that in an accusatory sense. The culture is representative of Columbia as a whole, and especially in an unrelenting, fast-paced field like journalism, there are unfortunately no ways of escaping the pressure sometimes. Everyone at Spec wants to do their best, so everyone pushes their hardest. This means people push their peers harder too. Everyone is pushing; everyone is tired; everyone is trying hard for their tribe, and you need to match your team’s tenacity out of gratitude and camaraderie and sometimes dignity.
The most difficult conversations I’ve had have been on both sides of the table. During my idealistic steroid-highs when I felt Spectrum could accomplish anything, I was not receptive enough to Speccies who told me they couldn’t take it anymore. I would try to reason, assuming I had not articulated our mission well enough. But when I had to have conversations in their shoes later on with my corporate board members, asking for leave, pulling out of commitments or races, I realised that I should have been more understanding. I wish I hadn’t pushed people so hard. I wish I had properly expunged Spectrum’s own mission of service journalism: helping individuals make choices that would keep them healthy and happy.
Once I left in 2017, the Notorious VGT (Veronica Grace Taleon’s legal name) and Huber Gonzalez had taken over as a whirlwind duo of Spectrum editor and deputy respectively. No one embraced and pushed forward Spectrum’s mission more than they. I still remember VGT’s intricate diagrams of products, her lists of pitches, Huber’s thumbs flashing across his iPhone remembering Spectrum’s Snapchat regulars by name, taking tips and questions, both of them launching the new site and logo on Spectrum’s seventh birthday. One of my greatest moments of pride was seeing that website go up and knowing that I had nothing to do with it. The ship was sailing by itself.
During the summer of 2016, Caroline and I had discussed moving Spectrum to the business and innovations wing of Spec and out of Journalism as our content became more tied to products and events. The B&I shift happened, but not in the way any of us had planned. In a move that’s still sensitive, still painful, still awkward (if we’re being honest), and ultimately rooted in a bevy of miscommunications and personality clashes, VGT, Huber, and the team we three had recruited and trained since September 2016 were let go. Austin Horn, Michael Tai, Anurak Saelaow, Maddie Leddy, and Michael Edmonson kept the section alive, but it was different. Meetings and phone calls of me word-vomiting institutional knowledge of “this is how we did x” and “this is why we don’t do y” only went so far.
The only thing I can take away from this experience is that I’ve learned lessons about truly listening to people and, regardless of tensions, offering myself as a resource to newer generations at Spec. I wish I had talked to all my predecessors more (especially the less visible ones), drilled them for questions, felt less shy and demanding to ask for their time and wisdom… I have this one arbitrary memory of Dan Garisto pulling me aside and giving me a two-hour-long course on the history of Spectrum—I’ve tried to be as many people’s Dans as possible now. With the lifespan of a Spec career often lasting no more than three to four years, the key to this organisation’s success is increased proactivity to reach out and improved communications inside and outside of the org.
All in all, Spec defined and made my college experience. Without Spec, I would never have my two best friends VGT and Huber; I would never have become close with Caroline, Anurak, and Tai, who were frankly the key to me discovering and getting into what I wanted to do after college; I would never have had the chance to run such a complex operation at 21, and most importantly, I would never have had the opportunity to work alongside so many assertive, ambitious, and viciously smart women, who drove me to become more unapologetic and empathetic myself.
“Join Spec!” I used to holler at everyone. I’d like to tweak that in hindsight. “Try Spec!” I can’t recommend trying it enough, because (oh man!) it trains you to read yourself in ways you can’t imagine, just like steroids do. When you start steroids, you have no choice but to be better at reading yourself and taking action. Steroids frustrated me because they interrupted my education, interfered with my social life, and got me down a lot. I had to learn how to navigate all of this: I had to leave school at 17 to recover; I had to confront my embarrassment of being the only one who couldn’t drink or stay out late; I had to learn to monitor stress seriously. The same goes for Spec in a sense. Read yourself and take action—drop out when you need to, communicate your limitations, and pay heed to your mental health. This is only my opinion. It’s easier said than done. But from my experience, I feel that learning to ride the waves at Spec—the people politics, the strategy stress, the daily grind, the personal repercussions—made me grittier and more prepared for real life than anything else I encountered at college.
The Notorious VGT: Thank you for being my protégé, friend, and roommate, and for being the Esther to my Mr Guppy. I’m running on negative with this word count, but I think you know how inexpressible my infatuation with you is.
