I first applied to Columbia for three main reasons: the University’s academic rigor, its prime location, and its history of student activism. Inspired and optimistic from everything I had read, I arrived on campus eager to act on my convictions and participate in the wide array of community service opportunities the University offers.
I found that most Columbia students similarly took pride in an unwavering commitment to social justice.
Why, then, were they not outraged when walking past the homeless couple that slept on the corner of Amsterdam and 115th Street?
My answer came within my first month on campus. Sandwiched between my academic requirements and Columbia’s stress culture, my enthusiasm about giving back soon turned into disillusion. My student budget was ill-suited for charitable acts, and my packed student schedule didn’t leave me time to volunteer. Unwittingly, I, too, began forgetting to care about the vulnerable.
President Bollinger claims Columbia shapes “leaders of the future.” While our University endows us with a strong academic toolkit, it often fails to instill in us empathy and altruism.
Many courses offered at our University focus on various forms of inequality, including poverty, but these classes are unidimensional—they’re purely academic. While coursework may provide an intersectional lens through which to understand the structural causes of homelessness, conversations limited to the academic realm generally fail to mobilize the sustained empathetic attitudes needed to truly reshape our deeply held beliefs and socialized biases. Does Columbia adjust, or will tomorrow’s leaders fall short?
If Columbia aspires to mold us into virtuous citizens and future leaders, it should seriously consider adding a mandatory poverty immersion program to its Core.
Poverty immersion can take many forms—a 72-hour experience in a homeless shelter, a poverty simulation, or any similar program that combines theoretical discussions and contact-based experiences. Poverty immersion should last multiple days, ensure a diversity of interactions with the homeless, and emphasize status equality between all participants. If executed properly, the poverty immersion program would be organized in complete partnership with the local homeless community, and with the aim of addressing its stated needs.
The program would perfectly embody the Core’s mission to be “personally transformative for students” and to explore “the most difficult questions about human experience.” In a 2006 ethnographic study of a private, Midwestern university, many of the students admitted feeling “estranged to the poor” despite having taken coursework devoted to the question of poverty in America. In the aftermath of the school-organized immersion program, most of those students found that their understanding of “human experience” had drastically changed. This study corroborates other social psychologists’ finding that poverty immersion and other contact-based programs are the most successful means to reduce our tendency to stigmatize the homeless and increase our levels of empathy.
Extensive contact with the homeless also significantly improves their wellbeing. Individuals who acquire a holistic understanding of homelessness tend to develop long-lasting generous behaviors and are more likely to support poverty-alleviating programs. And although we usually equate homelessness with extreme destitution, the homeless also tend to suffer from a dehumanizing degree of social exclusion. In a 2005 ethnographic study of New York City’s homeless population, many of the individuals interviewed emphasize the pain of loneliness and admit seeking companionship and social interaction. Regular contact with students would go a long way towards alleviating this psychological burden for many of our neighbors.
Like most forms of volunteering, poverty immersion undeniably runs the risk of making a spectacle out of the cause it intends to address. If poorly implemented, immersion can exploit the vulnerabilities of the homeless and offer students a moral license to carry on their path of indifference.
But our fear of incompetent management should not impede our effort to implement a program with the power to significantly improve society. Rather, we should remain keenly aware of these potential risks to ensure that the program effectively achieves its goal: to alleviate the hardships experienced by the homeless community. To that end, the program must be structured as an even-handed collaboration between all interested parties—the program must account for the potential concerns of students, parents, and faculty while giving leaders of the homeless community control over the terms and limits of the program.
Many of us would be jolted by poverty immersion, but this culture shock pales in comparison to the inescapable destitution experienced by the victims of long-term homelessness. Belonging to this elite institution behooves us to take up our civic duties toward the most vulnerable members of our society.
How much longer will we hide behind our neoclassical ramparts and passively accept the most appalling injustice of all?
The author is a senior in the School of General Studies, majoring in political science and concentrating in business management.
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