The un-air-conditioned 7 train subway doors opened, fogged up with heat and the swampy dew of sweat. It was the sweat of the shrunken old man in his baggy plaid suit, the sweat of the woman stroking a comatose lizard with cotton candy hair shish-kebabed around oversized chopsticks, and that of the man who stunk of piss and defecation by the door half a foot away from my face half-shouting a song that only he could hear: “Hello darling, won’t you dance with me?” The temporarily isolated bubble was introduced to new cacophony: Cantonese and Mandarin and Vietnamese and Singlish; a dog howling in pain; vendors hawking duck heads; a fat, brown, barefoot boy wearing only a soiled diaper and sobbing for the 10-cent lollipop he’d dropped onto the tracks. Somewhere far off in the distance, I could hear the trailing refrain of a boomboxed Reggaeton seduction. I was propelled out of the train car by the flood of entrances and exits. Flushing, Queens, stretched out before me—a moving river of people and shuddering neon lights. I exhaled. Columbia felt as distant as any foreign country.
This was where I belonged.
I have been fleeing campus since I first arrived at its gates. Overwhelmed by the frenzied artificiality of NSOP and the unearned intimacy of secrets shared with virtual strangers in Carman cinderblock cells, I walked between Low Library and Butler wanting so badly for those passing by to like me, or at least to know my name. I rejected campus life almost instantly. I read beneath patches of sun in the courtyards of the Cloisters. I ate Sri Lankan food at a Staten Island enclave. I aimlessly shuttled so far deep into Brooklyn that I was greeted by salt in my throat and smiling surfers when the sea stopped me in my tracks. In this way, I upended the anxiety and frustration of Columbia’s confusing and pervasive sense of social insecurity. New York was the only companion I needed. Still, in high school I had hoped for more.
College always felt something like an arranged marriage for me—like being with a virtual stranger who’s always a little different than expected. I had spent six years at a private, academically rigorous all-girls high school in a suburban extension of Cleveland, Ohio. It was patronized by the city’s faded, former upper crust, the sort of school where lacrosse talent indicates popularity, where choosing to wear khakis instead of the plaid too-short uniform skirt made you a lesbian, and where the term WASP was taken as a compliment.
In middle school, I was awkward and bullied and alone, but by sophomore year of high school, I had recovered somewhat––I had the football player boyfriend and the less-expensive “in” clothes and slang. But even then, as early as high school, I often felt lonely and fraudulent: I’d learned how to be a mediocre mimic of a foreign language I’d never truly understand. I was not convincing enough in this act, however, to be invited to many parties. I explored abandoned, syringe-littered factories from Cleveland’s steel days in my free time instead, climbing on rusty ladders to the top of a graffitied smoke stack until I imagined I could see across Lake Erie and beyond. Above the city, with no one to watch or belittle me, it seemed reasonable to hope that Columbia, the symbolically diametric opposite of my high school, would accept me. It even seemed reasonable that I’d make friends. And I didn’t just hope for inclusion; secretly, I expected it.
My parents, in their efforts to comfort me, reinforced these hopes and expectations, telling me that college would be different than high school––it would be a place where I’d be accepted and I would somehow serendipitously stumble upon the perfect crew of friends that both shared my interests and also yearned to make each week count. My time would be full of the kind of late-night adventures that are both perfectly unique and universal, bursting with the type of memories people look back on when declaring college their halcyon days. Now, I’m almost startled by how naïve that idea was.
Columbia is famed for its brutally competitive academics, but what the ranking sites and college guides don’t point out is the stress of our social scene as well. Although Greek life at Columbia is much less visible and time consuming than at, say, Penn State, rushers still must undergo a rigorous selection process to prove their worth. And you might easily be one of the many rejected, not because of your GPA, but for the more painful reason that you simply do not measure up as a potential friend or brother or sister. If you’re not a member of a Greek organization, most of the parties around which campus life and your Instagram feed pivot begin with a long line of cold girls in too-tight dresses waiting outside a closed suite door in EC or a Frat Row brownstone. That overeager manspreader from your CC class decides whether you merit admission––the same boy whom you’ll friend on LinkedIn in a frenzied senior year job-search rush.
