As my first year at Columbia wrapped up, I saw a bunch of Facebook posts from my classmates talking about what a great time they’d had. I was reeling from a terrible year with the worst depression I’d ever experienced, and while I didn’t begrudge other people their happiness, I did feel like I was completely alone in my feelings.
I soon found out how untrue that was: After making a post on my own feed that described my struggles with loneliness, I received a number of messages from other students telling me that they had felt the same way. I was touched by the outpour of solidarity. And as I’ve experienced new bumps in overcoming depression over the past few years, I’ve written several more posts, each new one bringing more messages of solidarity. If so many others feel the same way, why do we often feel so alone?
Columbia has a community problem. This is often said—but what does it actually mean? It means that it is the day before a big exam and you are having a panic attack, or you are going through a series of job rejections and you feel absolutely worthless, and you don’t have that trusted mentor or role model who will offer you the caring perspective you need to dig yourself out of that dark place. It means that you don’t find yourself among people you know and trust in your classes or living space. Community means being a part of the social fabric of this institution in a very real way, through interpersonal relationships that you can count on in times of hardship.
In addition to a community problem, Columbia has a suicide problem. In the 2016-17 school year, the undergraduate community experienced a series of student suicides, and from 2007 to 2017, Columbia had an undergraduate suicide rate of 11 students out of every 100,000 compared to a national average of 6.6 to 7.5 suicides per 100,000 students. To be clear, the lack of community is not a direct cause for suicide. But a community serves as good protection in the face of conditions that lead to suicide—not by preventing those conditions altogether (that would be impossible), but by providing people opportunities to talk and find comfort and clarity. Furthermore, community is not only a safeguard against suicide but also a protection against the soul-crushing loneliness that I, and many others, have experienced here in the absence of people we can trust with our hopes and fears.
We ostensibly have many structures for community in place already: Every incoming student is assigned an academic advisor; every student living on campus has a resident advisor, along with other professional residential life support staff; every student with a declared program of study has a director of undergraduate studies; and every student is able to apply to the hundreds of student organizations that we have here.
But these solutions haven’t worked very well. For example, advisors and faculty don’t always form relationships with students that go beyond sterile acquaintanceship, and incoming students arrive, excited to join student groups, only to face cutthroat club application rates. Where are the needed trust-based relationships built through regular, sustained meetings? Why are the social structures that create genuine academic or personal connections between students and their advisors, faculty, or classmates not working as well as they should? Where is the sense of community?
This problem is not necessarily one of poor intention. For example, as a first-year resident advisor last year, my fellow RAs were some of the most dedicated and caring people I’ve met here. But for me, the structure of the job was deeply restrictive. My performance standards emphasized crafting neat, fun “active programs” which were easily quantifiable, over establishing a regular presence on my floor and demonstrating—over and over again in humble, non-flashy ways—a willingness to truly make time to listen. This willingness is harder to quantify, but goes further in providing a sense of trust than one-off events occurring once or twice a month. RAs are busy, and it makes sense for them to fulfill the community building requirements that they will actually be evaluated on. However, the values encoded in these standards are not optimal for community-building and should be reevaluated while individual RAs continue to care for their communities as they are now.
Time is a valuable thing at this University, and we need to make more of it for each other. Beyond simply beseeching each other to do so, we need to take a closer look at the structures governing our time—the rules that apply to us, the programs into which we fit. These are the things that bind (or fail to bind) us to each other.
We need to create or modify structures that promote community: for example, creating a faculty-student mentorship program that would officially reward already overworked faculty to commit time and energy to undergraduates; a Residential Life system that builds regular, informal interaction into RA evaluation standards; and regular study breaks in common spaces instead of the numerous one-off study breaks that occur during midterm and final seasons. This list is not exhaustive but can serve as a place to start.
If Columbia has a community problem, then we need structural solutions to combat it.
The author is a senior in Columbia College studying sociology. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org to swap stories about mental health or ideas about building community at Columbia.
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