Neurodiversity is a concept in which neurological differences are recognized as equally valuable in society. Columbia University tends to select students who exhibit a very particular type of cognitive function. How does the neurological composition of this campus impact our perception of the world, our education, and the community as a whole?
My twin sister would never have been able to get into Columbia. Not because she isn’t smart or accomplished or any of the other adjectives we use to increase our self-importance—I actually think she is the smartest person I have ever met. It’s because her mild ADHD and dyslexia make standardized tests (a necessary component of any applicant’s profile) a death trap. And that is Columbia’s loss.
For the last 19 years of my life, she has been one of my favorite people. She can read me like no one else and also has the unique ability to piss me off like no other. If I can claim to have any bit of “coolness,” it comes straight from her. In many ways though, we are incredibly different. Art was the hardest class I ever took in high school, but she is minoring in visual art. She is “pre-med for fun,” but I’m taking Science of Psych for my science requirement. She wants to renovate a van and drive around the country after graduation, I could not imagine anything worse. She embraces the ambiguity of the world, I try to control it.
Who knows how many of these differences we artificially created, ways to establish our own personhood in a world where everyone wanted us to be either conflated or in competition. However, there is no denying that our brains are wired differently, and that is what makes me so incredibly lucky to have her. Everyone should have an Eliana. If I did not have her to bend me into someone somewhat tolerable, I’m afraid of who I would have become. My values would be solely based on climbing the next rung of the ladder. She constantly reminds me that the future will eventually come, but that what we have now, the friends, the family, the fun, is really what makes life worth living.
Columbia has a tendency to cater to students with incredibly similar wiring and values. Many of us base our worth on our achievements and are constantly preoccupied with the next step on the path to success. We think our color-coded calendars, LinkedIn profiles, and Columbia admissions letters validate our existence. For the record, Columbia reinforces this message, bragging about its steadily declining admission rate as proof that we are the elite of the elite. For this validation, we strike a bitter bargain; we then go live the lives that we are told we should be living. As Columbia’s mission statement concludes: “It expects all areas of the University to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.” This includes its students. But, what if we got it all wrong? What if there are better things to base your worth on? What if there’s a better way to live life? The life my sister lives, for example?
At Columbia, we would never know that there was anything else because we are constantly surrounded by people, who at the most simplistic level, think in the same way. We do not get to experience the gift of seeing the variety of paths life can take. And, because of that, we miss a fundamental piece of our education.
The author is currently a sophomore in Columbia College slogging through the science requirement. If you have any hot Science of Psych tips, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. She will be eternally grateful and will repay you with music, cooking, fashion, life tips, etc. that she has stolen from her sister.
Growing up in Amman, Jordan offered me a multitude of unique experiences that allowed me to develop a worldly perspective. However, even with this upbringing, I was not exposed to neurodiversity. My childhood was sheltered from an understanding of differences in individual brains, which arise due to normal human variation. This is, on the one hand, due to the cultural stigma that discourages individuals from openly communicating that they have neurological differences. However, our lack of awareness of neurodiversity is due to our inability to recognize and address these neurological differences.
It would be false for me to claim that my experience at Columbia has offered me insight on neurodiversity since my arrival. In fact, I have managed to maintain the same level of ignorance. However, the primary distinction is that, generally speaking, the community in Jordan does not recognize neurodiversity out of its lack of understanding. In contrast, Columbia’s community is well aware of the importance of neurodiversity, but instead does not do enough to accommodate or celebrate it. This can be observed through the lack of conversation surrounding neurodiversity and the lack of campus initiatives aiming to establish a culture welcoming of neurodiverse individuals.
This is not to say that neurodiversity does not exist on Columbia’s campus—it is present. The caveat, however, is that by way of being a competitive Ivy, Columbia exhibits a specific type of neurodiversity—one that is not diversified enough. Generally, the neurodiversity present is representative of type A behavior, in high-functioning individuals with fluctuating mental health.
Identifying as a type A personality does not classify a person as being neurodiverse—type A is simply a personality type that characterizes individuals based on their behavioral patterns. This would not fall under neurodiversity, as possessing particular personality traits is not an indicator of neurological differences. However, the bridge between these two domains is that type A individuals tend to be prone to some of the same cognitive divergence, like increased competitiveness, high work involvement, time urgency, and hostility. This is further fueled by the unreasonable amounts of stress at Columbia, leading students into a well of anxiety, depression, or mood disorders.
The consequence of this stress-prone environment then becomes the very aspect of Columbia that is regarded as neurodiverse. Many students on this campus suffer from mental health issues, and this—as opposed to simply being type A—classifies as neurodiversity.