I shied away from rushing myself because the selection process felt like a gauntlet in which I had to strip myself bare for the judgement of teenagers my own age, who had been accepted to the same school I was. Many selective groups and clubs at Columbia appealed to me, but their ritualized culling and hierarchical nature made me feel like a circus performer without a break to catch a breath. I just wanted what I had hoped for, expected, in high school: to be accepted for who I am, not some smarter, prettier, richer, more congenial version of me.
Why is it that fraternities’ and sororities’ desirability in the eyes of campus partygoers and potential pledges seems to be based on how exclusive they are? This is an injustice both to those rejected from more competitive organizations and to members of less competitive ones. Similarly, most of the clubs on campus that are considered desirable––both in actuality and on a résumé––are selective, including Spectator itself. Some organizations, like Spectator, have a legitimate reason to be exclusive: they want to produce the best possible product, or to succeed in broader intercollegiate competitions. No one would blame our crew team for not accepting every earnest applicant at walk-on tryouts. And so you could also argue that there’s nothing wrong with a sorority selecting inductees that the majority of members would enjoy befriending and living with.
Perhaps the issue, instead, is that alternative social organizations and clubs that do emphasize inclusivity are often considered less desirable by students or are not publicized enough to attract those struggling and who need them most. It’s certainly natural to find exclusivity attractive. But our campus, with its thousands of very ambitious undergraduates, can sometimes feel like a gigantic hamster wheel, a crushingly stressful microcosm where students live, eat, and sleep competition, selection, and rejection. There have been many articles on the stress of Columbia’s academics and on the mental health issues it creates, but comparatively few, if any, on the stress of “keeping up” with a social scene that can feel cold, or about the comparative lack of clubs or organizations that prioritize social inclusivity and acceptance. If the social organizations we create with our fellow students can sometimes inadvertently foster an atmosphere as exclusive as our classrooms, where can we relax? Where can we breathe? Some students stay locked in their rooms. I catch my breath by diving as deep into the city as I can get.
Granted, I am being harsh on Columbia. I love almost everything about it––the long twilights sitting with friends, debating ideas and rehashing class discussions on Low steps. I love the dogs and babies that waddle around campus, evoking rare smiles from professors and students. I love the gentle chivalry of a stranger frantically running into Hamilton but still taking the time to hold open the door. I love the new friends made through dropped pencils, muttered insults about the TA, or long nights in Butler that turn to morning before they finish. I love our fierce traditions of protest and individuality, even the sappier ones like Orgo Night or the Tree Lighting Ceremony. And I really do love the vibrancy and earnest intensity of our clubs and student organizations.
But it is exactly because I love Columbia and Columbians so much that I want to hold it, and us, to a higher standard. I want us to consider before excluding someone whether that exclusion is necessary or just a reflex that makes us feel more secure in our own social positions. I want us to question whether the competition used to pad our résumés and reinforce our popularity is always required, or if we can also create more respected spaces in our community where relaxation is a priority, not dismissed as an afterthought. Why did I feel so estranged from campus social life that the emergency exit of rejecting it entirely felt like my only option?
There are some clubs and social organizations that do intentionally work to foster an environment of social inclusivity, both internally and on campus as a whole. One example might include Columbia’s Special Interest Communities, or SICs, which pivot around a single common identity or interest––writing, queerness, environmental activism, the seemingly universal love of potlucks––but generally attempt to foster and create a space for fun, stress-free engagement with the University community as a whole.
I hope for a campus social scene that intentionally acts as an outlet of inclusivity instead of augmenting the stress of five classes and an internship and problems back home. I came to New York to learn how to be an individual, but I applied to Columbia because I wanted to belong. And I do think we can all look up from our individual treadmills long enough to make a fellow student feel at home, even when home feels impossibly far away.
This weekend, I’ll exit again the small sovereignty that exists between 110th and 120th streets, Broadway and Amsterdam, to once again push myself further through the city’s veins. Two subways and a LIRR train later, I’ll find myself at a different stretch of ocean, out in Montauk, where the seabirds outnumber the autumn beachgoers and a lit-up lighthouse is the tallest high-rise I’ll see. I won’t be alone, though. I’m dating a triathlete, and although I don’t belong to the club, which has been vocal about its efforts at inclusivity in the past, I was invited along. They’ve rented an Airbnb. It even has a pool. I’m not a member, but they made the decision to include me anyway.
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