Huber Gonzalez: Thank you for teaching me phrases like “sipping the tea” and "tongue-punching the fartbox”. Thanks for getting $3 Chipotle with me every Halloween. No thanks for spamming Slack with risqué, emoji-ridden chain text messages. One day we’ll go to Six Flags, I promise.
Caroline Chiu: Thank you for being equal parts no-nonsense badass and the cleverest, kindest mentor I could have asked for. Can’t thank you enough for investing so much time and energy in me, buying me all the phad thai I could ever dream of, bringing out midnight production birthday cupcakes, always checking in with how I was, and being my consulting consultant. Cheesy as it sounds, your unfailing commitment to Spec, regardless of how many hours you’d slept or fires you’d extinguished each week, kept me going when I began to feel like throwing in the towel.
Catie Edmondson: Thank you for being Spec’s powerhouse of journalism. Thanks for being my seminar bud. Most importantly, thanks for always being there for my health when you also had over 9 billion other things to be there for.
Anurak Saelow: Thank you for being a fellow geriatric. Thanks for running cases with me and my terrible maths skills. Thanks for locking me in the vending machine so we could get a sick photo. Thanks for letting me sleep in between your East Campus suite’s two armchairs during the New Student Orientation Program.
J. Clara Chan: Thank you for bringing A&E out of the shadows and being a strong figurative investor in my Cathedral Gardens SpecMobileTM idea.
Michael Tai: Thanks for all the case prep seshes, taking care of SJ, and always being so accommodating and chill with me when you’re running on seven late nights, six Soylents, five quitting staff, four missed deadlines, three MB-less sections, two Yerbas, and a partridge in a pear tree.
MB 140: Ben, Rachit, Anna, Jenna, Miranda, Paulina, Dan, Rebécca, Jenny, Anurak, Clara, Catie, Tai, and Caroline: Too many individual instances to list, but thank you for all the support and for never murdering me when I singled you out personally for Wake Up Call descriptions. (Except for you, Dan. #neverforget Sports’ White Text Sabotage of 2016).
MB 141: Amanda, Kaatje, J.J., Austin, Aaron, Yasmine, Clara, Catie, Rebécca, Hannah, Anurak, and Tai: Thanks for welcoming me back into the fold, making me feel at home, and always being understanding.
CB 139: Michael Ouimette, Sam Cooney, and Daniel Friedman: I wish I leveraged your brains more back in 2015, but now I’m just grateful that I got to be around for your era and sponge up as much of your guidance and vibes as I could. Sam, you taught me how to manage a staff, run a section, develop content—i.e. "Do that blog shit”. Michael, you taught me how to go big and build a service journalism movement. Daniel, I wish I had worked with you more, but the fact that you still had my back despite the deputy/CB divide and B&I/Journalism divide is a testament to how great a leader you are. Thank you, CB 139.
Karen Nan and Albert Cui: Thanks for being my first mentors at Spec and for bearing with me when I built that rubbish landing page for Barnard’s 125th Anniversary, in which I made every alumnus photo a picture of Edna Mode.
Rebecca Farley, Hannah Josi, Ben Sheng, and Mihika Barua: Thanks for being my OG Spectrum family in those pre-Slack, pre-Trello, gif-filled days. You were all the bomb. #benshengwithmeatball
Mariella Evangelista, Victoria Yang, Ainsley Bandrowski, Austin Horn, Sophie Kossakowski, Maddie Leddy, Mikey Edmonson, Sage Max, and Chris Lopez: I just needed to shout out to you guys for always making me feel at home at Spec, whether we worked together directly or not.
Logan Jones-Merrill, Annika Freudenberger, Ada Tam, Ashley Hughes, Dana Frayne, Leon Wu, and Control Top: I don’t know how I would have gotten through the pricklier times without your ears, guidance, understanding, and goofs outside of the office. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Sophia Hotung is a Barnard College senior majoring in English with minors in history and economics. She was a Spectrum staff writer and front-end developer in Online (now SpecTech) for the 138th volume, a Spectrum associate then deputy editor for the 139th volume, Spectrum Editor on the 140th managing board, and briefly staff director and engagement director on the 141st managing board. She also had a stint as co-president of the all-female improv comedy group Control Top! Throughout her Spec career, she has been forced to publish her writing with American spelling and grammar; just this once, she has been granted permission to spell things with “u”s and “s”s and to put punctuation outside of speech marks.
Senior columns are pieces in which members of Spectator’s graduating class reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown from their time at the organization, and are part of Spectator’s 2018 Commencement Issue. To respond to this senior column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.