As a transfer student who has no problem airing my grievances about this institution, I have been asked a lot whether I regret accepting my offer of admission to Columbia.
There is no way for me to romanticize the difficulty I’ve experienced here since my transfer, and the devastation Columbia has had on my finances, grades, and (physical and mental) health. Commenters on my columns regularly remind me how grateful I should be for my admittance here, and how my inclusion on this campus is worth the dreariest moments of isolation I’ve felt.
I put in the labor that led to my acceptance, and I am putting in all of the extra labor to survive and graduate from here. When you come here, worrying about food, housing, and basic needs shouldn’t be necessary; this school has enough money at its disposal to provide poor students with a campus experience equitable to its wealthy peers.
Many of us come to Columbia with the dream to follow in the footsteps of the famous alumni who came before us: Allen Ginsberg, Alexander Hamilton, Ezra Koenig… the list goes on, and no matter your interest, there is probably an alum that you can model your life after. Columbia claims these names with pride, and why shouldn’t they?
This got me thinking about Barack Obama, somebody who’s very different from the names I previously mentioned. Unlike other alumni, he has not feigned romanticism over his time here and offers a much different view of campus than you might get from, well, Vampire Weekend’s song “Campus.” When Obama transferred here from Occidental College, he was homeless, largely because Columbia didn’t guarantee housing for transfer students at the time. Despite this, his is the name I’ve heard over and over and over associated with Columbia. I find it strange that a campus that seemed to do so little to support him now claims Obama so vehemently.
Obama, as a black man with a single mom, represents the diversity that Columbia purports. And yet, if we’re paying attention to the voices of this diversity, we know that this university’s promise of inclusivity is failing.
Columbia would like to believe that Obama’s revolutionary successes cements its status as an American Dream-maker, which completely discredits his own singularity. While the racism and anti-Semitism at Columbia may have helped steer him toward his platform of “a more perfect union,” I don’t think this place is where he got the support to fulfill these initiatives. And has this campus really changed at all since he was here in 1983?
If I go on to do great things, I don’t want to be claimed by Columbia. Knowing what I know now, I would not choose to go here again.
I am not grateful for the campus that prioritizes surf and turf night at the dining halls instead of food security initiatives for low-income students that are suffering here. I am not grateful for the egregious disillusionment I witness on this campus every day, from facility workers cutting Christmas lights off of the trees to avoid having to unstring them to representatives of the food pantry, one of the only services here for low-income students, claiming that government-funded colleges have more access to financial resources than Columbia does.
When I reached out for support and resources, this administration left me high and dry. At the end of fall semester, I genuinely felt as though this place didn’t give a shit whether or not I survived here. I felt like a disembodied statistic, simply physical proof that it allows poor students from community colleges to come here.
More than anything else, the ideology that I now associate with Columbia is that I deserve my poverty, and that this school feels no social obligation to share its vast resources with students in need. I am nervous about the way this breeds students, particularly those who are already from the elite, to perpetuate a mindset of exclusion.
If Columbia is indeed an incubator for leaders, then I don’t see the world changing any time soon.
When I applied to write for Spec, I didn’t expect to enact any change. My goal was catharsis, but I ended up with a makeshift community. Every couple of weeks, I get a Venmo from a random student who happened across my column and sympathized with my situation. I have met so many other transfer students, and low-income students, who are suffering similarly. The professors I have confided in have been outraged to hear about financial aid’s unhelpfulness, and have asked me countless time for a phone number they can call to advocate for me. A former boss of mine has offered to bring prepared meals to campus for me. Many of my graduate student teachers have opened up about their own struggles with poverty, and the way this institution has ignored their needs as well.
While the sheer amount of students who have reached out to me with unfulfilled needs here has caused me considerable existential distress, it has also left me with some much needed optimism. These people will also go on to be leaders. Maybe someday their voices will be louder than the ones that form the pervasive ideology here.
If I go on to do great things, it will not be because of Columbia. It will be because of myself and the strength I have gained in spite of this place. But, much of that strength comes from the peers, teachers, and faculty members who hear and see my experience here. And they’re making coming back next year far less daunting.
Melissa Cook is a junior English major in Columbia College who is excited to be getting away from this place for the summer. To join her unofficial support group, email firstname.lastname@example.org or slide into her DMs @makeshiftmelissa on Instagram.
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