Ultimately, this begs the question: Are type A individuals attracted to Columbia, or does Columbia create type A individuals? Whether or not this question is prompted by the econometrics problem set that awaits me after I finish this article is beside the point; this is truly a question of reverse causality, where reverse causality is a two-way relationship in which the direction of cause-and-effect is unclear, or both variables simultaneously cause one another. Feel free to take the possible lack of metrical sense as a testament of my stellar performance in econometrics.
Columbia attracts a specific type of individual. While this can be accredited to the very nature of being in the Ivy League, that is definitely not everything. There is a specific type of individual that buys into the Core Curriculum. Just as the Core attracts individuals, it equally repels others. There are very many smart individuals that simply do not see its appeal. More importantly, there is a specific type of individual that craves the hustle and bustle of a big city like New York. Finally, those who are attracted to Columbia, while differing in majors and interests, share a common trait: for the most part, students at Columbia were accepted by perceiving hard work and dedication as the sole greatest competitive advantage, whether that pertains to academics, or athletics, or any other area of strength. While that mentality may yield favorable academic or professional results, it inhibits a more comprehensive understanding of what success is.
That is not to say that there will be no outliers, like the occasional healthy individual who voluntarily takes walks as a stress reliever, or the Michael Wedd who “defies labels,” or perhaps even the handful of type Bs on campus. However, the reality of the matter is that being surrounded by similar individuals does not allow us to recognize that just as our professional success is important, our emotional, interpersonal, and existential intelligence is equally as important. The prevalence of one type of success should not undermine or invalidate others.
The author is a sophomore in SEAS who has recently been described, verbatim, as a “type A ++ personality, if that’s a thing.” Feel free to respond to any portion of this article—econometrics excluded—at email@example.com.
Neurodiversity is not something I think about very often. The first time I thought about neurological differences was at a retreat. The facilitator asked us which identity we think about the least. As we were discussing, someone started to talk about how they are privileged to have mental ability. I had never considered mental ability as a part of ability as a whole. Even now, I ask myself: why have I not thought about neurodiversity more?
I realized I haven’t been in an environment where I’ve had to consider these topics too
heavily. I went to a high school similar to Columbia in the sense that it also considered itself “elite” and that it only accepted “those who could handle it.” Most accepted students at Columbia are neurotypical and display seemingly complete mental ability, in that they do not have a learning disability.
However, not everyone is neurotypical. Some students suffer from mood disorders, like depression and anxiety. Yet, these students seem to be overrepresented in Columbia’s culture. If someone were to judge Columbia based on columbia buy sell memes alone, they would think that most students here are depressed, high-functioning hermits. But, this romanticization trivializes the severity of these mood disorders and is downright offensive to those affected. I just really need it to stop; not everyone here has DSM-5 level depression (yes, I am aware that DSM-5 is controversial for diagnosing). We all have our rough patches regardless of how long they last. I’m not telling anyone that they’re not actually depressed or that they just need to buck up, but “depressed” isn’t a word to be used lightly or casually.
I think that Columbia could benefit from more types of neurodiversity because this campus tends to be neurologically homogenous. People with learning disabilities help demonstrate that education is an individualized process; there isn’t necessarily a right way to learn or do well academically. Most people look to the person who’s “doing well” and try to copy that model. A more neurodiverse campus would show students that it’s okay to “do you” academically.
Maybe, neurodiversity would help to squash the prevalent myth that doing well means
maintaining a 4.3 GPA, reading 300 pages a night, getting one hour of sleep a night, not having enough time for self-care, participating in seven extracurriculars, working 20 hours a week, and constantly dangling on the verge of a breakdown. That’s a slight exaggeration of what some students on this campus see as prosperous. But really, considering the perfectionist mentality of most people on this campus, it’s not even that much of an exaggeration.
Embracing “perfectionism” contributes to the idea that there is only one type of Columbia
student who has the formula for succeeding. In my opinion, no one should want to be the “perfect student.” It relies on the implication that a student is only valuable because of their academic success. I think most people would agree that we are valuable outside of being students.
Academic competition between peers is absolutely unnecessary and quite toxic. I am a firm believer in only competing with yourself because comparing yourself to everyone else is draining. Even if two neurotypical people are doing the same exact things academically, comparing them is still like apples to oranges in my eyes. Everyone has a unique process, experience, and path. That is absolutely okay.
The author is very happy that the academic year is almost over because that means it’s almost Gemini season.